Aspirin – Miracle Drug? or False Hope?Dr. Zoltan P. Rona, MD, M.Sc. May 1, 2011
The Best Natural Alternatives
Ed. Note: This article was originally published in the November 2002 issue of Vitality, and has been updated for re-release this month.)
Thanks to media hype, over 50 million people in North America are regular aspirin users and this figure is rising rapidly. Aside from its widely recognized use as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory agent, aspirin has become increasingly popular with the medical profession for a growing list of other maladies. The American Heart Association recommends aspirin for the prevention and treatment of heart disease and stroke, while the American College of Chest Physicians recommends it for any of the risk factors for coronary artery disease including obesity, diabetes, elevated LDL-cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, and a family history of heart disease. Some scientists would even argue for using aspirin as a weight loss remedy used in conjunction with caffeine and ephedra to “burn fat.” False hope for either the prevention or treatment of cancer, arthritis, tension headaches, and seemingly every human discomfort is offered by proponents of daily aspirin use.
The current aspirin fad is fueled by the conclusions of some spectacular studies. For example, peripheral vascular disease (blockages of arteries in the arms or legs) has been shown to respond to aspirin therapy in one study, with an 85% reduction in the need for surgery. Studies also show that aspirin prevents new heart attacks in heart attack survivors, while angina sufferers have fewer heart attacks and increased survival. Aspirin use has been shown to dramatically decrease the need for coronary bypass surgery, as well as angioplasty. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine even published an American Cancer Society sponsored study, which concluded that those who took aspirin 16 or more times each month were 40% less likely to die from colon cancer than those who took no aspirin at all. Listen to enough doctors and you will soon walk away believing that the great majority of the human race suffers from an aspirin deficiency.
Is there a downside to this success story? The answer lies in the many well-documented – but poorly reported – side effects of the drug, both short and long term.
ASPIRIN SIDE EFFECTS
- Bleeding gastrointestinal irritation (heartburn, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease)
- Increased gastric permeability and altered immunity
- Gastrointestinal hemorrhage (ulcers): A Searle news release noted that GI complications caused by NSAIDs remain one of the most prevalent drug toxicities in the nation – leading to approximately 76,000 hospitalizations and 7,600 deaths annually – a mortality rate comparable to that of asthma, cervical cancer, or melanoma (skin cancer).
- Hemorrhagic stroke: heavy doses of 325-milligram adult aspirin (for example, 15 or more tablets a week), can double the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Older women with high blood pressure, taking large doses of aspirin, can triple their risk of hemorrhagic stroke. In elderly patients with atrial fibrillation, the benefit of prophylactic aspirin to prevent strokes is unproven.
- Aspirin can prolong pregnancy and childbirth and lead to bleeding in both baby and mother.
- Susceptible regular aspirin or acetaminophen users are two to three times more likely to experience the beginning stages of chronic kidney failure, compared with individuals who did not use these painkillers on a regular basis. About 15% of the people on dialysis today are there as a result of the damage that Tylenol and/or aspirin did to their kidneys.
- Both aspirin and acetaminophen may also be associated with diverticular disease of the colon.
- People who are taking aspirin in combination with the blood-pressure-lowering ACE inhibitor drugs after angioplasty may be at risk for a dangerous drug interaction and a three-fold increase in risk of death.
- Prolonged aspirin use may raise the risk for cataracts; the long-term (more than 10 years) use of aspirin is associated with a 44% higher increase of posterior subcapsular cataracts, compared with nonusers or short-term users of the drug. Posterior subcapsular cataracts are the most common and most disabling form of cataract. This aspirin-related risk is larger among younger (under 65 years of age) individuals compared with older subjects. (Ophthalmology 1998; 105:1751-1758).
- Chronic rhinitis and nasal polyps: aspirin sensitivity sinusitis may cause long-term facial pain, headaches, and a loss of smell.
- Hives (urticaria), and Hyperactivity
- Reye’s Syndrome in children; aspirin is the leading cause of poisoning in young children.
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus), and Hearing loss
- Vertigo, Mental confusion, and Drowsiness
- Excessive sweating and thirst
- Inhibition of cartilage repair and accelerated cartilage destruction
HOW DOES ASPIRIN WORK?
Aspirin prevents blood clotting factors called platelets from sticking to each other. It does so by blocking a platelet enzyme called cyclooxygenase. Aspirin, by inhibiting cyclooxygenase, can decrease the production of lipid peroxides (free radicals) and thromboxane, a powerful vasoconstrictor. This enzyme inhibition lasts for the lifetime of the platelet, which is approximately 10 days. Aspirin suppresses the activity of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body known as the PGE2 family of prostaglandins. It thus indirectly increases the activity of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins of the PGE1 family.
There are some researchers and clinicians who have been able to demonstrate a direct link between the presence of fungi in the body and cardiovascular disease of all kinds. This is known as the “fungal mycotoxin etiology of atherosclerosis” and has been promoted by Dr. Costantini and other researchers working for the World Health Organization. According to these doctors, aspirin is an antifungal drug which can go a long way towards offsetting the negative effects of fungi and their mycotoxins. They believe that it is this antifungal property of aspirin which prevents heart disease, stroke and cancer — diseases all suspected to have a fungal mycotoxin etiology. Dandruff, a scalp condition caused by fungi, often responds well to shampoos containing aspirin or salicylate derivatives.
NATURAL ASPIRIN ALTERNATIVES
1) GLA (gamma linolenic acid) found in plants like borage, black currant seed, and evening primrose has been shown to increase the activity of the PGE1 family, producing an anti-inflammatory effect similar to aspirin. Flax seed (edible linseed oil) does not contain GLA, but is rich in linoleic acid, which can be converted to GLA in the body to produce these same anti-inflammatory effects. GLA has been documented to lower serum cholesterol, reverse some cases of obesity, clear eczema, lower blood pressure, control allergies, improve autoimmune disease, and prevent arthritis.
2) Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) in high doses retards blood clotting. Caution should be exercised if one is using both aspirin and vitamin E (or blood thinners like coumadin with vitamin E) because the combinations have a synergistic effect. Studies indicate that supplementation of as little as 200 IU daily in men can reduce the risk of a heart attack by 46%; in women the risk reduction is 26%. Whether natural source or synthetic source, all forms supply the body with at least some vitamin E activity. The natural forms of vitamin E are d-alpha-tocopherol, d-alpha-tocopheryl acetate, d-alpha-tocopheryl succinate, and mixed tocopherols. The synthetic forms are dl-alpha-tocopherol, dl-alpha-tocopheryl acetate, or dl-alpha-tocopheryl succinate.
Studies indicate that the most biologically active are the esterified natural forms – d-alpha-tocopheryl acetate and d-alpha-tocopheryl succinate. Both have been found to provide full antioxidant activity in the body and are the ones recommended by the top authorities on vitamin E at the Shute Institute and Medical Clinic in London, Ontario.
Recent studies indicate that excessively high levels of stored iron in the body (ferritin) are associated with a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes. High dose vitamin E supplements can interfere with iron absorption. If you have been prescribed iron to correct iron deficiency, take your iron supplement about 12 hours apart from vitamin E. Iron absorption is enhanced by sufficient acid in the stomach. Iron destroys vitamin E in the body.
3) Garlic is probably the best known herb that lowers cholesterol (by up to 10%) and triglycerides (by up to 13%) while raising “good” HDL-cholesterol (by up to 31%). Garlic prevents thrombus formation and lowers blood pressure. It prevents platelet stickiness and has natural anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic properties. Onions also have these effects, but are not as profound as garlic.
4) Magnesium has anticoagulant properties which, when combined with vitamin E, produce significant blood clotting reduction. In practice, it is always wise to balance magnesium intake with both calcium and potassium.
5) Omega-3-EPA oils reduce platelet stickiness. Good dietary sources include flax seed oil, rice bran oil, trout, mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, cod, halibut, and shark.
6) Policosanol, an extract made from the wax of sugar cane, can lower LDL cholesterol while increasing good HDL cholesterol. Policosanol reduces inflammation and inhibits abnormal platelet aggregation which promotes arterial blood clotting.
7) Gingko biloba extract from the oldest surviving tree species on earth (dating back over 300 million years) contains flavonoids and terpenoids, which inhibit or prevent blood clot formation. Ginkgo also has potent antioxidant properties and may benefit numerous circulatory problems, including those associated with impotence.
8) Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme (helps digest protein) which is not only anti-inflammatory in its effects, but prevents excessive coagulation of the blood by clearing undigested fibrin and other harmful proteins in the bloodstream.
Caveat: If one continues to eat a lot of sugar, refined foods, saturated fat (e.g. red meat, fried foods, dairy products, etc.), does not exercise, smokes cigarettes, and drinks alcohol to excess, neither aspirin nor any of the aforementioned alternatives can be guaranteed to do much good.
ALTERNATIVE HERBAL PAIN REMEDIES
• Bromelain • Curcumin • Devil’s claw root powder
• Cloves (especially useful for toothaches)
• D,L-Phenylalanine • Feverfew • Ginger root
• Licorice root • Wood Betony • Valerian
• Proteolytic pancreatic digestive enzymes
• Echinacea (in very high dosages, well above those which control infections, echinacea is effective, especially for toothaches)
Many of these nutrients are sold in combination form at health food stores. A naturopath or medical doctor familiar with these remedies can recommend specific dosages. The world’s leading medical journals are increasingly reporting that diet and lifestyle changes by themselves can reverse hardening of the arteries and its complications.
Despite all of the rave reports about aspirin, there are too many worrisome drawbacks as well – natural aspirin alternatives are hundreds of times safer. Discuss this issue with your health care practitioner and use his or her experience and expertise to guide you with an individualized health program.
• Archives of Family Medicine 1998;7:255-260, 262-263 Majority of Americans Unaware or Unconcerned About Hidden Dangers Caused by Common Pain Relievers (Searle news release March 19, 1998) www.searlehealthnet.com/pr/roperrel.html
• Are Common Pain Relievers Putting You at Risk for Stomach Ulcers? The American Gastroenterological Association and Searle Team Up to Launch National NSAID Risk Screening and Education Campaign (Searle news release, March 19, 1998). Visit the website at www.searlehealthnet.com/pr/partnrel.html
• Costantini, A.V., Wieland, H., and Qvick, Lars I. Fungalbionics, The Fungal/Mycotoxin Etiology of Human Disease, Vol. 1 Atherosclerosis & Vol. II Cancer. Freiberg, Germany:Johann Friedrich Oberlin Verlag, 1994. Available in Canada from Fungal/Mycotoxin Conference, 12 Sifton Place, Brampton, Ont. L6Y 2N8; 905-450-0445
• Erasmus, Udo. Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, Canada: Alive, 1993.
• Goldstrich, Joe D. The Cardiologist’s Painless Prescription for a Healthy Heart and a Longer Life. Dallas:9-HEART-9 Publishing, 1994.
• Haas, Elson M. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. The Complete Guide to Diet & Nutritional Medicine. Berkeley, California:Celestial Arts, 1992.
• Pizzorno, Joseph E. Jr. and Murray, Michael T. A Textbook of Natural Medicine, John Bastyr College Publications, Seattle, Washington, 1989.
• Pizzorno, Joseph E. jr. and Murray, Michael T. An Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Prima Publishing: Rocklin, California, 1991.
• Rona, Zoltan P. and Martin, Jeanne Marie. Return to the Joy of Health, Vancouver: Alive Books, 1995.
• Sharon, Michael. Complete Nutrition. How to Live in Total Health. London, England: PRION, 1989.
• Werbach,Melvyn R. and Murray, Michael T. Botanical Influences on Illness. Tarzana, California: Third Line Press, 1994.
Dr. Zoltan P. Rona practises Complementary Medicine in Toronto and is the medical editor of The Encyclopedia of Natural Healing. He has also published several Canadian best-selling books, including Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin. Visit his website at: http://www.highlevelwellness.ca For appointments, call (905) 764-8700; Office: 390 Steeles Ave. W. Unit 19, Thornhill, ON