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White Willow Bark: The Natural Pain Reliever that Works Like Aspirin

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White willow bark - Dr. Axe

Because frequent use of anti-inflammatory drugs and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain medications is now linked with a growing number of health concerns, many people are interested in using natural painkillers as alternatives. One option, called white willow bark — which has been utilized in folklore and natural medicines for centuries — shows promise for treating pain naturally with little risk for side effects.

According to a 2015 article published in the journal Pythotherspy Research, “Willow bark extract has been used for thousands of years as an anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, and analgesic.” In other words, white willow bark benefits include lowering inflammatory responses that contribute to chronic diseases, fighting pain and reducing fevers.

Whether in extract or tea form, willow bark can provide relief to those suffering from back pain, recurring headaches, muscle pains, menstrual cramps, arthritis symptoms and more.

What Is White Willow Bark?

White willow trees (salix alba) grow a bark that contains the chemical called salicin, which has anti-inflammatory effects.

Salicin works in similar ways as acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. In fact, in the 1800s, salicin was used to develop aspirin.

Willow trees are members of the Salicaceae plant family and are native to Europe, Central Asia and Northern Africa.

There are a number of species of willow trees in existence that produce bark that is used to make extracts, medicine and supplements. These include the species:

  • white willow or European willow
  • black willow or pussy willow
  • crack willow
  • purple willow

Once salicin is absorbed it breaks down to various salicylate derivatives, which have a variety of health-promoting capabilities. The effects of white willow take longer than aspirin to kick in, but they tend to last longer and to cause fewer adverse reactions than aspirin side effects.

Some studies have found that most willow trees only contain small amounts of salicin, therefore extracts derived from these trees that can help treat pain work due to the presence of other chemicals too.

Antioxidant compounds called polyphenolic glycosides and flavonoids are also found in white willow bark (WWB). These have been shown to protect against oxidative stress and various symptoms tied to aging, such as poor physical performance, cognitive decline, etc.

Together with salicin, fragilin, salicortin and other salicylates, researchers believe that these antioxidants play a prominent role in WWB’s therapeutic actions.

Regarding its use as a natural pain killer, most of the known benefits of WWB are based on anecdotal observations, rather than clinical studies. While few studies have been conducted, those that have suggest it can help treat conditions including:

  • chronic lower back pain
  • joint pain/osteoarthritis
  • soreness due to physical training

Health Benefits

1. Has Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Effects

Dating all the way back to the time of Hippocrates, people have chewed on white willow bark to help naturally dull pain and inflammation. Today we know from studies that willow bark has the capability to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and increase antioxidant activity, including glutathione.

In vitro studies and animal studies have found that WWB’s pain-relieving effects are due to its ability to scavenge free radicals and down-regulate inflammatory mediators, including tumor necrosis factor-α and nuclear factor-kappa B.

It also seems to affect prostaglandin production, reducing inflammation that leads to pain like cramps and also fevers.

2. Used to Manage Arthritis Symptoms and Chronic Pain

Some research has demonstrated that white willow bark can help people dealing with chronic joint pain and injuries, although findings from studies have been somewhat conflicting.

Certain studies have shown that WWB extract is not an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, while others have found that it can reduce osteoarthritis pain and back pain as well as certain prescriptions.

According to a 2009 systematic review on the effectiveness of willow bark for musculoskeletal pain, several studies indicate a dose-dependent analgesic effect not inferior to rofecoxib (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to treat arthritis) among patients with low back pain. However, no significant effect was seen in a confirmatory study in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, although the study was small.

Researchers involved in the analysis concluded, “Further studies are required to find out if treatment of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis requires extract with higher doses than 240 mg salicin per day.”

One study published in the American Journal of Medicine involving nearly 200 people with low back pain found that supplementing with willow bark led to significant improvements in pain compared to those who received placebo.

Another randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial that included 78 adults with osteoarthritis found that those receiving willow bark extract showed a moderate analgesic effect in osteoarthritis and that WWB appeared to be well-tolerated.

A major benefit of using plant-derived extracts and herbs for pain such as arthritis is that most appear to cause less side effects compared to NSAIDs, including aspirin.

3. Defends Against Common Illnesses and Fevers

By supporting the immune system, providing antioxidants and reducing inflammation, WWB can be used to help get rid of a fever, treat the common cold, help manage symptoms of the flu and speed along recovery from other illnesses.

Increased defense against bacteria and viruses seems to be due to white willow’s polyphenols and flavonoid content, as well as other compounds. These antioxidants have been shown to have fever-reducing and antiseptic properties.

Willow bark can be especially helpful for fevers when combined with cooling herbs, such as wintergreen or peppermint, in essential oil form or tea.

4. May Help Support Athletic Performance

Because it can provide natural pain relief, white willow bark extract is used by some athletes to help support their performance and recovery.

Anecdotal reports and a small number of studies suggest it has the ability to decrease muscle and joint pain and fight fatigue that interferes with physical capabilities. It’s also been widely used throughout history to help treat inflammatory conditions such as bursitis and tendinitis, as explained as Penn State Medical Center.

5. Used to Help With Weight Loss

Although research focused on its effects on weight loss is limited, some reports indicate that WWB may help promote fat loss among overweight or obese adults. It’s believed that willow bark’s anti-inflammatory activity can help support metabolic health, but some experts recommend against using it for this purpose since its safety hasn’t been well-researched.

It also appears to be unsafe when combined with risky weight loss supplements, such as Ephedra, which is banned in the United States due to reports of serious adverse effects.

6. May Fight Headaches and Boost Your Mood

Some people claim that they experience benefits of white willow bark for reducing headaches, fatigue and anxiety.

While more formal research is needed to confirm how it may work to lift someone’s mood, energy and focus, it appears that white willow bark may have these effects due to its anti-inflammatory potential and ability to reduce oxidative stress — which can interfere with cognitive function.

Risks, Side Effects and Interactions

Consuming high doses of white willow bark can be dangerous because too much salicin is capable of contributing to a number of health problems among some individuals, including bleeding disorders and kidney damage.

Other potential side effects might include digestive upset and skin itching. People who are prone to stomach upset, especially caused by medications, should be cautious when using willow bark products.

People with any of the following health conditions should avoid using white willow bark products:

  • Bleeding disorders (since willow bark slows down blood clotting)
  • Kidney disease or kidney failure
  • Sensitivity to aspirin
  • Asthma
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Diabetes
  • Gout
  • Hemophilia
  • Liver disease
  • Having had recent surgery

Taking willow bark along with aspirin, beta blockers, diuretics or choline magnesium can increase the effects and contribute to side effects. It also shouldn’t be used with any other medication that slows blood clotting (anticoagulants), since this increases the risk for uncontrolled bleeding.

Is white willow bark safe for pregnancy?

Because research is limited about the use of WWB during pregnancy, it’s not recommended. It’s also not recommended for young children or while breastfeeding.

Is white willow bark safe for dogs? While most veterinarians consider it to be safe to give to dogs (but not cats), it should only be given under supervision from a vet due to potential to cause side effects.

It’s also not safe for dogs when given with other medications, including NSAID painkillers.

White Willow Bark vs. Ibuprofen: Which Is Safer (and Why)?

Is white willow bark safer than aspirin or ibuprofen? Because it has several active compounds, including salicin, flavonoids and polyphenols, there’s some evidence that willow bark provides a broader mechanism of action, while also being less likely to cause serious side effects — including ibuprofen overdose.

Some people describe WWB as being like “natural aspirin.” Compared to synthetically made aspirin, WWB seems to pose less risk for damaging the gastrointestinal lining (the mucosa).

Unlike aspirin, it also has no effect on blood clotting when used in moderate doses, such as about 240 milligrams of extract.

People who have a known allergy to aspirin (“salicylate-sensitive individuals”) should not use products made with willow bark. If signs of a reaction occur, such as skin itching/hives or trouble breathing, a doctor should be contacted right away.

Forms and Dosage

White willow bark comes in several forms, including:

  • Extract/distilled tincture
  • Tea
  • Capsules/salicin tablets
  • Topical creams/ointments
  • Lozenges

How do you get aspirin from willow bark? While you can’t exactly make aspirin from willow bark outside of a laboratory setting, you can make alternatives in the form of white willow bark tea or extract.

These are considered natural substitutes for aspirin since they have similar anesthetic effects.

White willow bark extracts are generally standardized to salicin content, which means their strength/potency depends on how much salicin the extract contains. The more salicin, the more pain relief that the extract should provide.

Dosage recommendations vary depending on the product, so read instructions carefully and start with a low dose at first.

Willow bark capsules are typically taken in doses ranging from 120–240 milligrams of salicin for at least six weeks. Higher doses containing about 240 milligrams of salicin, or potentially more, are usually needed to help conditions that cause considerable pain, such as chronic injuries or arthritis.

Unlike taking over-the-counter pain medications, WWB might not take effect right away. Some people find that it takes up to a week or more to experience significant improvements in pain and other symptoms.

How to Make White Willow Bark Tea

Bark from the white willow tree can be gathered and used to make tea or “bark concoctions.” About two to six ounces can be consumed up to several times daily, depending on the strength.

White willow trees can be identified by their rough, grayish bark and branches and twigs that are slender, golden brown and flexible. The tree has long and slender leaves that are shiny and green, with white and silky undersides.

Younger branches provide bark that is easier to pull off. If you don’t have access to willow trees nearby, look for dried bark online or in certain herbal/health food stores.

  1. Remove bark by looking for the papery material that underlies the outer bark.
  2. Let the bark dry for several hours, then boil it in water for about 10 minutes.
  3. Use about one tablespoon of willow bark per cup of water.
  4. After allowing the tea to cool, it’s best to drink it with a meal, which will reduce the chance of experiencing an upset stomach.
  5. Most people can consume 1–3 cups of white willow bark tea per day. Drink one cup and wait several hours before taking another dose to make sure you don’t react poorly.

Conclusion

  • White willow bark is a natural pain reliever that contains a chemical called salicin. It works in similar ways as aspirin, which is why white willow bark benefits include decreasing inflammation, fevers, joint pain, headaches, menstrual cramps and more.
  • WWB is most commonly taken as extract or tea for natural pain relief and anti-inflammatory effects.
  • In extract form, it’s typically taken in doses ranging from 120–240 milligrams of salicin for at least six weeks.
  • Although it’s generally safe, white willow bark extract taken in high doses can cause side effects including increased bleeding, skin rashes, itching and an upset stomach. Allergic responses are also possible among individuals who are sensitive to salicin.
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