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What Is Salicin?

Salicin is used as a precursor for the synthesis of aspirin.
Salicin is a natural fever reducer, and was used for centuries before the production of aspirin.
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  • Written By: Christian Petersen
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 04 September 2014
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Salicin is a naturally occurring compound found in the bark of several species of trees, primarily North American in origin, that are from the willow, poplar, and aspen families. White willow, from whose Latin name, Salix alba, the term salicin is derived, is the most well known source of this compound, but it is found in a number of other trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants as well being synthesized commercially. It is a member of the glucoside family of chemicals and is used as an analgesic and antipyretic. Salicin is used as a precursor for the synthesis of salicylic acid and acetylsalicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin.

A colorless, crystalline solid in its pure form, salicin has the chemical formula C13H18O7. Part of its chemical structure is equivalent to the sugar glucose, meaning it is classified as a glucoside. It is soluble, but not strongly so, in water and alcolhol. Salicin has a bitter taste and is a natural analgesic and antipyretic, or fever reducer. In large quantities, it can be toxic, and overdoses may lead to liver and kidney damage. In its raw form, it may be mildly irritating to skin, respiratory organs, and eyes.

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For centuries, salicin has been used to relieve minor aches and pains, especially those caused by inflammation, to help reduce minor fevers, and as a gastric stimulant. It was long known that white willow bark extract possessed such qualities, but it was not known until the 19th century that salicin was the active compound that produced these effects. Today, processed white willow bark extract is normalized for a consistent content, usually 8% by weight. Willow bark extracts are available in stores that sell herbal remedies and is not usually found in more mainstream shops like supermarkets and pharmacies. It is preferred, however, by some people over aspirin.

Salicin was used to first produce the drug aspirin, with which it shares many similarities. Both substances, when metabolized in the human body, are partly reduced to salicylic acid. Salicylic acid was studied and found to be an inferior alternative to salicin. Aspirin was developed in an effort to create a similar but more effective compound. Salicin acts in a very similar way to aspirin but does not possess the unwanted side effects that are sometimes associated with aspirin, including gastric upset and a poorly understood but well documented connection with Reye's syndrome, a dangerous and potentially fatal disease that usually occurs in children.

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matthewc23
Post 6

@Emilski - Well, I was thinking about trying this some time, but maybe I'll pass after hearing your story.

The article says that the salicylic acid in willow bark isn't supposed to upset your stomach, but I have seen evidence to the contrary. We have a black willow tree in our yard, and we usually chain the dog out near it for shade. She always like fetching sticks and things, so one day we were playing fetch with a branch off the tree. Later that night, she got sick. She was fine after that, but these two stories make me think that maybe there is something different about white willow compared to the other types of tree mentioned.

Has anyone here ever tried the home remedy or else had the salicin or salicylic acid extract from an herbal shop? I'm curious to see what every else's results have been.

Emilski
Post 5

@kentuckycat - Willows are pretty easy to spot if you know what to look for. They grow almost exclusively next to rivers and streams, and they always have long, thin, toothed leaves just like the weeping willow does.

I would warn you, though, I had actually heard this many years ago and decided to try it one time. I had a slight headache, so I thought instead of taking some type of pain killer, I would just break off a willow twig and chew on that to test it out. Instead of it getting rid of my headache, I ended up with a headache that was much, much worse than when it started.

I used the weeping willow in my back yard, and chewed on a couple inches of a twig for a few minutes. The article just mentions the willow bark having salicylic acid in it, so maybe I wasn't supposed to chew on the twig. Either way, I think I'll stick to the normal medicines from now on.

kentuckycat
Post 4

@jcraig - I was curious about the same thing when I was reading the article, so I looked it up. White willow is actually a tree that is native to Europe and Asia. In North America, we have something called the black willow as well as several poplars and aspens. Like you said, though, I don't know how they would compare.

With that in mind, though, I would guess that people figured out about the various uses for willow bark long before any of the colonists in North America picked it up from Native Americans.

I actually had heard about using willow branches and twigs to get rid of headaches. My grandfather always used to say something when I was growing up about chewing on a willow branch for headaches when we was younger. He claimed it worked, but besides a weeping willow, I wouldn't even know how to pick one out.

jcraig
Post 3

Wow, I have never heard of this before. I had no idea that aspirin could be made using the bark of willow trees. Where is the white willow found in the world? I know around where I live, we have some poplars, and there are weeping willows planted all over the place. Could you use the bark of those?

I wonder who first figured out that you could use the bark to get rid of swelling. I would be willing to guess that the Native Americans discovered it at some point and other people started to pick up on it eventually. I would still be interested to know the time period when people started to use it as a wide spread remedy.

I know that aspirin can cause peoples' blood to thin. Is that caused by the salicin, or is there some other chemical that is added during the aspirin-making process that causes blood to thin?

DentalFloss
Post 2

I've been told before that willow bark extract can help with cramping and other menstruation symptoms. It must be the salicin. I also use salicylic acid in cosmetics, and had no idea that it was related to plants; I thought it was just some other variation of saline or some other salt-related chemical.

BambooForest
Post 1

Salicylic acid is so important in a lot of cosmetics these days. I have used face washes, creams, and even foundations with it, since it helps clean the skin. I had no idea that it came from trees, though- weird how even some chemicals which sound totally unrelated to nature can be plant-based.

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