The Short Version
White willow bark, the bark of several varieties of willow tree, has been used for centuries as a pain reliever. It’s active ingredient is called salicin. Some people use willow bark as an alternative to aspirin, particularly those that experience chronic headaches or back pain. When taken in moderation, willow bark does not appear to have negative side effects.
While most varieties of willow bark have some medicinal value, white willow trees are the most common source for herbal supplements. The bark of white willow contains salicin, which is a chemical like aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). In combination with the herb’s powerful anti-inflammatory plant compounds (called flavonoids), salicin is thought to be responsible for the pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects of the herb.
In fact, in the 1800s, salicin was used to develop aspirin. Aspirin only ‘won’ out as the most famous NSAID because it provided rapid relief, while salicin took about 20 minutes longer to kick in. This slower uptake ends up allowing salicin to provide relief for longer because the body doesn’t metabolize it as quickly.
Salicin, when converted to salicylic acid, inhibits the activity of cyclo-oxygenase 1 (COX-1) and cyclo-oxygenase 2 (COX-2). These are the same enzymes targeted by NSAIDs to alleviate pain and inflammation.
While salicin is willow bark’s most active ingredient, the accompanying flavonoids and plant particles might be part of what makes willow bark effective. For this reason, some people prefer to chew on the unprocessed bark of the willow tree. As you might expect, it is difficult to determine how much salicin you are getting from each piece of bark, so this method of consumption should be approached with caution. And even if you are fine with not knowing how much salicin per dose, chewing on tree bark is fairly high on the list of activities your dentist will not approve of.
The Good Stuff
The current body of evidence suggests that willow bark may be most effective in treating acute low back pain, with results reported as quickly as the first week. Willow bark can also be used to relieve menstrual cramps and bring down a fever.
Because of the anti-inflammatory properties of willow bark, it may be especially effective in combating joint pain as well. In the largest study to date, willow bark alone was roughly half as effective at reducing joint pain as the strongest anti-inflammatory drug on the market, but without any of the side effects.
The Bad Stuff
When taken in moderation, willow bark does not appear to have negative side effects. Oral doses of up to 400 mg per day are considered safe and effective. Too much willow bark (more than about 2 grams a day), however, can cause stomach cramping and bleeding. An allergic response to willow bark is also possible, especially in those with a known allergy to aspirin.
Fully Human’s Way
Here at Fully Human we use white willow bark, extracted at 25% salicin, in our anti-inflammation supplements. This potency level is roughly double that of most salicin sources. Thereby making it significantly easier to process when compared to chewing on willow bark. This high potency translates to faster absorption into the bloodstream giving you rapid relief. Find out more about the rest of our inflammation fighting blend here.