. For almost a century, it has been the world's most popular drug for pain, fever, and inflammation. In recent years, doses too low to do much for headaches – one-half to one tablet a day – have been shown to help prevent heart attacks, strokes, senility, several cancers, migraine headaches, and pregnancy complications. Charles Hennekens, M.D., an aspirin researcher at Harvard University, calls aspirin, at about a nickel a tablet, "the greatest preventive medical bargain of all time."
But amid all the excitement, physicians and the media have overlooked two key points: first, that aspirin was originally an herbal medicine; secondly, that a daily dose of an "herbal aspirin" preparation provides the same preventive health benefits as pharmaceutical aspirin.
Today, aspirin is a laboratory creation. However, 2,500 years ago, Chinese physicians used its natural source, willow bark, to treat pain and fever. The West adopted willow bark in the 18th century after Edmund Stone, a British herbalist, demonstrated its value as a fever fighter. When news of Stone's discovery crossed the Atlantic, the colonists gained new respect for Native American medicine. Many tribes had already been using willow bark tea to treat fever and pain.
During the 19th century, chemists began analyzing medicinal plants to discover the chemicals in them with healing properties. In 1828, willow bark's active constituent, salicin, was discovered, and later salicin was found in another traditional herbal pain reliever, meadowsweet. Chemists refined salicin into salicylic acid and later created acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), which is aspirin. ASA was ignored for 50 years until, in 1897, a chemist with the fledgling German drug firm, Friedrich Bayer & Co., reintroduced it and tested it on his father, who had severe arthritis. The old man pronounced ASA every bit as effective as the salicylic acid he'd been taking, but with less stomach upset.
Peak level study of salicin and salicylates (1972)
Bayer decided to release ASA commercially, but had no name for the new drug. A company official took the "a" from "acetyl," corrupted meadowsweet's Latin genus, Spiraea, into "spirin," and came up with "aspirin." Bayer introduced aspirin to the market in 1899. A few years later, it was on its way to becoming the most popular pain reliever on earth.
The standard adult pain-relieving dose of aspirin is two tablets every four hours. But during the last decade, researchers have discovered that one-half to one tablet a day has remarkable medical value in preventing a variety of serious conditions. Aspirin:
Reduces the risk of heart attack, the nation's leading killer, by 44% in men and 30% in women.
Reduces the risk of stroke, the nation's third leading killer (after heart disease and cancer).
Helps prevent senility caused by "multi-infarct dementia" (mental impairment caused by cell death from reduced blood supply), the nation's second leading cause of senility.
May cut deaths by colo-rectal cancer, the nation's second leading cause of cancer death (after lung cancer), and the leading cancer killer of nonsmokers. It may also help prevent cancers of the esophagus and stomach.
Prevents high blood pressure during pregnancy, a potentially fatal complication which strikes 10% of pregnant women.
May prevent painful migraine headaches, which afflict 33 million Americans.
While the benefits of taking low doses of aspirin have been demonstrated, you are likely to gain the same benefits by going to the sources of the active component of aspirin – willow bark or meadowsweet – and drinking teas or taking extracts made with these herbs. There may be good reasons for taking the herbs instead of the drug. A number of people who are aspirin-sensitive get upset stomachs when taking aspirin, and some experience potentially serious gastrointestinal bleeding. Among the people who should not take aspirin are those with clotting disorders, gastrointestinal diseases, upcoming surgery, and aspirin-aggravated asthma.
While some people who take herbal aspirin may experience stomach distress, herbal aspirin appears to be considerably less hazardous than pharmaceutical aspirin. No cases have been reported in medical literature of any serious side effects from taking herbal aspirin.
No one knows for sure why herbal aspirin causes fewer side effects, but there are at least two theories: first, when taking herbal aspirin, you take a smaller dose of the active ingredient and therefore are less likely to suffer side effects; secondly, there may be natural buffers in the plant that are not present in aspirin. One excellent source of willow bark is available in a standardized extract under the brand name Pain Stop. Each Pain Stop capsule contains 55 mg. of standardized salicin extract in a base of willow bark powder.
Willow bark works to reduce pain by blocking the production of inflammatory prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances involved in inflammation and muscle contraction. In addition, willow bark is a very effective fever reducer in conditions such as the common cold. Another advantage of willow bark is its longer lasting action. In 1972, Steinegger and Hövel conducted an analytical and biological study on salicin. Their comparative blood level studies show that while natural salicin may reach peak levels more slowly than ASA products, it stays active much longer.