A few weeks ago I reviewed data explaining why most doctors now recommend that heart attack-susceptible men and women, aged 50 to 69, take a baby aspirin daily or every other day to help prevent heart attacks and colon cancer, prompting more than 50 million Americans to take aspirin regularly.
However, people who take low-dose aspirin regularly are at 58 percent increased risk for gastrointestinal bleeding and 27 percent increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke, and these risks increase with aging (Ann Intern Med, June 21, 2016;164(12):826-35). If you take aspirin regularly and you bump your head, you are at significantly increased risk for bleeding into your brain, which can cause brain damage or even death. Other possible side effects of taking aspirin every day include increased risk for kidney and liver damage, stomach ulcers or ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
Salicylates in Plants
Today’s aspirin is a manufactured copy of the salicylic acid from willow bark plus acytl chloride (acetylsalicylic acid). The bark of willow trees has been used medicinally for more than 5,000 years. Doctors have known for more than 200 years that salicylates in plants can prevent clotting (Texas Heart Institute, 2007;34(2):179-186).
In 1950, Lawrence Craven, a general practitioner from Glendale, California, published the first of many papers showing that salicylates, by preventing clotting, can help prevent heart attacks (An West Med Surg, 1950;4:95-99). Last month another article was published showing that salicyclates in spices may help to prevent and treat breast cancer by inhibiting breast cancer cells from growing (Breast Cancer Targets and Therapy, December 13, 2016;2016(8):243—252)
Salicylates are found in many plants and when consumed in fruits and vegetables, they do not appear to cause the side effects of aspirin pills. Plants that contain salicylates also contain many antioxidants and other protective chemicals.
Salicylates in plants have been shown to help prevent the clotting that can cause heart attacks, but moderate doses of plant salicylates have not been shown to increase bleeding in your body (The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, July 5, 2004;9(1):161-168). Vegetarians who do not take aspirin often have almost the same blood levels of salicylates as people who take a baby aspirin per day (Agric Food Chem, 2008;56:11648-52).
Foods That Are Known Sources of Salicylates
Here is a list of tested foods that have been shown to be good sources of salicylates (Food Funct, 2011;2:515):
- Fruits (fresh or dried): apricots, oranges, blackberries, pineapple, plums, blueberries, prunes, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, cranberries, tangerines, apples, cherries, currants, dates, figs, grapefruit, kiwi, peaches
- Vegetables: tomatoes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, radishes, spinach, eggplant, zucchini
- Beverages: tea, coffee, fruit juices, cider, wine
- Spices and herbs (fresh or dried): cayenne, paprika, thyme, turmeric, ginger, dandelion, gingko, licorice, chili peppers, mints, black pepper, curry powder and other spice mixes. One teaspoon of turmeric contains the amount of salicylates in one baby aspirin (J Agric Food Chem, 2006;54:2891-2896).
The wide variety of plants in this list indicates that many others that have not been tested will also contain salicylates.
Precautions Against Taking Large Doses of Spices
People who take medications should check with their doctors about possible drug interactions if they decide to experiment with large doses of spices. For example:
- Blood-thinning medications – turmeric can increase risk for bleeding in people taking blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix) and aspirin (Am J Health Syst Pharm, 2000;57:1221-1227)
- Diabetes medications – turmeric may increase risk for low blood sugar
- Drugs that reduce stomach acid – turmeric may increase risk for stomach bleeding in people who take drugs such as Tagamet, Pepcid, Zantac, Nexium, Prilosec or Prevacid
Some authors believe that spices can cause bleeding, so I performed an extensive search of the medical literature and found no large controlled human studies of spices in plants causing bleeding, although I did find reports of single cases of bleeding with large doses of spices.
Many plants are good sources of salicylates that can help to prevent clots and do not appear to have the side effects of aspirin pills.
- The scientific literature presents overwhelming evidence that people who eat a high-plant diet are at reduced risk for heart attacks, certain cancers, diabetes and premature death. I believe that everyone should eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans and other edible seeds. Their salicylate content is just one more reason to eat lots of plants.
- I recommend consuming plants as foods, not as medicines. I do not recommend taking large doses of single plants (such as tumeric, cinnamon or other spices) based on medicinal claims. Instead, use a wide variety of spices and seasonings to complement bland-flavored plant foods such as beans, whole grains and nuts.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.