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Aspirin from plants



Perhaps the first plant nutraceutic modified slightly to become a large commercial success was salicylic acid, found in particularly high amounts in the inner lining of white willow tree bark and central to defense mechanisms in plants against pathogen attack and environmental stress. It is the principal metabolite of the medication aspirin, which works through a completely different pathway in humans to affect an anti-inflammatory and antipyretic response.  However, dosing in isolated concentrated form resulted in severe gastrointestinal distress, so that a buffered form was developed – and patented – in 1900 as Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) by Bayer[1].  This approach to acquiring medicinal benefits from salicylic acid is still flawed by the fact that there is an increased risk of bleeding even for low-dose therapy.  About one in ten people on chronic low-dose aspirin develop stomach or intestinal ulcers, which can perforate the gut and cause life-threatening bleeding.[2]


There is a better way to take advantage of the healing properties of salicylic acid: eating plants.  All plants contain salicylic acid and vegetarians have as much in their blood as omnivores who take aspirin supplements – but without the risk[3].  Apparently this has been known empirically since the third millennium BC.


This is another recurring theme: plant-based diets can obviate the need for many supplements and prescribed medications.  Plant-based diets are anti-inflammatory not only because of salicylic acid but because of their many other anti-inflammatory phytonutrients that help prevent the body from overproducing inflammatory compounds.  Of course plant-based diets minimize one’s intake of inflammatory precursors present in meat and dairy products in the first place.  More on that later.


Just to review, this amazing substance, salicylic acid, the active metabolite of aspirin and a plant hormone, plays a central role in the immune system of plants by activating the production of pathogen-fighting proteins[4].  It can transmit the distress signal throughout the plant and even to neighboring plants[5].  But the amazing fact is its crossover and apparent inverse role that it has in humans: it reduces the immune response, i.e. serves as an anti-inflammatory.  This has an important role then in chronic inflammatory states such as cardio- and cerebrovascular disease, stroke, arthritis, even certain cancers.  Recently, mental disorders have been linked to chronic inflammatory states[6] and aspirin is finding a use for disorders ranging from mood disorders[7] to schizophrenia[8].


So this remarkable agent helps prevent disease in both plants and animals but by completely different mechanisms.


[1] Interestingly, Aspirin ® and Heroin ® were once trademarks belonging to Bayer. After Germany lost World War I, Bayer was forced to give up both trademarks as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

[2] Yeomans, N., Lanas, A., Talley, N., Thomson, A., Daneshjoo, R., Eriksson, B., . . . Hawkey, C. (2005). Prevalence and incidence of gastroduodenal ulcers during treatment with vascular protective doses of aspirin. Aliment Pharmacol Ther Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 22(9), 795-801.

[3] Paterson, J., Baxter, G., Dreyer, J., Halket, J., Flynn, R., & Lawrence, J. (2008). Salicylic Acid sans Aspirin in Animals and Man: Persistence in Fasting and Biosynthesis from Benzoic Acid. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry J. Agric. Food Chem., 56(24), 11648-11652.

[4] Pieterse, C., Van Der Does, C., Zamioudis, C., Leon-Reyes, A., & Van Wees, S. (2012). Hormonal modulation of plant immunity. Annu Rev Cell Dev Biol.

[5] Taiz, L., & Zeiger, E. (2002). Plant physiology (3rd ed., p. 306). New York: W.H. Freeman

[6] Berk, M., Dean, O., Drexhage, H., McNeil, J. J., Moylan, S., O’Neil, A., … Maes, M. (2013). Aspirin: a review of its neurobiological properties and therapeutic potential for mental illness. BMC Medicine, 11, 74. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-74

[7]Ayorech, Z., Tracy, D., Baumeister, D., & Giaroli, G. (2015). Taking the fuel out of the fire: Evidence for the use of anti-inflammatory agents in the treatment of bipolar disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders, 174, 467-478.

[8] Keller, W., Kum, L., Wehring, H., Koola, M., Buchanan, R., & Kelly, D. (2012). A review of anti-inflammatory agents for symptoms of schizophrenia. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 27(4), 337-342.