When humans have used a botanical medicine for thousands of years, chances are it’s effective at helping the body heal. Otherwise why would people keep using it over and over again down through the ages?
So it’s no surprise that studies are now providing new insight into the effectiveness of an ancient remedy that’s extracted from a particular type of tree bark.
In view of recently published papers, scientists around the world are starting to pay closer attention to the bark of the willow tree – a plant with the botanical name Salix alba, though there are other closely-related varieties. Salix alba is native to Europe and parts of Asia. The plant’s ingredients hold great promise as a new way to both treat and prevent cancer.
The most common drug in the world, aspirin, was originally derived from willow bark, although aspirin is now manufactured without nature’s help – and no longer contains the same molecule. Apparently, conventional aspirin may be a cancer-fighter (more on this in a moment), but I’m more interested in willow bark because it seems to offer most of the same benefits of synthetic aspirin (or even more) with a much lower risk of side effects.
But please be aware that some alternative practitioners warn against taking too much willow bark. They contend it could conceivably lead to the same digestive and other problems often linked to frequent or long-term aspirin use.
Let’s take a look at “nature’s aspirin” vs. synthetic aspirin. . .
Continued below. . .
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Willow bark has been used as a healing agent since the very beginning of medicine, at least as far back as the days of Hippocrates (around 400 BC), who is considered the father of Western medicine.
Traditionally the bark has been used to:
- Stop the aches of low back pain. Research at the University of Toronto shows that a compound called salicin derived from willow bark can effectively limit back pain (the dose used in the study was 240mg).1
- Ease osteoarthritis.2
- Relieve headaches.3
- Reduce menstrual cramps.4
Only more recently have medical researchers begun to sit up and take notice of the bark’s ability to help fight cancer. And they’ve come up with a surprise: Aspirin-related salicin – the familiar pain-killer in willow – is not the only much less the the best cancer-fighting substance in this plant.
It’s the whole plant
For instance, lab tests by scientists in Turkey have shown that an extract of the willow plant Salix aegyptiaca, a willow tree common to the Middle East, is a strong antioxidant that can keep colon cancer cells from reproducing and forming widespread tumors.5
This type of willow bark extract encourages the process of apoptosis – the self-destruction of cancer cells – while also stopping the production of proteins that allow cancer cells to infiltrate and grow in the intestinal walls.
The researchers conclude that the willow bark extract “is a potent nutraceutical causing cancer chemoprevention.”
Interestingly, these same researchers have also examined the effects of various individual chemicals in the bark to see which are the most potentially important in preventing cancer.6
What they have found is that willow bark contains a wide collection of substances besides salicin that possess strong anticancer effects.
As a matter of fact, they don’t think salicin is even close to the being the strongest cancer fighter in the bark. “We propose that the combination of the polyphenols and flavonoids in (willow bark extract) contributes toward its potent anticarcinogenic effects.”
Polyphenols and flavonoids are classes of natural chemicals in willow bark and other plants that fight inflammation and produce a wide variety of antioxidant benefits.8 (For instance, resveratrol is a well-known polyphenol that is being studied for its anti-cancer and heart-protective effects.)8
So, according to these researchers, when doctors advocate the use of aspirin to fight cancer, their patients are missing out on other natural chemicals in willow bark that could help their bodies fight tumors.
This is a familiar story in herbal medicine. Plants contain a wide range of nutrients and medicinal compounds, and it’s often more beneficial to consume the whole plant than to focus on one so-called active ingredient extracted in a lab or factory.
Big Pharma and aspirin
Still, mainstream medicine and Big Pharma continue trying to co-opt the beneficial power of willow bark by insisting that you can get the same benefits from aspirin. Aspirin mostly consists of acetylsalicylic acid, a chemical relative of salicylic acid, the natural substance that the human body makes from salicin.
When researchers at the University of Utah investigated the anti-cancer power of aspirin, which has been shown to lower the risk of colon and breast cancer, they found that it reduces the amount of 2-hydroxyglutarate in the blood and in cancer cells.
This substance is what is called an oncometabolite, a chemical that seems to encourage the growth and spread of cancer cells. High levels of 2-hydroxyglutarate have been discovered in brain cancer and certain cancers of the blood.
Fighting cancerous inflammation
Another study, this one at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell, shows that salicylic acid can beneficially interfere with the action of a protein called HMGB1. Inflammation linked to HMGB1 can lead to the growth of tumors.
“We’ve identified what we believe is a key target of aspirin’s active form in the body, salicylic acid, which is responsible for some of the many therapeutic effects that aspirin has,” says researcher Daniel Klessig. “This protein, HMGB1, is associated with many prevalent, devastating diseases in humans, including rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, sepsis and inflammation-associated cancers, such as colorectal cancer and mesothelioma.”
Prof. Klessig’s research, however, is not designed to elucidate how best to use a natural substance like willow bark. He and his colleagues are trying to figure out how to make salicylic acid into a more powerful drug.
“We’ve identified both synthetic and natural derivatives of salicylic acid which are 50 to 1000 times more potent than salicylic acid or aspirin in suppressing the pro-inflammatory activity of extracellular HMGB1,” says Klessig, “thereby providing proof of concept that more effective salicylic acid-based drugs are attainable.”
Meanwhile, other researchers are looking into how aspirin can boost the effectiveness of cancer treatments. A test at the Francis Crick Institute in England shows that aspirin may enhance the power of immunotherapy – the use of immune cells to attack tumors – by limiting cancer cells’ ability to evade detection by the immune system.9
Aspirin side effects
If you could take aspirin every day without risking very serious side effects, it might be something I could recommend to lower the risk of cancer.
Unfortunately, the effects of daily aspirin use can be devastating, so I can’t make such a recommendation.
Taking daily aspirin can lead to serious bleeding that endangers your life – bleeding that can occur in your digestive system as well as in other parts of the body. It frequently causes severe heartburn and indigestion. And aspirin has been linked to nausea and vomiting.
Daily aspirin use can also cause problematic interactions with a wide list of medications.10 And it should never be given to anyone under the age of 18 as it can lead to Reyes syndrome, a brain and liver swelling that sometimes follows a viral infection.
The future of willow bark
Willow bark offers more promise as something we might be able to use safely on a regular basis. But a lot is still left to learn about how willow bark helps the body resist tumors, and whether it does or does not cause digestive problems.
While the researchers in Turkey seem interested in learning about these features of the bark, most of the high-tech researchers in the U.S. are obsessed with the drugs they can come up with by using salicylic acid as a jumping off point.
Consequently, figuring out the optimal way to use willow bark extract – perhaps as a tea — is still a guessing game. But there are some guidelines that experts offer:
First off, they don’t think that youngsters under the age of 18 should use willow bark because they fear that, similar to aspirin, it could lead to Reyes syndrome.
In addition, pregnant women should avoid willow bark. And other experts warn that if you have problems with stomach ulcers, gout, diabetes, asthma, hemophilia, kidney or liver problems, willow bark is not for you.11
If you already take aspirin for any reason or frequently use a blood thinner or a NSAID (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen and naproxen), then don’t take willow bark without consulting a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner.
That being said, the research on willow bark for back pain has used extract doses of 240 mg daily, and these seem to have been tolerated well by the people in the studies. If you can find an experienced herbalist in your neighborhood, he or she might be able to recommend a dose for you.
In any case, as more research into willow bark becomes available, I will pass it on to you and keep you posted on the latest findings.