White Willow


The “Herbal Aspirin”

  • In 200 B.C., Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed the bark and leaves of the white willow tree to relieve headache.
  • Headache is the seventh leading reason for outpatient physician visits in the United States.
  • White willow has been used in China as a treatment for pain and fever since 500 B.C.

Sources: American Headache Society;; Canada MedExpress

If you had lived prior to the end of the 19th century, you couldn’t have reached for aspirin whenever you had an ache or pain. Before the commercial production of aspirin in the late 1890s, the pain reliever of choice was the bark of the white willow tree.

The pain-relieving properties of the white willow tree (Salix alba) have been recognized for centuries. White willow bark is noted in ancient Egyptian and Greek manuscripts, and it’s said that Hippocrates (the “Father of Modern Medicine”) and Greek pharmacologist, Dioscorides, used white willow bark to treat pain and fever. The white willow tree was introduced into North America by European settlers, who brought it with them to the New World. When they arrived they found the Native Americans were already gathering bark from indigenous willow trees to use as a pain reliever.

White willow bark has been used to combat a variety of conditions, including rheumatism, neuralgia, backache, arthritis, gout, toothache and angina, as well as for reduction of fever. In the mid-1700s, white willow bark was even tried as a treatment for malaria. (When given to patients, pain and fever were reduced, although white willow did not control the malaria.)

The active component in white willow bark is salicin, which the body converts into salicylic acid. The synthesized form of salicylic acid is acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin. Natural salicylic acid is not quite as potent as the synthetic version, but the salicin in white willow generally does not cause the gastric and intestinal problems that aspirin can. Although white willow bark lowers the body’s levels of prostaglandins (compounds that can cause aches, pain and inflammation) to effectively relieve pain, it does not affect the stomach or intestines.

And even though white willow may take longer than aspirin to begin acting, its effect usually lasts longer. Additionally, white willow may act as an anticoagulant, thinning the blood and enhancing circulation. It’s also a popular ingredient in natural weight loss products because it’s thought to extend or increase the activity of the thermogenic (“fat-burning”) ingredients in dietary supplements, and it helps promote fat metabolism.

For most people, white willow provides gentle yet long-lasting relief of body aches, inflammation and fever, as well as aiding weight management.

It’s an effective natural remedy. Just remember the following points:

  • Like aspirin, white willow bark should not be given to children and teenagers who have a cold, the flu, chickenpox or other viral illnesses. Use of any form of salicylates increases risk of Reye’s syndrome, a potentially fatal condition.
  • Don’t use white willow in addition to other salicylates (such as aspirin or wintergreen oil). Mixing salicylates increases the potential for side effects.
  • Because of its blood-thinning properties, don’t take white willow if you’re allergic to aspirin, or if you have bleeding disorders, ulcers, kidney disease, liver disease or diabetes.
Gordin Medical Center

Chicagoland Area Chiropractic and Holistic Medicine