Used for thousands of years to treat fevers and headaches, white willow bark contains a chemical forerunner of today's most popular painkiller – aspirin. The herb is sometimes called 'herbal aspirin', but has few of that drug's side effects.
What it is?
White willow bark comes from the stately white willow tree, which can grow up to 23 metres tall. In China, its medicinal properties have been appreciated for centuries. But not until the eighteenth century was the herb recognized as a pain reliever and fever reducer in the West. European settlers brought the white willow tree to North America, where they discovered that local tribes were using native willow species to alleviate the pain and fight fevers.
In 1828, the plant's active ingredient, salicin, was isolated by German and French scientists. Ten years later, European chemists manufactured salicylic acid, a chemical cousin to aspirin, from it. Aspirin, or acetyl-salicylic acid, was later created from a different salicin-containing herb called meadowsweet. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Bayer company had begun commercially producing aspirin, which was marketed as a new and safer pain reliever than wintergreen and black birch oil, the herbs commonly used at that time for reducing pain.
All parts of the white willow contain salicin, but concentrations of this chemical are highest in the bark, which is collected in early spring from threes two to five years old. Salix alba, or white willow, is the most popular species for medicinal use, but other types of willow are also rich in salicin, including S. fragilis (crack willow), S. purpurea(purple willow) and S. daphnoides (violet willow). These species are often sold simply as willow bark in health-food shops.
What it does?
In the body, the salicin from white willow bark is metabolized to form salicylic acid, which reduces pain, fever and inflammation. Though the herb acts more slowly than aspirin, its beneficial effects last longer and it causes fewer adverse reactions. Most notably, it does not promote stomach bleeding – one of aspirin's most potentially serious side effects.
White willow bark can be very effective for relieving headaches, as well as acute muscle aches and pains. It can also alleviate all sorts of chronic pain, including back and neck pain. When recommended for arthritis, especially if there is pain in the back, knees and hips, it can reduce swelling and inflammation and increase joint mobility. In addition, it may help to ease the pain of menstrual cramps – the salicin regulates the action of hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins that can contribute to inflammation and cause pain.
White willow bark, like aspirin, may be useful for bringing down fevers.
- Relieves acute and chronic pains, including back and neck pain, headaches and muscle aches.
- Reduces arthritis inflammation.
- May lower fevers.
- Dried herb/tea.
- Anyone who's been told to avoid aspirin should also refrain from using white willow bark. This advise applies to people allergic to aspirin, those with ulcers or other gastrointestinal disorders, and teenager or children with a fever.
- Pregnant or breast-feeding women should consult their doctors before taking white willow bark, because its safety has not been established in these situations.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
Take one or two pills three times a day, or as needed to relieve pain, bring down a fever or reduce inflammation (follow package instructions). Look for preparations that are standardized to contain 15% salicin. This dosage provides between 60 mg and 120 mg a day of salicin. Standardized extracts can also be taken in tincture or powder form. White willow bark teas are likely to be less effective than the standardized extracts, because they supply only a small amount of pain-relieving salicin.
Guidelines for use:
White willow bark is safe to use long term. It has a bitter, astringent taste, so the most convenient way to take it is probably in pill form. Don't take white willow bark with aspirin because it can amplify the side effects of aspirin.
In addition, don't give the herb to a child or teenager under the age of 16 who has a cold, flu or chickenpox. Taking aspirin puts them at a risk of a potentially fatal brain and liver condition called Reye's syndrome. Salicin, the therapeutic ingredient in white willow bark, is not likely to cause this problem because it is metabolized differently from aspirin. However, its similarities to the painkiller warrant this course of action.
Possible side effects
This herb rarely causes side effects at recommended doses. Higher doses, however can lead to an upset stomach, nausea or tinnitus (ringing in the ears). If any of these symptoms occur, lower the dosage or stop taking the herb. See your doctor if side effects persist.
- Buy white willow bark extract standardized to contain 15% salicin – the aspirin-like active ingredient in the herb.
- Though white willow bark tea is sometimes recommended as a pain reliever, you should take only standardized extracts in pill, powder or tincture form. Because the bark contains 1% or less salicin, you'd probably have to drink several litres of tea to get an effective dose.
- If white willow bark doesn't help to alleviate pain, you can try other pain-relieving herbs, such as meadowsweet, feverfew, ginger, cat's claw, pau d'arco or turmeric.
- A recent study confirms earlier reports that white willow bark appears to be quite safe. Among 41 patients with long-standing arthritis who were treated for two months with white willow bark (as well as other herbs), only three people taking the herbs had mild adverse reactions, including headaches and digestive upsets – all of which also occurred in those who were given a placebo.
Did you know?
Native Americans believed in chewing willow twigs 'until your ears ring' to relieve headache pain. Today, ringing in the ears is recognized as a sign that you've taken too much of the herb or its drugs counterpart, aspirin.