Jacob Schor ND FABNO
“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wand'ring,
So fair to be seen.”
I tend to ignore things I don’t recognize. Take wassail for example. I’ve heard the verses of this song all my life, but it wasn’t until someone handed me a steaming cup of hot wassail to drink that I had a clue what wassail was.
“Love and joy come to you,
And to you a wassail too,
And God bless you
And send you a happy new year,
And God send you a happy new year.”
The word wassail is old English and dates from before 1066. It derives from the Old Norse 'Ves heill', that was turned into the Anglo-Saxon toast “wæs þu hæl,” meaning "be thou hale" or "be in good health." [the Old English letters in that phrase will likely be lost in this email.]
While wassail is a spiced beverage, wassailing is also a verb.
Wassailing as an active practice falls into two distinct categories. There is a meaning for wassail that can be translated as an act of “house-visiting”, somewhat akin to Christmas caroling, but with a hint of Halloween Trick or Treating mixed in. Then there is what can best be described as orchard wassailing, a practice that probably goes far back in history and refers to a practice of singing to apple trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year. This wassailing tradition predates the celebration of Christmas.
The house visiting wassailing has its roots in the middle ages. Peasants would arrive at the homes of their lords, while not actually begging, this was a semi-choreographed bit of demanding that ended with the lords giving them gifts. Apparently tradition allowed the peasants to be surprisingly demanding with their expectations of feast and drink.
We are not daily beggars
Who beg from door to door,
But we are neighbour's children
Whom you have seen before.
These familiar words to this song, probably the best known of all the wassail songs, were well-known throughout England in the middle 19th century. The song’s roots may go back further. The editors of The Oxford Book of Carols (OBC) suggest that Shakespeare may have heard this song sung outside his house at Christmas. 
There are many recipes for the wassail beverage. Almost all use apple cider as a base to which various exotic and imported spices were added. There are some recipes that forget about the original tree ritual entirely and add spices to beer. All the recipes seem to contain exotic ingredients that if available in early England were clearly only found at the tables of the very well off.
Here’s a basic recipe:
2 quarts Apple Cider
1 cup Orange Juice
1 cup Lemon Juice
1 cup Pineapple Juice
3 sticks Cinnamon
2 teaspoons Whole Cloves
1/3 cup honey
Combine all ingredients. Heat for 1 hour to combine the flavors. Some recipes add baked apples, tea, cranberry juice or beaten eggs. Our dear friend and colleague Dr. Jenny DeMeaux tells me she adds Red Hots.
There is little chance that that Shakespeare knew a wassail containing Red Hots.
Reading the various recipes and the ingredients for wassail, one still finds that they are health promoting, especially in lean times to people deprived of fresh produce. The large quantities of lemon juice and orange juice may have provided the vitamin C needed to ward off scurvy.
In recent years medical researchers have begun to realize that apples are good for health and protect against disease. They protect against cancer, heart disease and pulmonary problems.
While health promoting a January 2013 brings a slight warning. Taken together apple juice appears to block absorption of beta-blockers. This is a practice we should have patients avoid.  It should also be noted that intake of either apple juice or orange juice is reported to reduce peak plasma levels of aliskiren by 80%.  Don’t recognize the name aliskiren? It’s a blood pressure medication, sold under the trade name Tekturna, in the U.S.
A March 2012 study reported that in a clinical trial drinking apple juice reduced blood lipid peroxidation, a fancy term for preventing fats like cholesterol in the blood from going rancid.  This is a good thing and confirmed a December 2011 report that in humans drinking apple juice enhanced blood antioxidant status.  This antioxidant effect is attributed to the uric acid present in the juice rather than the polyphenol content as many of us would have guessed if this were a test. 
In the October 2008 issue of Planta Medica, Gerhauser reviewed the then current knowledge on the anti-cancer actions of apples. “In brief, apple extracts and components, especially oligomeric procyanidins, have been shown to influence multiple mechanisms relevant for cancer prevention through in vitro studies. These include antimutagenic activity, modulation of carcinogen metabolism, antioxidant activity, anti-inflammatory mechanisms, modulation of signal transduction pathways, antiproliferative and apoptosis-inducing activity, as well as novel mechanisms on epigenetic events and innate immunity.”  The chemicals in apples appear to trigger apoptosis (suicide) in genetically damaged cells.  The procyanidins contained in apples offer protection against colon cancer.
On of my research heroes, Liu from Cornell University successfully demonstrated in a rat model of human breast cancer that moderate apple consumption lowered risk. “…. whole apple extracts prevent mammary cancer in a rat model in a dose-dependent manner at doses comparable to human consumption of one, three, and six apples a day. This study demonstrated that whole apple extracts effectively inhibited mammary cancer growth in the rat model; thus, consumption of apples may be an effective strategy for cancer protection”
Apples are an excellent source of quercetin, a chemical often appreciated for its anti cancer effect. A November 2007 paper added a new use for quercetin into our materia medica, it lowers blood pressure. “These data are the first to our knowledge to show that quercetin supplementation reduces blood pressure in hypertensive subjects.”  More recently, and as mentioned in other newsletters, quercetin has generated great enthusiasm among serious athletes as it stimulates and increase in the number of mitochondria and so possibly increases exercise performance. 
A July 2008 paper tells us the chemical mechanism that allows apples to protect against atherosclerosis.  A 2010 trial suggests that applejuice improves Alzheimer’s disease. 
Apples also offer protection against asthma and COPD. Interestingly researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint which particular flavonoid is responsible. Mixed all together in apples they work but tested separately they don’t seem to work. 
All the recipes for wassail include orange juice and lemon juice. Neither grow in England but were in earlier times probably imported from Spain and possibly other Mediterranean countries. We’ve all grown up knowing that both juices contain vitamin C and thus were healthy. A summary paper on the health benefits of orange juice published in August 2008 tells us there is a lot going on in citrus fruits and reviewed new findings in anticancer, cardiovascular, and anti-inflammatory activity.  The results of a clinical trial reported in August 2010 tell us that drinking orange juice helped women engaged in an exercise program improve their lipid profile. 
Back in 2006 a paper suggested that orange juice might be useful in preventing or treating osteoporosis. In a study of orchectomized rats those given daily orange juice increased their bone density, bone strength, blood antioxidant levels and other measures of health.
All the wassail recipes seem to include cinnamon and other exotic spices. Spices have long been valued for their health and medicinal properties. Of late, cinnamon especially has been the subject of some interesting research. In December 2008, a paper suggested that cinnamon oil added to hot springs could keep them free from bacterial overgrowth particularly the nasty bugs that cause Legionaire’s Disease.  The preceding summer, another paper suggested cinnamon could protect against colon cancer.  The chemical constituents of cinnamon have anti inflammatory effects,  reduce insulin resistance  and have an antiglycation effect. 
A paper from January 2012 suggests that at least in rats, cinnamon lowers cholesterol levels. A clinical trial from 2011 informs us that cinnamon chewing gums kill off bacteria in the mouth associated with bad breath.  An October 2010 report tells us that taking 2 grams per day of cinnamon successfully lowered blood sugar levels in people diagnosed type 2 diabetes. 
Cloves apparently have the highest radical scavenging activity of any of the common spices. They also have a strong chelating action on heavy metals.  Components of cloves have been suggested as a possible treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. 
It takes little imagination to think that for a hungry and somewhat undernourished people, a generous helping of wassail might have provided a significant nutritional impact, improving the health of those who consumed it.
Tradition has it that the proper time to go wassailing is the Twelfth Night of Christmas but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to start early at least on drinking wassail.
God bless the Master of this house,
Likewise the Mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go.
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