WILLOW BARK
Common Names

Willow, White Willow
Botanical Name
Salix Alba
Family
SALICACEAE

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What is it?

It is the very astringent and bitter bark of the Willow that has been historically used in herbal medicine. Willow is of course the well-known tree found in many parks and gardens. Willow’s graceful drooping branches give it a sweetly melancholic appearance; ‘the weeping willows’.


PLANT


BARK


POWDERED

How has it been used?

Willow branches are more pliable and less likely to split than most types of wood and so it has been used since the earliest civilisations for making baskets, fish traps, items of wicker and even the framing of homes.

It is certain that Willow bark and leaves were also widely used as a natural anti-inflammatory treatment for many thousands of years throughout our history. White Willow grew on the banks of the river Nile and the ancient Egyptians saw the weeping Willow as a symbol of joy! The 110 pages of the Ebers Papyrus, dated to 1534 BC lists over 700 herbal remedies but the most important plant species is tjeret or salix, known today as Willow. The Ebers papyrus describes the use of Willow as a general purpose tonic and as an anti-inflammatory pain reliever for aches and pains.

The Physicians in ancient China used White Willow bark to relieve pain and the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides wrote of its power to ease inflammation. Thomas Bartram describes how Willow Bark combined with Celery Seed and Black Cohosh can help treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Pain and inflammation are reliably reduced if sufficient amounts of Willow are taken so it was the subject of early scientific enquiry. In 1828 the French chemist Henri Leroux was the first to isolate one of the ingredients in Willow that was able to treat pain and inflammation; salicin. A small amount of it was as effective as a much larger dose of the crude herb but it caused such terrible stomach aches that it wasn’t for another 70 years when the German chemist Felix Hoffmann developed salicin into the much more digestible acetylsalicylic acid that the drug started to achieve the fame that it continues to enjoy to this day. Hoffmann’s employer; the now-giant pharmaceutical company Bayer, called this new substance aspirin.

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Science on Willow Bark

~ There is a great deal more to Willow Bark than just the chemicals in it that act as the precursors to aspirin. Modern studies have led to some intriguing insights into Willow that suggest that it is constituents such as its flavonoids and polyphenols that are the real reason why it can be so helpful for painful mobility disorders such as back pain and arthritis.

~ One open, randomized, controlled trial compared a concentrated Willow Bark extract to the new generation anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx in 114 patients with acute low back pain. After 4 weeks there was no difference between the two groups, i.e the Willow worked just as well (but you can be certain it would be a great deal safer). Whilst these kind of concentrated products are expensive they are a great deal more practical to try than taking an ounce of Willow Bark decoction a day (the amounts that would be equivalent to 4 tablets daily of the best commercial Willow Bark product available today).

~ Another study of 191 patients with chronic low back pain (a particularly difficult condition to resolve) showed that Willow bark extract at a high dose achieved 39% pain free results, the lower dose 21% and the placebo response 6%. It is clearly a herb that can work wonders but its effects are very dose dependent.

Safety of Willow Bark

Unlike aspirin It is pretty much impossible to do harm with high doses of Willow Bark because to reach the levels that would equate to a toxic level of salicylates you would need to take in over half a kilo of Willow Bark a day, which would be virtually impossible however much you tried to!

That said Willow bark should be avoided whilst breast-feeding so as not to pass extra salicylates on to an infant who may then go on to develop a sensitivity to them. There are no known issues with using Willow in pregnancy and in most cases it will be tolerated fine by the young or old but keep in mind that stomach upset, nausea etc will be quite probable if any but very modest doses of the tea or tincture are taken by mouth.

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Personal experiences

I have tried both Willow bark extract and Willow bark tea and I can certainly relate to why the public responded to aspirin with such enthusiasm as an alternative for their aches and pains.

It is not just the bitterness, Willow is full of tannins as well (a massive 13%) and drinking a cup of strong Willow tea is about as face-puckering an ordeal as you could imagine! Still, in the olden days, if you had a choice between hideous pain or drinking the tea I doubt it was difficult for anyone to make up their mind.

I think that Willow bark tea is not well suited to internal use unless a more gentle anti-inflammatory option is unavailable however where it can be of terrific help is as an external wash for wounds or infections, see the 'Willow Bark Wash' below to see how to do it.

Willow Bark liquid extract in much smaller doses than the tea can also be of benefit for internal use. In my personal experience just small amounts of the extract (1 or 2 mls) taken as frequently as needed has been particularly beneficial to conditions where there is a lot of heat and mucus involved (problems such as sinusitis, colitis, congestive headaches, weeping eczema, bronchitis etc.).

If using Willow as a liquid herbal extract I always combine it with some other herbs such as Licorice root, Chamomile or Peppermint extract to ease its way. As is always the case with herbal medicines, there are far more healing ingredients in Willow Bark than only its salicylates and using the whole herb conveys deeper, albeit slower acting, benefits to the body.

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Willow Bark Wash

~ Ingredients:
30grams White Willow Bark (approx one ounce or about 5 heaped tablespoons)
Cold Water 1 litre or approximately 4 cups
Saucepan with a lid

~ Recipe:
Pour the litre of cold water over the ounce of Willow Bark in a saucepan, cover and leave overnight or for a good 8 hours. After this long soak take off the lid and bring the mixture to a gentle, rolling boil for about 5 minutes. Again cover and leave to cool. Once cooled, strain out the liquid and put in the fridge. This strong tea will keep its strength for at least 5 days so it can be used as frequently as required.

~ Treatments:
~ For Ulcers or Festering Sores: Soak a clean strip of white gauze in the tea, gently squeeze out the excess liquid and apply to the wound directly with another bandage or cloth taped over the top as needed. Refresh the dressing every few hours.

~ For Burns: If possible soak the affected area directly in the tea. Alternately loosely apply layers of gauze that have been well soaked in the refrigerated tea.

~ For Sore Gums: Soak 1 or 2 cotton balls in the tea and rub gums with them several times a day.

~ For tonsillitis: Gargle with the cold tea as frequently as required to obtain relief.

~ For Athlete's foot or sweaty feet: Soak the feet in the cool tea for 15 minutes as often as required.

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Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Willow is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with herb B. There is value in this approach in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another but where it falls short is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Willow might work brilliantly for one person but less well for another with the same sort of symptoms -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info to introduce this subject here.

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Willow can particularly offer its benefits when a cleansing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here. .

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

Willow bark is tonic, antiperiodic, and an astringent bitter. It has been given in intermittent dyspepsia, connected with debility of the digestive organs, passive haemorrhages, chronic mucous discharges, in convalescence from acute diseases, and in worms.

In chronic diarrhoea and dysentery, the tonic and astringent combination of the willow renders it very eligible. It may be given in substance, in doses of 1 drachm of the powder, repeated as indicated; or of the decoction, 1 or 2 fluid ounces, 4 or 5 times a day.

The decoction has also proved efficient as a local application to foul and indolent ulcers.


 

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd