“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Is there anyone who hasn’t heard a recommendation like that? Since Friedrich Bayer and Company patented aspirin in 1899; the product and its maker have become eponymous with pain relief. No matter that aspirin’s been around for 115 years, it’s still in demand. In 2007 Bayer sold more than $1-billion worth of the white pills worldwide giving it modern blockbuster status. It’s estimated there are some 80 million doses of aspirin taken daily.
Bayer’s bonanza has its roots, literally and figuratively, in the white willow tree (Salix Alba). The bark of the tree contains salicin—aspirin’s active ingredient along with other anti-inflammatory compounds know as flavonoids. This natural remedy has been used for thousands of years to treat pain. In 400 BC Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, counseled his patients to chew on the bark to treat fever and inflammation.
Even earlier the Egyptians and the Chinese believed in the healing power of willow bark. What Bayer did to win a pharmaceutical patent was invent a process that concentrated the drug’s effects, and, incidentally it’s side effects.
Aspirin has been linked to tinnitus, eye problems, heartburn, nausea and, perhaps most significantly, bleeding ulcers. Even so, the US Food and Drug Administration never approved aspirin, they just let the popular drug stay on the market. Newer pain relievers also carry risks. For example, acetaminophen, or Tylenol, can cause liver damage. Prescription painkillers often contain hydrocodone, a narcotic-like drug, which is addictive.
So if you’re looking for an alternative to patent medicines, the good news is that willow bark is readily available as a supplement and there’s growing scientific evidence to support its use for headaches, lower back pain and osteoarthritis.
Herbalists believe willow bark can dampen menstrual cramps, fever, flu and muscle pain. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, white willow bark doesn’t work as fast as aspirin, but its effects may last longer.
White willow can be turned into natural relief creams and capsules.
The dried form of the herb is used to make therapeutic tea; the powdered version is available in capsules in doses ranging from 60 to 240 milligrams. There’s also a liquid form and an alcohol containing tincture.
The plant’s side effects are relatively mild. However salicylates can cause stomach upset, ulcers, and stomach bleeding. Children younger than 16 shouldn’t take willow bark, because aspirin is associated with a rare but potentially fatal condition known as Reyes syndrome. So it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting willow bark.
However, some studies show that willow bark is as effective as aspirin for reducing pain, but you can take a lower dose. Pretty impressive for what may be the world’s oldest pain treatment.