A phytochemical, salicin is present in foods in small quantities. It is also found in elevated amounts in a number of herbs. After ingestion, this phytochemical metabolizes into salicylic acid in our body. In fact, aspirin is produced from an acetylated form of salicylic acid. When taken in usual doses, aspirin, or for that matter salicin, is not only very safe, but also a wonderful remedy for problems accompanied with inflammation, for instance headaches.
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Several people prefer the natural source of salicin to aspirin, as it is safer and has lesser side effects.
A naturally occurring phytochemical, salicin is present in the bark of several tree species, especially those that have their origin in North America. These species belong to the aspen, poplar and willow families. The term salicin has been derived from the Latin name of the white willow tree - Salix alba. In fact, the white willow is a prominent source of salicin. In addition, this compound is also present in several other trees, herbaceous plants, shrubs and currently it is also being made synthetically for commercial use. This compound belongs to the glucoside family and is often used in the form of an analgesic and antipyretic. In addition, salicin is also used in the form of a precursor for synthesizing acetylsalicylic and salicylic acid, which is better known as aspirin.
In its pure form, salicin is a colorless and crystalline solid having the chemical formula C13H18O7. Partially, the chemical formula is similar to that of sugar glucose. This means that this compound also comes in the class of glucosides. Salicin dissolves both in water and alcohol, but it is not very strongly soluble. This compound has a bitter flavour and is a naturally occurring antipyretic (a medicine that reduces fever) and analgesic (painkiller). When taken in excessive amounts, salicin may not only prove to be toxic, but also lethal. Overdoses of salicin may cause damages to the liver and kidneys. Raw salicin may be somewhat irritating to the skin, eyes as well as the respiratory organs.
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For several centuries, people of various cultures have used salicin for alleviating minor pains and aches, particularly those attributed to inflammation. In addition, this compound has also been used for treating minor fevers. Salicin also stimulates the gastric system. For long people have known that an extract from the bark of white willow possessed the above mentioned properties, but they did not realize till the 19th century that the bark contained salicin and it is responsible for these effects. These days, the extract obtained from the bark of white willow is standardized for a stable content, which is normally 8 percent by weight. Currently, stores selling herbal remedies also market willow bark extracts. However, it is still not sold by more mainstream shops like pharmacies and supermarkets. Nevertheless, a section of people prefer this extract to aspirin, since it is not only safer, but also causes fewer side effects.
Salicin was employed for the first time to produce the medication called aspirin. In fact, salicin and aspirin share several common aspects. When both these substances metabolize inside our body, they are partially reduced to salicylic acid. In fact, studies have shown that salicylic acid is a poor substitute for salicin. Chemists developed aspirin with a view to produce a similar compound, but more potent compared to salicin. While the mechanism of both salicin and aspirin is more or less similar, the former results in lesser side effects. In fact, some of the adverse effects of using aspirin do not occur while using salicin. The side effects associated with aspirin include stomach disorder and a condition called Reye's syndrome, which more often than not occurs in children and has the potential to be fatal. In fact, although the relation between aspirin and Reye's syndrome is well documented, scientists are yet to comprehend it fully.
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Salicin is effective for treating minor feverish colds as well as infections like influenza. In addition, this compound works well to cure mild headaches, chronic and acute rheumatic disorders in addition to aches and pain due to inflammation. As mentioned earlier, though salicin does the same work as aspirin, it does not produce all the side effects of aspirin. Therapeutically, salicin is also used for the same purposes as salicylates and salicylic acid. This compound is often used in the form of a bitter tonic to stimulate the gastric system. For this purpose, the compound is used in doses of about five grains. The common dose of salicin may even be as high as 40 grains or even more and still be safe. However, the British Pharmacopoeia has restricted the maximum dosage of salicin to just 20 grains. To some extent, this compound has the same action as that of salicylic acid or the several compounds contained in the latter.
Aside from the white willow bark, several plants, particularly fruits, contain salicylic acid. In plants, salicylic acid is present as methyl salicylate. When consumed in large amounts, salicylic acid is likely to be toxic. However, it is used in small amounts to preserve food products and also in the form of an antiseptic in toothpaste. Compounds in the carboxyl group (-COOH) possess the ability to interact with alcohols, giving rise to many beneficial esters. On the other hand, the hydroxyl group (-OH) possesses the aptitude to react with acetylsalicylic acid and acetic acid.
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In fact, several skin-care products, especially those meant for treating acne, contain salicylic acid as an active ingredient. Topical application of salicylic acid helps to cure acne by making the skin to cast off the dead cells easily and also by avoiding the congestion of skin pores.
Some herbs contain elevated levels of salicylates and they are almost equal to aspirin. These herbs include poplar tree, meadowsweet, sweet and white birch, willow bark and wintergreen. Wintergreen contains very elevated levels of salicylates, especially the wintergreen oil is very rich in this phytochemical. Willow bark, particularly the white willow bark, also contains high amounts of salicylic acid. In fact, the white willow bark is the most common source of this acid.
Apart from the herbs mentioned above, several foods are also excellent natural resource of salicylic acid. However, when compared to herbs, these foods contain very less amount of the phytochemical.
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Foods that contain salicylates include olives, almonds, berries, broccoli, alfalfa, chicory, mushrooms, seeds, radish, tomatoes, raisins, green pepper, spinach and sweet potato. In addition, a number of spices like curry, curcuma, cumin, turmeric, mustard, oregano, thyme, and rosemary also contain this phytochemical.
Salicylates are naturally occurring anti-coagulants or blood thinners. They work by decreasing the production of thromboxanes and prostaglandins. When the production of these two enzymes is reduced, it also reduces potential as well as the chances of platelets sticking to one another. This, in turn, lessens the chances of developing blood clots, stroke and heart attack.
Nevertheless, platelets are also essential for our body, because they are responsible for sealing wounds and stopping bleeding. They work by binding together whenever there is an injury. However, extremely low and high levels of platelets may result in problems.
Salicylates have a bitter flavour. They are naturally occurring oil cleaners and help to remove the oily, sticky layer on platelets' surface. At the same time, these plant compounds reduce the production of platelets by decreasing the levels of thromboxanes and prostaglandins.
It has also been found that salicylic acid is useful in treating rheumatic fever as well as pericarditis, and this way it prevents hypertrophy. At the same time, it also reduces harms to the cardiac muscles. Aside from lessening the chances of myocardial infarction, salicylic acid also reduces the death risk and any further damage to tissue when an individual has already suffered a heart attack.
The blood-thinning or anti-coagulant properties of salicylic acid makes this compound effective even for those who are enduring coronary artery disease. When the blood is not very dense, it can flow more easily through the congested arteries. As salicylates are compounds having anti-inflammatory properties, they are also employed for alleviating headaches, providing relief from pain and also to alleviate the symptoms related to acne, arthritis, warts and psoriasis.
Findings of a number of scientific studies suggest that taking salicin regularly or once to twice every week may help to decrease the chances of developing cancer, as chronic inflammation is related to angiogenesis (formation and development) of cancer cells.
Aside from the above mentioned therapeutic properties, salicin is also antiseptic and anti-bacterial, making this plant compound effective for treating allergies, flu, high fever, skin rash as well as various types of bacterial infections.
Although salicin offers a number of health benefits, this phytochemical may prove to be toxic when ingested in elevated amounts. This is irrespective of whether you take the herbs containing this phytochemical or aspirin, which is made from an acetylated form of salicylic acid. Salicin may cause damage to the kidneys as well as the stomach, resulting in diarrhea, ulcers, digestive discomfort or bleeding. In some cases, severe overdose of this phytochemical may also result in deaths.
These aside, salicin may also result in additional side effects like rash, vomiting, dizziness, nausea and breathing troubles. Salicylates are natural anti-coagulants or blood thinners; they may augment the chances of bleeding, particularly when used in combination of other anti-coagulant medications. They may also lead to bleeding in people having a very poor blood platelet count.
The chemical structure of salicin is such that you should never combine them with any diuretic, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), fish oil, and beta blockers. It is worth noting that some individuals may also have allergic reactions after using salicylic acid. At the same time, pregnant women and nursing mothers should never use salicylates.