Vinegar is a two-cents-per-dose medication. It reliably lowers after-meal and fasting blood sugar in many people. Yet few people with diabetes take it, maybe because we don’t know enough about it. So here’s a quick overview.
First, what is vinegar? The word “vinegar” comes from the French words for “sour wine.” According to the website How Stuff Works, “Vinegar is a dilute solution of acetic acid that results from a two-step fermentation process.” In the first step, sugar is fermented into alcohol, usually by yeast. This is how beer and wine are made.
Any natural source of sugar, such as any fruit, grain, or starch, can be made into alcohol this way. In the second step, the alcoholic liquid is exposed to bacteria called “acetobacters.” In the presence of oxygen, the bacteria turn the alcoholic solution into vinegar. The vinegar is usually named after the liquid it started with; for example, “red wine vinegar” or “apple cider vinegar.”
Acetic acid gives vinegar its sour taste. Depending on what sugar was used to start the process, there may be other acids, such as malic acid, in the vinegar. The acids are called “short-chain fatty acids” (SCFAs). SCFAs affect our bodies’ use of sugar in various ways and are an important source of energy for people who eat them.
Vinegar was probably discovered 5,000 years ago when people were storing wine. Sometimes the wine would go sour over time, but the sour wine turned out quite useful. People found they could use it for cooking, for skin care, and for medicine.
According to the How Stuff Works article, “[vinegar’s] healing virtues are extolled in records of the Babylonians, and the great Greek physician Hippocrates reportedly used it as an antibiotic. In Asia, early samurai warriors believed vinegar to be a tonic that would increase their strength and vitality.”
Only in recent years, with the rise of chemical medicines, has vinegar’s benefit been largely forgotten. Not completely though; vinegar fans are all over the web and in some research universities.
Greek researchers have done studies demonstrating that two tablespoons of vinegar with or just before meals prevents after-meal glucose level spikes. Carol Johnston at Arizona State University has shown that vinegar at bedtime reduces fasting blood sugars in the mornings. Animal studies have shown that rats fed acetic acid with meals had much better cholesterol levels.
The mechanisms of action for vinegar are not well understood. I personally believe it works by improving the body’s insulin production and sensitivity, sort of like the incretin drugs do. It might also slow absorption of carbs at a meal, reducing sugar spikes.
Ways to get vinegar
Maybe the easiest way to take in acetic acid is in a fermented food. It’s no accident that traditional Koreans complement each meal with kimchi, a spicy fermented cabbage. The acetic acid in kimchi probably has significant health benefits for people who eat a lot of starch in the form of rice.
Sauerkraut is a traditional food from Europe that is still widely eaten. It’s not as spicy as kimchi but has similar acetic acid content. Many sour foods, like the German meat dish sauerbraten, contain vinegar.
You can easily pour vinegar from a bottle and make salad dressing with it or cook with it. Red wine, white wine, malt, or apple cider vinegar are all good. Apple cider vinegar is more complex, with several SCFAs, so it seems to have the most people promoting it and may, in fact, be the best one for health. But I suspect they are all good.
You can also take vinegar in a capsule. Just make sure it doesn’t get stuck in your throat; it will burn.
Some websites warn of the danger of taking vinegar in too high a concentration. It might cause indigestion. Some say don’t drink undiluted vinegar. It’s hard to see what harm one or two teaspoons could do, but why not eat it with a salad or mix it with water to be safe?
Vinegar can soften your teeth. You don’t want to hold it in your mouth too long, and you should rinse your mouth after a meal containing vinegar.
When I have written about this before, I got lots of comments from people who say it helped, and few or none from those who got no benefit. I’d like to hear your story if you try this. It’s so simple and almost free.