Monday, May 24, 2010

Medical Mondays: Willow Bark has a Bite!



I'm fascinated by herb lore and its relationship with modern medicine. So I'm going to do a series of posts on herbal remedies that have valid usage in modern medicine and make cameos in literature as well.

Willow bark has abundant amounts of salicylic acid, the precursor to modern day aspirin. It's been used for thousands of years, in cultures as varying as ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Americas.



In the Medicine Cabinet

The modern day aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, which I made in chem lab in college without lighting the lab on fire, was first synthesized in 1853 and later marketed by Bayer in 1897. It was considered to be easier on the stomach, which makes me laugh, because every doctor knows that taking aspirin is a major risk factor for causing bleeding in the stomach.

Nowadays, we use it for headaches, reducing fever, pain, and it's well known to be helpful for prevention of strokes and heart attacks.



In Books

I just finished reading Ash by Malinda Lo, and in it, the greenwitches use willow bark tea medicinally. Also, in the Clan of the Cave Bear books by Jean M. Auel, Ayla used willow bark tea for aches and pains as well.

In English folklore, the willow tree is somewhat sinister, and that seems to be reflected in the characters of Old Man Willow in the LOTR trilogy and the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter. There are also references to willow in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Othello.

So, got a headache? Have a cup of willow-bark tea, but beware. The tree may smack you in return, and give you a stomach-ache to boot.

Please keep in mind this post is for writing purposes only and is not to be construed as medical advice!

If you've got a medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at


All I ask in return is that you become a follower of my blog and post a link on your blog when I post. Easy peasy.

Also, don't forget to check out Mental Health Mondays at Laura's Blog!

45 comments:

Vicki Rocho said...

interesting and informative as always. I'm not a tea drinker, so I'd have to be reallllllly miserable before anyone could convince me to drink willow bark tea. (shudder)

Joanne said...

It's always fun to know the history behind the lore. They do make interesting facets in stories, adding an interesting layer.

I clicked over from Janet's blog, enjoyed browsing here.

Janet Johnson said...

As always, good stuff. I didn't realize willow bark was a precursor to aspirin. I like willows more already. :)

And wow, Joanne beat me to the punch, but I have a little blurb about you on my blog. :)

Mayowa said...

I drank a lot of herbal tea for fevers growing up, bitter stuff. We call it Agbo (in yoruba)...maybe it was Willow bark.

Great post Lydia.

Melissa Sarno said...

Very cool! Willow bark. Who knew? I guess if I have a headache while lost in the woods, I'll just start gnawing ;-)

Lynn said...

Interesting! Now I will be looking at my willow wreaths a little differently.

Jemi Fraser said...

I didn't know that about willow - a very useful tidbit to put away. Thanks :)

Talli Roland said...

How cool - I didn't know that! Good ole willow. Thanks, Lydia!

lbdiamond said...

Yeah, and ya know what? I used to think willows were like, IDK, benign or something. They always look so mopy with their slumping leaves. You just can't judge a willow tree by its bark. ;)

(PS, I'm stoked to hear more about these medicinal things--any tips from Polly??? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

Zoe C. Courtman said...

Oh, I loved how *interesting* this post was. Thanks so much for sharing!!

Kate said...

i love reading historical fiction and seeing how the people used to interact with the world.

G.~ said...

Hi Lydia. I have no idea how I stumbled on your blog, but I'm glad I did.

Very interesting post. Something like this can open up a plethora of ideas for writing so thank you for sharing it.

Sandy Shin said...

I have always found it fascinating to find herbal medicines in novels -- thank you for this very interesting post!

Taryn Tyler said...

I adore herb lore! I could not be more psyched for this series. Also I believe there is willow bark in the face scrub I use. I wonder if that is sinister . . . or I am?

Lydia Kang said...

Thanks for all the comments! Honestly I thought people would read this and be like, "Eh? What's she's babbling about this time?"

Hey Taryn, I bet the willow in your face scrub acts as an anti-inflammatory. I've heard of people making at-home aspirin masks/facials for this purpose.

Danyelle said...

Interesting. I love learning about herbal remedies--especially since my worlds don't have modern technology. :) Is there a reason why the tea gives you a stomach ache?

Lydia Kang said...

Hi Danyelle! Well, all medicines that are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (like aspirin, or the stuff in willow bark, or ibuprofen, etc) can all potentiall irritate the lining of your stomach.

Some are worse than others, and apparently the salicylic acid of willow bark is a worse stomach-upsetter than regular modern day aspirin. It can cause diarrhea and stomach pain. Ouch!

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Interesting stuff. I'm fascinated by herbal remedies so that was pretty cool to learn about Willow Bark. :)

Elle Strauss said...

Interesting tidbits about aspirin and the willow tree. Thanks for sharing.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Ooooh, I love herbal remedies. I've got an herb garden out back which contains 'tea' or infusion herbs, cooking herbs, and beauty herbs.

T. Anne said...

I'm always fascinated by this too! And why is it always the witches who do this novel's? lol. I always catch that too. ;)

Jenny said...

Lydia, this was a fascinating post. I read a lot of books about naturopathic medicine and I read a chapter on this a while back. It really find things like this interesting. Thank you for sharing this.

Saumya said...

This is so cool (like all of your posts)! I just learned about how aspirin was taught to be easy on the stomach; the history and attitudes towards certain drugs can be so ironic. (I also read how, at one point, washing hands was not a priority. Crazy!)

Shannon said...

Another great Medical Monday post! I'm always willing to try herbal remedies, so this is another to add to the list.

Thanks!

Susan Fields said...

I absolutely love your medical posts - they're great stuff! I haven't used herb lore in my writing yet, but now you've got me thinking about it. :)

Lee said...

Willow Tea as well as many other herbal remedies appear through Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. You might enjoy the book as much of it is centered around nature-based survival in a post-apocalytic world.

Phoenix said...

This is fascinating... I had no idea. And it's very cool of you to tie medicine tidbits into literature references.

I might try this next time I get a headache...though I'm not sure the stomach-ache is worth it! I might just try a nap instead :)

notesfromnadir said...

Thank you for sharing this information. I've not tried willow bark tea but it's certainly preferable to aspirin which I can't handle! :)

Kimberly Franklin said...

I love Medical Mondays. They are always so interesting and informative. Love it!!

Paul C said...

How interesting about willow bark and its medicinal properties. I have never tried the tea which seems like a good idea at my age.

Jojomama said...

Fascinating. I'm glad you;re doing this. I have always been intereted in holistic and herbal cures...if for nothing else--the historical traditions they represent.

DL Hammons said...

Hey! I learned something new today! Cool!!! :)

Mary Campbell said...

Thanks for the info - I need to do a study of herbs for my novel. Where would you suggest I find more info on herbal remedies.

Christina Lee said...

VERY interesting!

Keats The Sunshine Girl said...

Interesting. Is it true if a bout of angina comes along, one is to qucikly take aspirin???

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Lydia...pleased to meet you. Looking forward to connecting with you. Very interesting information!

Mary McDonald said...

The Clan of the Cave Bear series is my all time favorite and part of the reason is because of all that herbal medicine. I don't know why, but I love reading that, but in reality, I wouldn't know thistle from a dandelion. lol.

Julie Dao said...

The willow has always been my favorite tree! I'm using it in my WIP but it has more of a kindly, benevolent influence. I never knew it was associated with sinister things! I had a village wisewoman as one of my characters in this story I wrote a while back, and it was so much fun doing research for all the herbs. I think I read somewhere that belladonna was once used for scarlet fever and for treating infants' colic and just had to include it in the story :) Thanks for the information!

Lydia Kang said...

Hey Julie! I'm going to do one on Belladonna soon. That one has such a rich history!

Mary--Clan of the Cave Bear is one of my favorites for the same exact reason!

Rachna, Nice to meet you!

Keats, that is a loaded question! Yes if someone has chest pain and there is a suspicion that it is due to a heart attack, aspirin is one of the first medications.
But for angina (assuming that such a patient SHOULD be on daily aspirin anyway) the typical anti-anginal medicine is nitroglycerine. Which is also a drug I'll post about too!

Mary--I don't have a direct answer for you. I use Google and Wiki and go from there. I also have personal access to medical websites with herbal information on them. My WIP had herb lore from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) tribe, and so I didn't use any modern text books, just one specifically written about Ojibwe herbal remedies. So it depends on what your research is for, the time period, etc. For a basic primer, I'd check out your local library or bookstore, and there are tons of books on herbs that are organized by disease, herb, symptoms, etc. Hope this helps!

Giles said...

That's fascinating! I love this kind of stuff :) It's one of the things I enjoyed about taking Tai Chi from a student of Chinese Medicine.

Nothing beats modern meds, though :D

Lola Sharp said...

Always interesting here on Mondays!
The weeping willow is my favorite tree, I've waxed poetic about it numerous times.

Thanks for doing this for us every Monday. :)

Love,
Lola

Renae said...

I so look forward to your Monday posts! Sorry I'm late commenting! Last week of school, what can I say?

I love herbal remedies and had no idea the willow harbored so many uses.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I love this! I can't wait to read more similiar posts.

I'm not sure I managed to miss all your posts this week. I mean, I know I wasn't blogging Monday, but I don't know how I missed you on Wednesday.

DEZMOND said...

I mostly use just herbal remedies, because I find they work much better than the modern ones and plus are usually safer. I can't even remember how many times simple chamomile or sage pastilles have saved my throat while I was teaching long hours in school and talking way too much.

Melissa said...

Wow. This is fascinating! I'm looking forward to more of these!

 
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