Is Aspirin Really That Good For You?
Acetylsalicylic acid is one of the most famous compounds in modern medicine… It's claimed to treat, pain, inflammation, fever and may even prevent heart attacks… But is the drug known as "Aspirin" really the wonder drug we were promised? Around 400 BCE, Hippocrates' writings claimed the bark of the willow tree could be ground into a powder and used to heal headaches, pains and fevers. He was the father of modern medicine, and his remedy worked, and was used for many hundreds of years. It wasn't until 1829, that scientists discovered a compound in the bark called salicin was the true medical culprit. Salicin DOES cure the headache, but is REALLY hard on the stomach, and can cause bleeding in the digestive tract. Not a great trade-off. Allegedly, a French chemist found when mixed with sodium and acetyl chloride the resulting acetylsalicylic acid was soft on the tummy AND fixed the swelling… Based on historical records uncovered by BMJ, it was then later re-tested and sold as "Aspirin" by F Bayer & Co, but it wasn't until the 1970s that British scientists figured out WHY acetylsalicylic acid works; which won them the Nobel Prize. Acetylsalicylic acid is a simple compound C-nine H-eight O-four.
It reduces pain by messing with the body's production of prostaglandins; a hormone-like lipid compound formed by enzymes in the body. Pain is a confounding thing for scientists because it's so subjective, but physically, tissue releases called chemicals like prostaglandins, which tell your brain to trigger . Soooo, when you take acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) it binds with the enzyme COX-2. Without the COX-2 the production of prostaglandin drops and BOOM, no more headaches, or inflammation based aches and pains. The problem is, prostaglandin isn't a one-off. It has a number of other uses as well, an enzyme called COX-1 also binds with ASA -- and COX-1 has the rather important job of keeping your stomach lining thick.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather my stomach acid didn't eat me -- just my lunch. Prostaglandins also affect how well platelets initiate blood clotting, and ASA somehow has an effect on the hypothalamus region of the brain, responsible for controlling body temperature -- which is how it can bring down a fever. So after all this, it makes a lot more sense how ASA can help with things like heart attacks.
Blood platelets that don't clot well, don't cause blockages! When the body's fever is reduced, we feel less sick, and moving joints is kind of the best around. And studies are exploring how ASA can be recruited to do a lot of other things. In 2014, the Queen Mary University of London found people who took low doses of ASA daily could reduce their risks of death by some cancers by 35 to 50 percent. Though, that increases risk of stomach bleeding by about 3 percent, and you'd have to take it every day for a decade to see a benefit! And a new 2015 study in PLOS ONE found ASA might bind to another enzyme called GAPDH which causes our cells to die, on purpose. By inhibiting cell death, the thinking is, it might be able to stop Alzheimer's, Huntington's, or Parkinson's in their tracks. The thing is, even though it can do a lot for the human condition, treating it as a miracle wonder-drug is a vast oversimplification. Children should not ingest ASA, it's part of a family of drugs which can cause fatal liver failure.
And while it can reduce the risk of a SECOND heart attack, the FDA says very specifically it will not prevent stroke or heart attack for people with no history of either issue. And for those required to take aspirin daily: safety, coated or enteric aspirin is coated to keep the ASA from releasing into your stomach and thinning the lining. But, it's not a super solution.
The coating releases the drug further into your digestive tract, potentially causing bleeding in the small intestine instead and then in the stomach once the ASA hits your bloodstream. There's no escaping science. In the end, this willow-bark derivative sure is amazing, hat-tip Hippocrates, but it ain't magic. Because of it's age, the effects of acetylsalicylic acid have been explored by scientists the world over in thousands of studies. Is more research needed? Of course! ALWAYS, but then again, if you're trying to prove it's a cure-all, maybe save your pennies.
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