The past few months I have been experimenting with using white willow bark (salix alba) instead of NSAIDs for my menstrual cramps. I believe it is a bit controversial given that a lot of people are worried about salicylates these days, but I have had a good experience and wanted to pass along what I have learned.
Why are NSAIDs not allowed on the paleo autoimmune protocol?
NSAIDs are a well-known gut irritant and have been shown in studies to contribute to intestinal permeability. Since the autoimmune protocol seeks to remove everything that contributes to this, it is suggested that people avoid them during the elimination phase of the diet (if not forever – they are one of the items that is strongly implicated in leaky gut.)
What is white willow bark?
White Willow Bark is a tree native to Europe and Asia that has been used as a traditional remedy for relieving pain and inflammation. When it was discovered that salicin, the active component in white willow bark, was responsible for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects, a synthetic version was created. This synthetic salycilic acid was very harsh on the stomach, leading to the development of acetylsalicylic acid by Bayer, which was then mass produced as the aspirin we know today.
How does white willow bark work?
When white willow bark is ingested, the salicin is converted into saligenin by the intestinal flora, where it is then absorbed into the blood stream. The liver then metabolizes it into salicylic acid. Because of the time required for the body to metabolize the salicin into salicylic acid, the effects start longer after it its ingested and last longer than with synthetic salicylates. It is thought that white willow bark does not affect the gut lining the way NSAIDs do because it is converted into the acid form after it is absorbed from the stomach. Salicylates relieve pain and inflammation by inhibiting the formation of prostaglandins – the body’s natural pro and anti inflammatory messengers.
I thought salicylates were bad?
According to this article on The Paleo Mom, many of us with autoimmune disease and other chronic illness can be sensitive to salicylates. Synthetic derivatives can be found in a multitude of household products, beauty products, and medications. Natural salicylates are also found in many foods. I think there is a good argument for the removal of synthetic salicylates, but there may be a place for natural ones such as white willow bark for occasional pain relief.
Are their any contraindications for taking white willow bark?
People who are allergic to aspirin or salicylates should not take white willow bark. Those with tinnitus, peptic ulcers, or bleeding disorders also should not use it. Because of the risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, children with fever should not be given salicylates.
My experience using white willow bark
I have suffered incredibly painful cramps every month since I started getting my period. I have never been able to go a month without NSAIDs – when I start getting cramps, I would take some aspirin and my pain would begin to subside in 15 minutes. When I started the autoimmune protocol, I was worried because I knew I would not be able to make it without painkillers. The first month I tried doing without, and instead staying extra hydrated, taking extra omega-3 from fish oil, heating pads, baths, moxa – and none of it worked. I was in so much pain and swore I would never do that again.
I was incredibly discouraged and considered asking my doctor for a prescription for an alternate painkiller. I did not want to ruin all of my progress on the autoimmune protocol by taking NSAIDs! My sister told me about white willow bark, something she had been using successfully for her headaches. I first wrote it off as something that would not be allowed because of the salicylate content, but then I read about it being different from synthetic salicylates because of how it is absorbed in the gut and then formed into the acid in the liver. I decided to try it, and after a little trial and error with timing (it takes about 2-3 hours to take effect) I have been successful in using it to treat my menstrual pain for a few months now.
The last few months that I have been off NSAIDs have been great in terms of autoimmune symptoms. I am on a roll with the autoimmune protocol, and I continue to see nothing but benefits the more time that passes. I haven’t noticed anything negative from using white willow bark, and feel incredibly happy to be liberated from my monthly NSAID usage.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to begin using white willow bark daily for pain, but I do believe it has a place for those of us who need an alternate painkiller or anti-inflammatory.
Have you been able to give up NSAIDs while on the autoimmune protocol? I’d be curious to know of any other strategies out there!