Thursday, December 4, 2014

Meadowsweet and Willow: The Aspirin Plants

Salicylic acid, sold commonly as aspirin, is one of many isolated drug compounds that was originally discovered in a plant. Aspirin is often recommended as a preventative medicine for various diseases. However, it is known that Aspirin irritates the stomach and can cause kidney damage if overused. 

An early pharmacy, with many plant medicines
on the shelf.
In addition to the belief that they would be more effective because they were created by "science", isolated compound drugs also became more widely used because they can be patented, and very often cheaply synthesized in a lab. As you might imagine, certain people have really raked in the dough
since synthetic medicines were first explored in the early 1900's. At that time, pharmacies carried hundreds of herbal products. Nowadays synthetic medicines are all that's available at a pharmacy. Ask yourself: is that drastic shift really because those synthetic drugs are more healthful or more effective?

In fact, it's common for whole plant medicines to be much safer than their synthetic and isolated counterparts. Willow and meadowsweet, the foremost plant sources of salicylic acid, have been long used in various traditional medical systems for fevers and pain. They contain other compounds that prevent the stomach irritation caused by salicylic acid, and have other scientifically unexplained effects that the isolated salicylic acid cannot claim. 

Using Willow and Meadowsweet

Dried willow bark
White willow (Salix alba) bark and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) flowers can be used in many forms, including a tea made of the dry herb, capsules and tinctures. In my opinion, a tincture is the best of the three because of its convenience and speed of absorption. A tincture is an alcoholic extraction of an herb (look for "herbal extract" on the label). It actually starts to absorb in your mouth, unlike capsules which must be broken down by your stomach. If you're taking this for pain, my guess is that you don't want to wait
Meadowsweet, which grows in the wild in Britain.
around for that. Between the two plants, I prefer meadowsweet because of its taste, and its added effect of being an anti-inflammatory to the GI tract.

Like aspirin, these plants are used for pain where inflammation is the cause. Period cramps, headaches and pain from injuries are also excellent indications. It can also be used for Rheumatoid arthritis. However, as with any chronic condition, I highly recommend making a treatment plan with a larger scope. With the right actions, I believe there is hope for chronic conditions beyond easing the symptoms. Chronic headaches included in this.

I like to take a homemade tincture of meadowsweet for my menstrual cramps. When I first started to try this as an alternative to Ibuprofen or Aleve, it didn't seem effective compared to the silver bullet power of pharmaceuticals. After some experimentation, I realized that I wasn't taking doses frequently enough. I would take it, feel good for a while, and then it would wear off. 

Many people are unwilling to try herbal medicine because of their undying faith in modern medicine, and other perspectives highly conditioned by culture and history. Others try herbs, and are disappointed that they don't get results. I attribute this to a few different things, one being an issue of dosage and frequency. If you've ever taken Ibuprofen, you'll know that the effects wear off in 2-4 hours, which is highly noticeable if you're in extreme pain. If you take one dose and expect it to last you forever, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

The obvious solution to this is to take it every hour or two hours in a smaller dose. Herb Pharm's bottle of Meadowsweet states 5 droppersful a day as the upper range, so you could take half a dropperful, once an hour, for 10 hours (1 dropperful= the amount of liquid that is naturally pulled into the glass dropper when you depress the bulb). I always start with one dropperful, to get the ball rolling.

Many herbs don't combine well with certain drugs. The reason for this is that they actually have physiological effects which can counteract or potentiate the actions of the drugs. There are also certain health conditions in which you should avoid certain herbs (pregnancy being the most common). Many herbs are safe for general use, but there are some herbs one should be mindful of, like herbs containing salicylic acid. Willow SHOULD NOT be taken with Anticoagulants/ Antiplatelet drugs. Here's a direct quote from Web MD: 
"Willow bark might slow blood clotting. Taking willow bark along with medications that also slow clotting might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding. 
Some medications that slow blood clotting include aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), diclofenac (Voltaren, Cataflam, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), naproxen (Anaprox, Naprosyn, others), dalteparin (Fragmin), enoxaparin (Lovenox), heparin, warfarin (Coumadin), and others. (direct from Web MD)"
There are also some other cautions. Read about it yourself on web MD here. These cautions apply to meadowsweet as well.

Mountain Rose Herbs also lists some interesting precautions for willow that are worthy of sharing:
"Native American herbal medicine used willow bark to diminish sexual desire. Long-term, daily use of willow bark will reduce sexual desire, although it will not alter sexual performance in either men or women. Do not use willow bark if you are allergic to aspirin, and do not give willow bark to a child under sixteen years of age who has symptoms of any kind of viral infection, especially flu or chickenpox."
The sexual desire aspect is not the same with meadowsweet, but the concern of Reye's syndrome is the same.

Making your own tincture:

You can make your own tincture of willow or meadowsweet using the tincture making instructions on my blog. You can purchase both herbs in dried form here. Note that Richo Cech recommends using a solution of 50% alcohol, 40% water and 10% glycerine for tincturing dried Meadowsweet. For willow bark use 40-50% alcohol.

I make many of my own tinctures, and sometimes they flop. Either the plant wasn't potent, the concentration was too weak, or something else happened, but they just aren't effective. Because of this, having tried an effective product is important. For this reason, before you jump into making a medicine yourself, I recommend buying products from a seller that you can really count on, such as Herb Pharm. That way, you can get a standard for which to measure your own medicines. Once you know what to shoot for, making your own tinctures is way more cost effective than paying $10 an ounce, and actually quite easy.

Feel free to ask questions and share experiences in the comments.