What is White Willow?

Bronwyn Harris

Before aspirin, there was white willow, or Salix alba. The white willow tree's bark contains salicylates — the same ones found in aspirin, but in a less concentrated form. Also known as Salicin willow and weeping willow, white willow bark has been used to relieve pain and inflammation for thousands of years. White willow bark is still used by herbalists to treat fevers, headaches, arthritis, pain, inflammation, and heart disease.

Herbalists sometimes use white willow to treat fever.
Herbalists sometimes use white willow to treat fever.

The bark of the white willow tree contains the compound salicin. Salicin is an analgesic that is the basis for both salicylic acid and acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin. Aspirin tends to work faster than white willow bark, but people who have stomach trouble when taking aspirin may prefer the herbal remedy, since it does not tend to cause stomachaches. Additionally, those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis often do better when taking white willow bark than aspirin.

White willow has many of the same medicinal properties as aspirin.
White willow has many of the same medicinal properties as aspirin.

Aspirin has been known for some time to prevent heart attacks, in addition to reducing pain and inflammation. Although it has not been proven in clinical trials, white willow is thought by many to have the same effect, preventing heart attacks by thinning the blood and preventing the blood clots which cause not only heart attacks but also strokes. In addition, the willow bark does not increase the risk of ulcers or stomach bleeding. Other possible benefits of white willow include reducing the risk of colon and stomach cancer, reducing blood sugar, and reducing uterine cramping.

White willow bark can be found in health food stores and from herbalists. It is available in capsule form or bulk powder, as well as tinctures and extracts. White willow tea can be made by adding one teaspoon of powder to a cup of hot water. This tea can be drunk up to three times a day, and is rather bitter, but sugar or honey can be added.

Just like aspirin, white willow bark should not be given to children, as it may cause Reye's syndrome which could potentially be fatal. White willow should not be taken by anyone using blood thinners. Anyone with gastrointestinal problems or ulcers should always consult their doctor before taking this herb.

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