What Is It?
The bark of the stately white willow tree (Salix alba) has been used in China for centuries as a medicine because of its ability to relieve pain and lower fever. Early settlers to America found Native Americans gathering bark from indigenous willow trees for similar purposes.
The active ingredient in white willow is salicin, which the body converts into salicylic acid. The first aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) was made from a different salicin-containing herb–meadowsweet–but works in essentially the same way. All aspirin is now chemically synthesized. It’s not surprising, then, that white willow bark is often called “herbal aspirin.”
Although white willow is the species of willow tree most commonly used for medicinal purposes, other salicin-rich species are employed as well, including crack willow (Salix fragilis), purple willow (Salix purpurea), and violet willow (Salix daphnoides). These all may be sold under the label of willow bark.
The salicylic acid in white willow bark lowers the body’s levels of prostaglandins, hormonelike compounds that can cause aches, pain, and inflammation. While white willow bark takes longer to begin acting than aspirin, its effect may last longer. And, unlike aspirin, it doesn’t cause stomach bleeding or other known adverse effects.
Specifically, white willow bark may help to:
Relieve acute and chronic pain, including headache, back and neck pain, muscle aches, and menstrual cramps. The effectiveness of white willow bark for easing these and other types of discomforts results from its power to lower prostaglandin levels.
Control arthritis discomforts. Some arthritis sufferers taking white willow bark have experienced reduced swelling and inflammation, and eventually increased mobility, in the back, knees, hips, and other joints.
Note: White willow bark has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for White Willow Bark.
Special tip: Choose supplements that are standardized to contain 40 mg salicin, the active ingredient in white willow bark.
For the majority of ailments: Take one or two pills three times a day, as needed, totaling a daily dose of 60 to 120 mg of salicin. Follow package directions.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for White Willow Bark, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
Capsules, tablets, and other supplement forms that contain a standardized amount of the active ingredient, salicin, are more reliable than teas made from white willow bark because the unrefined bark contains only small amounts of salicin. So while a warm white willow bark tea may be psychologically soothing, you’d have to drink several quarts to get a truly therapeutic dose.
Pills are a good choice because they mask the bitter taste of the bark.
White willow bark should not be taken with aspirin or NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen; in combination, the herb and these drugs increase the chance of side effects such as stomach bleeding.
Note: For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
Possible Side Effects
White willow bark can safely be taken long-term at recommended doses.
Higher than commonly recommended doses of this herb can cause stomach upset, nausea, or tinnitus (ringing in the ears). If any of these reactions develop, stop taking the herb.
Avoid white willow bark, which can irritate the stomach, if you are sensitive to aspirin, or if you have an ulcer or other gastrointestinal disorder.
Don’t take white willow bark (or aspirin) if you have tinnitus.
Consult your doctor before taking this herb if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
As with aspirin products, never give white willow bark to children or teenagers under age 16 with symptoms of the cold, the flu, or chicken pox. Although white willow bark is unlikely to cause the rare but potentially fatal condition called Reye’s syndrome in such cases–it is metabolized differently than aspirin–the similarity to aspirin is close enough to warrant caution.
Arthritis Pills containing 37.5 mg salicin (white willow bark’s active ingredient) 3 times a day or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract 3 times a day
Back Pain 40 mg salicin (white willow bark’s active ingredient) 3 times a day or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract 3 times a day
Chronic Pain 40-80 mg salicin (white willow bark’s active ingredient) 3 times a day or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract 3 times a day
Muscle Aches and Pains 40 mg salicin (white willow bark’s active ingredient) 3 times a day or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract 3 or 4 times a day
David Edelberg, M.D.
It’s salicin, the active ingredient in the bark of the white willow tree (Salix alba), that provides the key pain-relieving ingredient here. In the body, this herb is slowly converted into salicylic acid, which leads it to behave like aspirin, its chemical cousin. However, because of the conversion process, the pain-reliving effect of white willow bark is slower to appear than that in with aspirin. On the other hand, its medicinal effects last longer.
HOW IT HELPS BACK PAIN
White willow bark is an effective natural pain reliever, making it very useful for both acute and chronic bouts of back pain. One great advantage is that this herb doesn’t have the digestive side effects of a traditional NSAID (aspirin or ibuprofen), which is usually the front-line pain medication for common back problems. Another benefit of white willow is that it is an anti-inflammatory, which helps return mobility and flexibility to the muscles in your back.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
White willow bark is readily available in various forms at most health-food stores. Be sure to check the label for its standardization, which relates to its active ingredient, salicin.
The following forms are all effective. Tea can be a good option for some people. The most convenient (and medicinally effective) way to make it is with tea bags that contain 1 to 3 mg of pulverized white willow bark. Drink a cup of white willow tea three times a day. Tablets, capsules, or powders are by far the most convenient forms. Liquid extracts and tinctures are also available; make sure they contain 40 to 50 mg of salicin per milliliter (ml).
Look for a product containing 40 mg of salicin; the label might also read “White willow 500 mg containing 8% salicin.” (You do the math). Be aware, however, that the actual percentage of salicin will often vary in different white willow products. Just try to get a dose of about 40 mg of salicin three or four times a day, or 120 to 160 mg salicin daily.
White willow is a lot safer than aspirin, but there are still several cautions. Don’t take white willow if you know you have an aspirin allergy. And (like aspirin), don’t give white willow to kids because of the theoretical possibility of Reye’s Syndrome. Be careful about gastrointestinal upset from long-term use. Don’t use white willow with NSAIDs or other aspirin products because your chances of developing side effects increase.