Written by Doug Cook RDN
Apple cider vinegar is VERY popular in the ‘alternative’ and natural health community.
It seems like there’s no shortage of health claims. These claims include everything from promoting weight loss and detox to boosting energy and banishing bad breath.
Using food and plants as medicine is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years before the era of pharmaceutical medications. Hey, I’m all for it if there’s good quality research to back up those claims since several, everyday foods have healing properties. When it comes to gut health specifically, apple cider vinegar is enjoying lot of press lately as the tonic du jour.
Should you take apple cider vinegar for gut health?
Before I answer that, I need to briefly explain how apple cider vinegar is made.
It starts by taking crushed apple juice (apple cider – loosely strained) and fermenting it with yeast to produce alcohol. After this, bacteria is added to the apple alcohol solution which is further fermented by the bacteria. The conversion of alcohol to acetic acid is how vinegar is produced (the same thing that happens to wine when it is ‘off’).
Because the cider is not ultra-filtered, other components of the apple will be present such as protein, enzymes, and the bacteria themselves that made the vinegar in the first place. For this reason, unpasteurized, non-filtered apple cider vinegar will be murky AND contain some probiotic bacteria.
Bloating and Digestion
Apple cider vinegar has long been promoted to help with bloating. One problem is that the exact cause of bloating isn’t straightforward. Therefore addressing this common gut complaint needs a little nutritional detective work. Bloating can be due to low stomach acid or constipation or it could be due to something else. Many believe that the acetic acid in apple cider vinegar will help with the digestion of protein-rich foods. The stomach produces acid for this reason but as we age, we make less of it. Bloating is a legit consequence of low stomach acid but to date, there isn’t any robust research showing that apple cider vinegar will do the trick.
Having said that, anecdotally I’ve had clients benefit from taking some apple cider vinegar diluted in water with meals when it came to relieving some post-meal ‘heaviness’. This was suggested after a proper assessment was done and other causes of digestive issues were ruled out and addressed. Don’t use vinegar as self-treatment first. If you’re having troubling digestive and gut issues, seek professional help.
Heartburn. Could It Really Be Due To LOW Stomach Acid?
For many, reflux is due to low stomach acid production, not from an excess. Most automatically think that any regurgitation and pain is from having too much stomach acid. But, even those on acid-reducing medications will feel burning with reflux. This is because the esophagus doesn’t have a protective layer of mucous-like the stomach does so don’t let burning fool you into thinking you have too much acid. If you have persistent acid reflux, you may have Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and should speak to your doctor. Untreated GERD can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, and if left untreated, can develop further into esophageal cancer.
A lack of adequate stomach acid can result in altered digestion, food fermentation, and gas production. Supporting the stomach with additional acid from apple cider vinegar seems counter-intuitive but again, there isn’t a ton of research.
This one is true. That is if you’re looking for a non-toxic, ‘natural’ antibacterial cleaning agent. Acetic acid, the organic acid found in all vinegar DOES have antimicrobial properties. However, when it comes to your internal environment, apple cider vinegar is no match for the antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties of your own stomach and bile acids. Vinegar of any kind won’t make a dent in your fight against pathogens.
Some of the claims for this claim is that apple cider vinegar will ease inflammation by supporting the digestion of problematic foods. As well, by helping to prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria, apple cider vinegar will prevent and/or reduce gut inflammation.
If only it was that simple. This just isn’t true.
Functional Properties of Vinegar
Did I mention it’s highly acidic? Drinking a lot of apple cider vinegar can:
- Damage your teeth
- Irritate your throat
- Upset your stomach
- May also cause your potassium levels to drop too low
- May aggravate your symptoms if you have an ulcer
FUN FACT: as with any vinegar, apple cider vinegar DOES NOT cause ulcers but may make symptoms worse if you do have an existing ulcer.
Should you include apple cider vinegar?
In short, apple cider vinegar probably won’t hurt you. Enjoy it in your diet because it’s calorie-free, adds lots of flavor to food, and anecdotal evidence suggests it might be helpful. But it’s not a miracle cure
Here are some other ways to add apple cider vinegar to your day:
- Make a hot ‘tea’. Add 1 to 2 tsp of apple cider vinegar to 1 cup of hot water. Add 1 tsp of lemon juice (optional). Sweeten with a drizzle of honey or maple syrup.
- Dilute some in water. add 1 to 2 tsp to 1 cup of water and take with meals.
- Use on a salad. it makes an excellent salad dressing. For a quick and easy dressing, blend 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add a dash of ground pepper.
- Quick ‘pickles’. Growing up my mother would put onions and cucumber slices in white vinegar to ‘pickle’ them. Substitute apple cider vinegar for a twist.
Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.