Meadowsweet: Earth’s Aspirin

Filipendula sp. Photo by CoreyPine Shane of Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine

Filipendula ulmaria. Photo by CoreyPine Shane of Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine, Asheville, NC.

Have you ever wondered how common pharmacological drugs got their names? For instance, Cynarin from artichokes (Cynara scolymus) is a popular liver medicine in Europe and the heart drug Acetyldigoxin is derived from the lovely little foxglove, Digitalis lanata. Most modern medicine is derived from plants. This makes sense when you ponder how our pre-Enlightenment ancestors healed themselves. When science advanced and humans started getting more comfortable in the lab, healing plants were teased apart in search for that “magic bullet” constituent that could be isolated and replicated for mass production. Once isolated, these compounds could be marketed and sold as medicine. This practice created quite a revolution in healthcare, turning it into a business as much as a healing art. Making medicine became more efficient and productive as all the “extra” plant material could be discarded, and eventually, that contained magic bullet constituent could be replicated synthetically without taking the time to forage or cultivate the plant-precursor to the desired medicine.
We have come a long way since these early days of medicine, but like all good things, we are circling back. Today, scientists are using those same frontal lobes that created synthetic and single-compound extractions to return to a more holistic form of medicine making. It turns out that all that “extra” plant material actually provided the container for that “magic bullet” constituent to work. Those additional plant compounds serve many different roles, from increasing the bioavailability of an active constituent, making it more effective, to buffering that constituent’s primary actions, making it safer to take indefinitely.

You can think of the synergistic power of whole plants as you would a sports team. In volleyball, if the whole team was comprised solely of setters, who would spike the ball and return the down-balls? The most effective team is one that contains players for all the positions. What’s more, it’s important to remember that our human bodies evolved slowly and gracefully overtime ingesting whole plants. The intense, isolated compounds of modern medicine are a rather new invention, and our bodies simply haven’t had the time to figure out how to process them thoroughly while also maintaining balance.

Comparatively, it is true that whole plant medicine may take longer to produce results than the immediate action of modern drugs. However, the effects of plant medicine are oftentimes more powerful and far-reaching because they influence how our genes are expressed rather than working at the more superficial (thought immediate) route of most modern drugs (read more on genetic nutritioneering here). Additionally, the means to extract the active ingredients of plant medicine requires strong and sometimes toxic solvents like acetone, b-butanol, and ethanol among others.
A perfect example of the whole plant power of natural medicine is found in Filipendula ulmaria of the Rose family (Rosaceae). Botanists are modifying scientific names all the time, but this native plant was once known as Spiraea spp. (and some Spiraea genera still exist, but that is for another article). Various species of this sweet-smelling, flowering shrub are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The leaves are simple and alternately arranged (as in a “spiral”). The flowers are tiny, five-petaled beauties in clusters or spires, depending on the species. Additionally, the rather eager (or invasive…) Spiraea japonica is a non-native that can be found in disturbed forest sites.

You might notice the similarity between the names of the well-known “Aspirin” and “Spiraea”. This is no coincidence, of course. Aspirin is a combination of the Latin prefix for “without”- “a”- and Spiraea, because scientists found a way to isolate and then synthetically reproduce the active constituent “salicylic acid” from the plant. They formed this medicine after observing Native Americans and traditional healers use the plant for pain relief. However, a problem resulted from this initially innovative idea. Early medicine-makers quickly saw that when people consumed the isolated salicylic acid over a period of time, the pain was stopped but bleeding stomach ulcers developed. Eventually, they learned to add an -acetyl group to the salicylic acid to prevent this ulceration. Hence, you have the modern day Aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid. However, this new medicine creates its own set of issues.

Herbalist & Alchemist's Aspirea Compound is great for headaches, muscle aches, and general inflammatory pain.

Herbalist & Alchemist’s Aspirea Compound is great for headaches, muscle aches, and general inflammatory pain.

Isn’t it both strange and wonderful that the precursor to Aspirin, meadowsweet, offers a holistic solution for pain relief and healing the ulceration that pure salicylic acid alone creates? Not to mention, meadowsweet offers a whole suite of healing properties, including: anti-inflammatory, febrifuge (fever-reducer), antibacterial, and acting as a cooling, aromatic digestive aid. The astringent nature of the plant (a common trait of Rose family plants) works to tighten and tone the lining of the stomach; the antimicrobial properties protect from infection, the analgesic and anti-inflammatory actions keep pain at bay; and its cooling, aromatic nature aids in proper digestion. Additionally, plants that contain salicylic acid, such as elm trees, some mushrooms, and the unripe fruit of blackberries, kiwis, and green peppers, use this compound synergistically for survival. Scientists have found higher concentrations of salicylic acid in parts of the plant attacked by pests and microbes.
Meadowsweet medicine is readily available at Remedy Herb Shop:David Winston’s Herbalist & Alchemist Aspiraea Compound is a highly effective pain-killing, anti-inflammatory tincture that works like a charm. It contains a diverse blend of analgesics including Meadowsweet (Spirea spp.), Willow (Salix spp.), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula), and Corydalis root (Corydalis yanhusuo). Aspiraea Compound is effective for all sorts of pain, from arthritic joints to headaches and body aches from sports or surgery (1 oz. tincture $14, 2oz. $25). Returning to a more holistic, gentle yet far-reaching form of medicine is a naturally effective approach to healing. Mother Nature did come before Father Pharmaceutical after all!

*Disclaimer Notice: Our statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The products and plants mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat cure, or prevent any diseases. Please understand that the Healing Arts Centre in conjunction with Remedy Herb Shop cannot provide professional medical advice. We will be held harmless in your personal usage of any information disseminated by any representative from