The medicinal properties of White Willow Bark have been known and appreciated for centuries, if not thousands of years, in China and yet it wasn’t until the 18th century that this Chinese herbal medicine started to be used as a treatment for both headaches and fevers in Europe. The reason that White Willow bark is so effective as a headache cure and for calming fevers is simply that it contains a natural forerunner of the chemical medicine we call – aspirin.
New to Europe – not to America!
The White Willow is more correctly called Salix Alba and was found to be indigenous to many European countries as well as China. However, unlike the Chinese its curative powers went untapped in the west until the 1700s. Of course this period in history saw the beginnings of large scale settlement in America and no doubt the settler’s century thought they were being very shrewd in taking supplies of White Willow Bark with them from Europe. So we can only imagine their surprise when they found that the Native American Indians were already using a species of Willow growing there – for exactly the same purpose. Indeed the Native Americans believed you had to chew the bark “until your ears rang”, at which point you’d consumed enough to relieve the headache or fever symptoms. Modern science has now shown that ‘ringing in the ears’ is a sign that you’ve had too much Willow bark!
Salicin in White Willow bark.
The ingredient in White Willow bark giving it its curative powers is salicin, which was first isolated by scientists back in 1828. Ten years later a derivative of it, salicylic acid was produced and used as a synthetic alternative to the natural tree bark. However, our modern day aspirin actually owes its roots, if you’ll forgive the pun, to the herb meadowsweet. Meadowsweet yielded acetyl-salicylic acid to the scientists which; by the end of the 19th century was being commercially produced as aspirin. Although aspirin is not used in the quantities it once was, it is still one of the most common and popular cures prescribed to relieve headaches and soothe fevers. However, for those preferring a more natural solution to such ailments using White Willow bark preparations is a perfectly viable alternative. Although the bark of the White Willow contains the highest concentrations of salicin it can also be found in the seeds, leaves and even the trunk. Ideally the bark should be harvested in the early spring from young trees between 2 and 5 years old. Whilst White Willow is the most popular and sought after there are alternative species of Willow that are also rich in salicin: Crack Willow, Purple Willow and Violet Willow.
What White willow bark does.
Once consumed the salicin in White Willow bark is converted to the active ingredient salicylic acid, which is what actually does the relieving of headaches and calming of fevers. In this natural herbal form salicin is known to work more slowly than the chemically formed aspirin, but once it does get to work its beneficial effects will last longer and is likely to cause fewer adverse reactions. One of the main reasons that aspirin fell out of favor in the late 20th century was that it was identified as causing internal stomach bleeding when taking over prolonged periods. As well as relieving headaches and fevers White Willow bark is also acknowledged as a herbal cure for chronic back and neck pain, as well as increasing mobility and alleviating the symptoms of arthritis – especially in the back, knees, hips and hands. There is also some evidence that it can be used to ease menstrual cramps, by interfering with hormone like chemicals known as prostaglandins, associated with the inflammation and pain of menstruation.
How to take White Willow bark.
White Willow bark is available in three main forms, as shavings of the bark itself that can be chewed, in tablets to be swallowed or as a powder that can be used to mix as a drink. A standardized preparation of White willow bark tablets will contain 15% of salicin and the normal recommendation for the tablets is to take one or two three times a day, delivering 60 to 120mg of salicin a day. The powder can be made into a tea like drink, but the power of the salicin will be reduced as some of the salicin will be destroyed by the boiling water. Using the bark itself is no longer recommended. The bark is, of course, an untreated source and you could never be sure of the exact doses you were taking. In its natural state White Willow bark can contain as little as 1% salicin, meaning you’d have to chew vast quantities of it to feel any gain from it.
Using White Willow bark.
Safe to use in the long term, white Willow bark has a bitter and astringent taste and so is probably best taken in the tablet form. You should not take a combination of White Willow bark and aspirin as, logically, you will be administering twice the recommended dosages. There are a couple of things to be careful with when using White Willow bark. Firstly, as it contains the compound that aspirin is based on, if you’ve ever had an allergy to aspirin itself then avoid white Willow bark. Secondly, using white willow bark is not recommended as a treatment for children and teenagers especially for fevers. The reason for this is that it is known that aspirin, given to young people with fevers, has been known to promote the onset of Reye ‘s syndrome, a very serious condition that can damage the brain and liver. Whilst the active ingredient in White Willow bark, salicin, is chemically different to that in aspirin; it is deemed to be a wise precaution to avoid using it as described above. Finally, and as always, pregnant women and nursing mothers should consult with their doctor before using White Willow bark.