Aspirin was first used in the late 1800’s, it is acetylsalicylic acid and it is made from the bark of the willow tree. It is used in many common products today and is the most commonly taken drug in the world. Aspirin works by eliminating prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are chemical messengers that are released by cells when the cells are damaged or in need of repair in some way. The release of prostaglandins is the natural and appropriate response of the body in this situation. However, it can be painful, so people reach for aspirin to suppress the prostaglandins and decrease pain. This seems logical, but as uncomfortable as it may be, we are suppressing something that the body wants done. It is almost a way to bypass a natural process of the body. Since aspirin is derived from a part of a plant, this forces me to ask if the effects of aspirin are due to a plant toxin to interfere with a natural process as many plant toxins do.
Most of the time the symptoms we see from sickness or cell damage are from the body fighting the sickness or repairing the damage, not from the thing causing the sickness or damage. For example, a bacteria that may infect you do not cause the fever, headache, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, or fatigue that you experience when you are sick, the body mounting a defense from the bacteria causes those things. The symptoms of illness are the body creating them to fight the illness. If you suppress those things, then it will just take longer to rid yourself of the sickness. One study found that in people with the flu, those who did not take aspirin to suppress fever were sick and average of 5.3 days and those who did take aspirin were sick and average of 8.8 days. (1)
So prostaglandins are similar, a way for your body to send messages that something needs repair of defense. If we destroy those messages with aspirin then the repair is slowed or may never even happen. Like we said, this interference with a normal physiologic response is very characteristic of plant toxins that may have an effect on something that appears “beneficial” in the short term, but not ideal long term.
Today, aspirin has been touted as a blood thinning, harmless drug that will prevent heart attacks if taken daily. The main study that this recommendation is based on was done by the Physicians Health Group. What the media failed to discuss was that in the study they used buffered aspirin, which contains magnesium. It is curious that studies have shown that higher blood levels of magnesium are associated with lower risk of death from heart attack. (2) So, was it the aspirin or the magnesium in the study that gave the effect? The magnesium study is epidemiology, so it cannot prove that magnesium was the cause of the decreased heart attacks. However, the assumption that aspirin prevents them was told to the public before these details were fleshed out. It I no surprise that another study linked magnesium deficiency to coronary heart disease and injections of magnesium created “dramatic clinical improvements” in heart disease patients. (3)
The case seems stronger for magnesium, and looking as some studies on how effective aspirin is at preventing heart attacks does not help the case for aspirin. One clinical trial that looked at 3350 patients with a low ankle brachial index, a finding that indicates atherosclerosis and risk of heart attack, did an intervention by putting them in aspirin and non-aspirin groups. They found that, “the administration of aspirin compared with placebo did not result in a significant reduction in vascular events”. (4) The graph below shows how the groups taking the aspirin actually had slightly more cardiac events than the ones who didn’t.
Some doctors have even stated that some of the data that shows that aspirin does decrease heart attack incidence is because some of the people having a heart attack could not detect it at the time because of the pain relieving effect the aspirin was having. (5) Only later did they find out they had been having a heart attack. So, the aspirin wasn’t preventing heart attacks it was making them harder to for people to feel.
The case for aspirin doesn’t look good for heart health, but looking at the side effects of aspirin, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), is not pretty. Many studies have shown an increased risk of upper and lower gastrointestinal bleeding with the use of NSAIDS. (6,7) This makes sense because the gut is constantly repairing itself and if we destroy the prostaglandin signals that tell the body to repair it, we start to get built up need of repair and therefore bleeding. It has been estimated that 16,500 people in the United States die every year from NSAID-induced gastrointestinal bleeding. (8)
Also, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which was a nationwide, population-based, case–control study of early-stage chronic renal failure in Sweden, made the following conclusions:
Regular use of either acetaminophen or aspirin or of both was associated in a dose-dependent manner with an increased risk of chronic kidney failure.
The regular use of acetaminophen was associated with a 2.5 times greater risk of chronic kidney failure than that for nonusers of acetaminophen. For those who took >500g of acetaminophen(Tylenol) per year, the risk was 5.3 times greater than for nonusers.
The regular use of aspirin was associated with a 2.5 times greater risk of chronic kidney failure than as that for nonusers of aspirin. For those who took 500g or more of aspirin per year (over 4 aspirin tablets every day), the risk was 3.3 times greater than for non-users. (9)
Just like so many other pieces of advice we have been given about heart disease it is completely backwards. The public has been told that taking an aspirin a day would prevent heart attacks, which we have seen is not true, and that it was harmless, which is also not true. Instead, we were told that eating a lot of animal foods would cause heart disease, which is not true, (10) and that eating lot of meat would harm our kidneys, which is also not true. (11,12) One has to wonder why the advice we have been given is so backwards, but it explains the chronic disease epidemic we are dealing with today.
If you are concerned about a heart attack then, as always consult with your doctor about what to do; however, if they recommend aspirin, maybe bring this information about aspirin to their attention. Also know that things like CoQ10 and magnesium have been shown to decrease the risk of heart attack much more effectively than aspirin. (13) And a whole foods, animal-based diet and healthy lifestyle comprised of exercise, time outdoors, and loving relationships doesn’t hurt either.
Stay healthy out there!
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