To Your Health

Why is aspirin good for so many different things? Is there anything like aspirin among the nutrients?

Q. Why is aspirin good for so many different things? I recently heard that it even improves the chances of babies to be born healthy. Is there anything like aspirin among the nutrients?

A. Aspirin has two effects: It "thins" the blood, reducing the risk of blood clots, and it has anti-inflammatory action. It also has some rather serious side effects, so it is prudent to consult your personal physician before you take aspirin regularly.

It is the anti-inflammatory function of aspirin that seems to be responsible for most of the benefits you hear about. Chronic inflammation may well be the root cause of a large number of modern ills. Any medical condition ending in "-itis," such as arthritis, is an inflammatory disease, and many others, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, have inflammation as a major factor. Aspirin's anti-inflammatory activity can reduce the tissue damage that is associated with these diseases, albeit at a price.

A huge number of Americans suffer from inflammatory disorders. Author Jack Challem in his book The Inflammation Syndrome (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) estimates that 80 million people in America have some form of arthritis, and about that many more have heart disease and cancer. Add periodontal disease, asthma, inflammatory bowel syndrome, eczema, stomach ulcers, and hepatitis to the list, and it seems that almost everyone is battling an inflammatory disease.

Most people treat inflammation with aspirin or one (or more) of the over-the-counter NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc.), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.), naproxen (Aleve, etc.), prescription corticosteroids, or prescription drugs like rofecoxib (Vioxx) or diclofenac (Voltaren). At best, these remedies provide symptom relief by cooling off inflammation but do not treat the underlying cause of inflammation.

At worst, the common anti-inflammatory drugs can have serious and even lethal side effects, especially when used in combination, as so many desperate people will do when in pain. The New England Journal of Medicine in 1999 estimated that more than 16,000 people die annually from NSAID toxicity, about the same number that die from AIDS. Stomach ulcers, liver, and kidney damage are major side effects from taking NSAIDs, while nausea, vomiting, bloating, and gas, as well as hearing loss and sun sensitivity, are among the merely annoying side effects.

The really good news is that there are a host of nutrients with anti-inflammatory capability and virtually no side effects. Some are familiar faces like vitamin C and vitamin E. Several minerals such as zinc and selenium have anti-inflammatory properties. B-vitamins such as vitamin B-6 and pantothenic acid are anti-inflammatory. Athletes for years have used enzymes such as bromelain for treatment of minor inflammation. Certain essential fatty acids, especially those in fish oil, are made into anti-inflammatory hormones. Natural products such as chondroitin and glucosamine, found in cartilage, have anti-inflammatory and healing properties. Quercetin is one of the most popular "polyphenol" or flavonoid anti-inflammatory nutrients. Unlike the NSAIDs, using a combination of nutrients seems to enhance their effectiveness rather than cause problems.

While aspirin is one of the safest medicines ever discovered, if you can find the right nutrient, or a combination of nutrients, to reduce your inflammation, this will be safer still.

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