Superfood in the Spotlight: An Apple a Day BenefitsOctober 20, 2023
The legend of the Four Thieves originates from 17th Century, during a bubonic plague epidemic in Marseilles, France. Also called the black death, the bubonic plague is a bacterial infection that attacks the lymphatic system, resulting in boils filled with blood and pus, covering the body and spreading to the lungs causing death.
The first known and most devastating epidemic of the bubonic plague occurred in Europe and Asia in the mid-1300’s and cost the lives of over 20 million people. Transmission of the bubonic plague occurs from person to person and from bites of infected fleas and rats. The bubonic plague still exists today and according to the World Health Organization, there are about 1,000 to 3,000 cases per year. Fortunately, we now have antibiotics to treat bacterial infections and modern sanitation protocols have reduced the risk of spreading the disease.
Back in 17th century France, as legend goes, there were four thieves who ransacked the homes of the dead and dying during one of the plague epidemics. However, they never became ill themselves. Once these thieves were captured, in exchange for their lives, they were required to expose their secret. They revealed that it was a mixture of herbs in the form of an infused vinegar. They used this vinegar topically and internally.
This is known today as Four Thieves Vinegar.
The other less interesting version of the legend is that the recipe for Four Thieves Vinegar was created by Richard Forthave and called it Forthave vinegar. Eventually, it was adapted to become Four Thieves Vinegar and the story of the four thieves was built around it.
While the true origin of the four thieves’ vinegar is unknown, there is a rich history around the medicinal use of vinegar and infused vinegars.
The History of Four Thieves Vinegar
Vinegar is created via fermentation – the oldest method of preservation. Hippocrates, known as the father of western medicine, was known to use apple cider vinegar for managing wounds and infections. Sung Tse in the 10th century, the creator of forensic medicine, advocated for the use of washing hands with vinegar to avoid infection during autopsies.
In 1937, Rene Maurice Gattefosse, sometimes referred to as the father of aroma therapy, published a recipe for four thieves’ vinegar in Aromatherapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones vegetales. The recipe included wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram, sage, cloves, campula, rosemary, camphor, horehound, and angelica. This blend of herbs was steeped in white wine vinegar for two weeks. This remedy was used for topical purposes and not internal.
The tradition of infusing vinegars and using them as medicines was brought to North America by European settlers. Remedies were then adapted to include native plants.
In the 1970s, Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar recreated the original Four Thieves Vinegar recipe using garlic, ginger, onions, horseradish, spices, herbs, and honey. Due to its spicy and pungent flavour, she referred to it as fire cider.
In 2012, a company tried to trademark the name “fire cider” and sue other herbalists for using it. Shortly afterwards, another company tried to trademark the name “Four Thieves Vinegar”.
Herbalists Nicole Telkes of Wildflower School of Botanical medicine, Mary Blue of Farmacy Herbs and Kathy Langelier of Herbal Revolution, now known as the Fire Cider Three, campaigned to render the name generic. On September 30, 2019, they won their case and judges declared “fire cider” a generic term, due to its long history and many adaptations.
Both the names “four thieves vinegar” and “fire cider” remain generic terms that can be used by any herbalists today. The recipe is not a trademark or a secret – meaning anyone can make, use, and reap the benefits of infused vinegar.
So, how do you make fire cider?
Well, the best part of the Four Thieves Vinegar recipe is that there is no exact recipe. You can adapt it to your specific needs and use what you have on hand. I often make a few different versions and I don’t measure out the ingredients exactly and use what’s available, often from my own garden or foraged wild from the property.
Four Thieves Vinegar Recipe:
- Fresh Rosemary
- Garlic raw
- Ginger raw
- Hot Peppers
- Turmeric raw
- Ginseng raw
- 1 Cinnamon stick
- Dried Sweet Wormwood (optional)- approx. 2 tsp
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Roughly chop ingredients to release the aromatics.
- Place all the ingredients in a clean sterilized 1 L mason jar.
- Pour apple cider vinegar over ingredients until almost filled to the top.
- Place a coffee filter or parchment paper under the lid of the jar so the vinegar does not react with the metal.
- Put the lid on top and leave at room temperature for 4-6 weeks.
- After the vinegar has fully been infused, you can strain out the rest of the ingredients.
- The infused vinegar can then be taken by the spoonful, or mixed with hot water, honey, and a dash of cinnamon. It can also be used in place of vinegar as a salad dressing.
Many ingredients, such as the ginseng, ginger, turmeric, and horseradish, can be purchased at a Chinese supermarket. Horseradish is generally in season late fall, so you will probably see it in stores during this time. If you cannot find raw horseradish, a fermented horseradish will work in a pinch; double check that there are no preservatives (I like Bubbies brand.) Since wormwood can be quite potent, it’s the only ingredient I measure.
The Science – Does Four Thieves Vinegar Work?
To understand the science behind this beneficial blend, let’s take a look at fire cider ingredients.
Apple cider vinegar:
The acidity of apple cider vinegar gives it antibacterial and antifungal properties. A January 2018 study demonstrated that apple cider vinegar’s antimicrobial properties proved to be effective against E. coli, staphylococcus aureus and candida albicans. Alternative antimicrobials have become an important area of study due to drug resistant pathogens. These properties of apple cider vinegar are also what makes it an excellent preservative, preventing harmful microbial growth, such as botulism spores during the infusion. For more information on the health benefits of apples and apple cider vinegar, please visit our blog
A deliciously aromatic herb native to the Mediterranean, rosemary is often used for culinary purposes; however, rosemary also has medicinal properties. Rosemary is rich in antioxidants and inflammatory compounds which help to support the immune system. An antioxidant carnosic acid has been shown to reduce free radical damage in the brain. Studies on rats have shown that rosemary may be protective against brain damage and aid in recovery from those who have suffered a stroke. Another study demonstrated that rosemary could help to reduce brain aging and prevent Alzheimer’s.
Horseradish is not just a condiment, it’s a pungent perennial root vegetable. Horseradish is what will give the fire cider its immediate sinus cleansing benefit. Allyl isothiocyanate, the oil released when horseradish root is cut, may have powerful antimicrobial properties. Studies have shown that it can fight E. coli, H. Pylori and Salmonella. Another study showed that it can also prevent the growth of certain fungi.
While not a traditional fire cider ingredient, turmeric is a highly potent spice and therefore an excellent addition to the modern recipe. The major active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. Curcumin has anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial properties. Curcumin acts as an immune modulator, meaning it helps to regulate immune cell functions.
Another non-traditional but highly potent herb that can be used in a modern fire cider recipe, ginseng has anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. An animal study showed that black-red ginseng extract increased the number of immune cells and enhanced antioxidant levels in the liver. Ginseng is an adaptogenic herb, in that it helps to cope with stress and increase energy levels.
Cinnamon contains anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It increases circulation and reduces congestion, making it a perfect addition to fire cider. For more information on the benefits of cinnamon, check out our blog here.
The active anti-viral agent in garlic is organosulfur compounds. There have been numerous studies on the effects of garlic extract or organosulfur compounds on multiple viruses. Some of these viruses include adenovirus-3, adenovirus-41, Coronavirus, dengue virus, herpes simplex virus (1 &2), influenza A, Influenza B, H1N1, Hepatitis, Rhinovirus, Measles, HIV and Rotavirus.
The active ingredient in ginger which provides its anti-microbial properties is gingerol. It has been shown in studies to be effective against:
- Staphylococcus Aureus
- Escherichia Coli
- Candida Albicans
Ginger also has anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea properties and can aid in digestive upset.
Sweet wormwood or artemisia annua is an herb from the Asteraceae family. Don’t let the name fool you. This herb is extremely bitter although perhaps sweeter than other types of wormwood, such as artemisia absinthia which is used to make absinthe. Sweet wormwood has strong anti-parasitic effects, and it is commonly used to treat malaria. Lab based research has shown that sweet wormwood essential oils are effective in stopping multiple strains of bacteria. It has also been shown to have anti-fungal properties. A 2020 study showed that artemisia annua may hinder viral replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The bitter attributes make it a potent cholagogue, meaning it will increase bile flow, providing a liver cleansing benefit. As bile will stimulate bowel movements, consuming wormwood may have a laxative effect. Sweet wormwood is not safe to consume during pregnancy and it is not safe if you have a ragweed allergy.
Hot peppers really put the “fire” in fire cider. The active ingredient, capsaicin, reduces nasal congestion and increases circulation and body temperature to help fight off colds and flus.
Fire Cider Benefits: A Traditional Medicine Perspective
Traditional Medicine, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, herbal alchemy and ayurvedic medicine, used the different elements (such as Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Ether) to describe the different properties of plants, as well as different symptoms or human attributes. The objective behind many traditional forms of medicine is that by balancing out the different elements, we can achieve health and healing.
It’s no surprise that the dominant element in fire cider or thieves’ vinegar is fire. Particularly the pungent flavours provide a dry heat, which are the elements air and fire. A cold virus that produces a lot of phlegm and mucus has damp properties from the elements water and earth. Therefore, to balance out a damp cold, you need dry heat from pungent plants such as those found in fire cider or Thieves’ Vinegar. What’s especially interesting is that now we can use modern science to back up traditional medicinal theories.
Safety and Contradictions with Fire Cider
Fire cider is considered generally safe, as the dosage of each herb is relatively low and not much different than what would be consumed in a well-seasoned meal or a cup of tea. Fire cider should still be taken with caution.
The best way to consume fire cider is to treat it like a food or beverage. Make it into a salad dressing or add an ounce to a drink. Do not drink it straight, just as you would not drink pure vinegar. Fire cider may not be safe for those with GERD or a stomach ulcer (ouch!) or if you are on blood thinning medication.
As the recipe for fire cider varies, it is important to check each individual ingredient and confirm that they do not contraindicate with any medication you are taking.
Kirsten Colella, CNP, is a Holistic Nutritionist who graduated from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition with high honours. She is also a certified yoga teacher and studied chemical engineering at the University of Toronto. Living on a farm, Kirsten has access to the freshest and purest of foods and herbs, and as a mother of 3 young children, she has the little helpers to create farm-to-table meals. Kirsten shares her delicious recipes, colourful food pics and health-promoting food ideas on our Instagram page @essentialbalanceholistic
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- Legendary 4 Thieves Vinegar Tonic Recipe – Farmers’ Almanac (farmersalmanac.com)