I enjoy living with four distinct seasons but seasonal changes can be tough on our bodies. In the autumn, we feel the cold slowly moving in and the amount of daylight is reduced. Our food cravings and menus change: thick soups and stews replace the lighter fare of summer salads and grilled vegetables. Our routines change: we move inside from the outside world. Our sleep patterns may change; waking at 6:00 am in the dark and back to bed in the dark at 9:00 pm. Many of us feel more tired than usual; some suffer from headaches and body aches with the season’s temperature changes. Others struggle with increasing darkness and the dullness of gray and drizzly days.
Respiratory viruses also love autumn and winter. In our seasonal confinements, they spread easily. We know the symptoms intimately: inflamed and tender throats, sinus headaches, chest congestion, and fits of coughing. If it’s an influenza virus, our body’s temperature rises as our immune systems kick into overdrive to fight the viral invaders. Body aches and exhaustion complete the influenza experience.
Herbal Remedy for Congestion and Coughing
An ancient remedy that dates back to the Greeks, the word oxymel comes from the Latin word “oxymeli,” and means “acid honey.” Hippocrates recommended a syrup of honey and vinegar to help with congestion. Over the centuries, herbalists used oxymels as a base for extracting and preserving medicinal herbs, making this remedy a powerful medicine.
One of the more well-known oxymels is the hearty Fire Cider used to support our immune systems as well as for respiratory complaints. Iconic American herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar, developed this recipe and recently won a lawsuit that sets a precedent for keeping herbal medicine recipes public information (you can read the history here). Each year, I make a half-gallon based loosely on this recipe for immune support throughout winter. I use it both medicinally and in the kitchen.
Benefits of Oxymels
- Oxymels soothe respiratory symptoms and are especially effective with congested coughs.
- Oxymels are safe to use for anyone over the age of one.
- Oxymels are free of alcohol and synthetic chemicals often found in commercial cold and flu products.
- Both vinegar and raw honey have preservative properties so oxymels will last a long time when properly stored.
- Oxymels can be used in the kitchen to make salad dressings and marinades and splashed onto steamed vegetables.
- Oxymels can be added to sparkling water and used in cocktails (AKA as shrubs).
If you are not accustomed to the taste of vinegar, it might be a bit challenging. Add berries and use milder herbs to help convince you and others in your family to take a sip. I drink vinegar-based shrubs year-round and now crave the vinegar taste in my carbonated water.
How to Make A Medicinal Oxymel
Using the traditional folk method, oxymels are easy to make in less than 15 minutes but it does need time to steep so, like most herbal remedies, a bit of planning is necessary.
Avoid buying honey from grocery stores unless it is clearly labeled as raw or unpasteurized. Find a local beekeeper at a farmer’s market to get locally-produced honey. Honey has its own medicinal properties that are destroyed when heated. Honey helps to soothe a sore throat and has antimicrobial properties, reducing the growth of pathogens.
Raw/Organic Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)
Raw and unfiltered ACV looks cloudy which is caused by the inclusion of the “mother,” the acetic acid bacteria that is responsible for the sour taste. It extracts medicinal constituents from the herbs.
If you grow a few culinary herbs, you now have a source for herbal medicine!
Fresh or dried herbs can be used. Dried herbs are concentrated so I recommend using half the amount of fresh herbs. You can combine herbs to create a unique taste and healing properties.
Thyme – Strong tasting with potent antimicrobial properties
Rosemary – A pungent herb with a bit of a pine taste and antimicrobial properties
Bee Balm (leaves & flowers) – A delightful spicy taste with antimicrobial and antispasmodic properties
Lemon Balm – Subtle lemony mint taste with calming, antispasmodic, and antiviral properties
Ginger – Spicy and warming – great for winter oxymels (fresh is lighter tasting & dried is spicy, warming
Sage – An earthy taste with astringent and antiseptic properties
Berries – Add raspberries, blackberries, or blueberries to enhance the flavor and to add Vitamin C. Mash fresh or thawed berries slightly before adding to oxymel.
Citrus – Add a sliced orange or lemon for flavor and vitamin C.
Spices: Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, allspice. I made a small batch of this and added fresh ginger to it. Go easy on the spices – too much will easily overpower the vinegar and make it unusable. For a quart: 1 t. cinnamon chips, 3 cloves, 2 allspice, 2 cardamom pods (break them up in a mortar & pestle) and add a 1 t. grated fresh ginger. Yum!
Elderberry Oxymel – a delicious winter remedy
An effective alternative to tincture or syrup.
- Dried elderberries
- 1-2 tablespoons dried ginger (warming effect)
- 1-2 tablespoons dried rose hips and/or elecampane root (optional)
- Raw honey
- Organic apple cider vinegar
To use: Take this liberally for wet, congested coughs that produce a lot of mucous.
The amounts of each ingredient depend on the jar size so I use the eyeball method of measuring.
- Be sure your jar is clean (you can sterilize it in boiling water if desired).
- Add your chopped fresh herbs loosely to fill the jar about ¾ full. If using dried herbs, fill the jar to ⅓ full.
- If using, add mashed berries and their juices to the jar. I use a handful for a pint-sized jar and two handfuls for a quart.
- Add enough honey to coat and cover the herbs. Add apple cider vinegar to fill the jar and stir thoroughly.
- Cover with a plastic lid (vinegar can corrode a metal lid, so you’ll need to cover the jar with a plastic lid, or place wax paper between the metal lid and the liquid) and place it on a counter or shelf where you will see it so that you can gently shake the mixture each day for 2-3 weeks.
- Strain and store in a clean bottle. Oxymels are shelf-stable but can be stored in the fridge which helps to extend their usability for a year.
Option: Using a variety of herbs, you can infuse both the honey and vinegar separately and mix together to find the one that is most appealing.
Need an oxymel but forgot to make one? Mix honey and vinegar together and add 25-35 drops of herbal tincture to 1 oz of oxymel blend.
Medicinal Dosage: 1-2 teaspoons each hour for a wet cough or sore throat (adult). The FDA recommends that honey not be given to children under one year old.
To support your immune system, take a teaspoon or two each day. And don’t forget to use it in your cooking: a base for salad dressing, sauces, marinades, and as a splash on a bowl of soup.