The Risks and Benefits of Taking Low-Dose Aspirin

Salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, has been used for thousands of years as an anti-inflammatory painkiller in the form of willow tree bark extract, which Hippocrates used to “treat fever and to alleviate pain during childbirth.” It became trademarked as a drug named Aspirin™ in 1899 and, to this day, “remains the most commonly used drug in the world.” One reason for its on-going popularity, despite the availability of better painkillers now, is that aspirin also acts as a blood thinner. Millions of people take aspirin on a daily basis to treat or prevent heart disease, which I explore in my video, Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Heart Disease?.

It all started in 1953 with the publication of the landmark study “Length of life and cause of death in rheumatoid arthritis” in the New England Journal of Medicine. The paper began with the sentence: “It has often been said that the way to live a long life is to acquire rheumatism.” The researchers found fewer deaths than expected from accidents, which could be explained by the fact that people with rheumatoid arthritis likely aren’t skiing or engaging in other potentially risky activity, but they also found significantly fewer deaths from heart attacks. Why would this be? Perhaps all the aspirin the subjects were taking for their joints was thinning their blood and preventing clots from forming in their coronary arteries in their heart. To find out, in the 1960s, there were calls to study whether aspirin would help those at risk for blood clots, and we got our wish in the 1970s: studies suggesting regular aspirin intake protects against heart attacks.

Today, the official recommendation is that low-dose aspirin is recommended for all patients with heart disease, but, in the general population (that is, for those without a known history of heart disease or stroke) daily aspirin is only recommended “when the potential cardiovascular [heart] disease benefit outweigh the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding.”

The bleeding complications associated with aspirin use may be considered an underestimated hazard in clinical medical practice. For those who have already had a heart attack, the risk-benefit analysis is clear. If we took 10,000 patients, daily low-dose aspirin use would be expected to prevent approximately 250 “major vascular events,” such as heart attacks, strokes, or, the most major event of all, death. However, that same aspirin “would be expected to cause approximately 40 major extracranial bleeding events,” meaning bleeding so severe you have to be hospitalized. Thus, the net benefit of aspirin for secondary prevention—for example, preventing your second heart attack—“would substantially exceed the bleeding hazard. For every 6 major vascular events prevented, approximately 1 major bleeding event would occur; therefore, the value of aspirin for secondary prevention is not disputed.”

If we instead took 10,000 patients who hadn’t ever had a heart attack or stroke and tried to use aspirin to prevent clots in the first place, that is, for so-called primary prevention, daily low-dose aspirin would only “be expected to prevent 7 major vascular events and cause 1 hemorrhagic stroke [bleeding within the brain] and 3 major extracranial bleeding events.” So, the benefits are approximately only 2 to 1, which is a little too close for comfort. This is why the new European guidelines do not recommend aspirin for the general population, especially given the additional risk of aspirin causing smaller bleeds within the brain as well.

If only there were a safe, simple solution free of side effects…and there is! Drs. Ornish and Esselstyn proved that even advanced, crippling heart disease could not only be prevented and treated, but also reversed, with a plant-based diet centered around grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits, with nuts and seeds treated as condiments, and without oils, dairy, or meat (including poultry and fish).

Long-time director of the longest-running epidemiological study in the world, the famous Framingham Heart Study, “Dr. William Castelli was asked what he would do to reverse the CAD [coronary artery disease] epidemic if he were omnipotent. His answer: ‘Have the public eat the diet of the rural Chinese as described by Dr. T. Colin Campbell…’” In other words, as he , “‘If Americans adopted a vegetarian diet, the whole thing would disappear,’ Castelli says of the heart disease epidemic.”

Dr. Esselstyn clarified that we’re not just talking about vegetarianism. “This new paradigm” of heart disease reversal means “exclusively plant-based nutrition.”

Did you know preventing heart disease and stroke aren’t the only benefits of an aspirin a day? A daily aspirin may also decrease the risk of certain cancers. In that case, should we take an aspirin a day after all? See Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Cancer? and Plants with Aspirin Aspirations.

For more on preventing, arresting, and reversing heart disease, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

The Benefits of Ginger for Osteoarthritis

If ginger is so effective against migraines and also helps with the pain of menstrual cramps, what about osteoarthritis? I explore this in my video Ginger for Osteoarthritis.

An all too common disorder, osteoarthritis produces chronic pain and disability. The first major study, published in 2000, showed no benefit of ginger extract over placebo, but that study only lasted three weeks. The next study, in 2001, lasted six weeks and, by the end, was able to show significantly better results compared to placebo. However, because the placebo did so well, reducing pain from the 60s down to the 40s on a scale of 1 to 100, ginger reducing pain further down into the 30s was not especially clinically significant, so an editorial in the official journal of the American College of Rheumatology concluded that “ginger should not be recommended at present for treatment of arthritis because of the limited efficacy.”

Since that time, there have been a few other trials that showed more impressive results, such that ginger is now considered “able to reduce pain and disability” in osteoarthritis. How does it compare to other treatments? Since osteoarthritis is a chronic disease, it’s especially important to weigh the risks versus the benefits of treatment. The commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs can carry serious cardiovascular and gastrointestinal risks. For example, nearly half of the osteoarthritis patients on drugs like ibuprofen were found to have major injuries to the lining of their small intestines. That risk can be reduced by taking additional medication to counteract the side effects of the first drug.

Ibuprofen-type drugs reduce our stomach lining’s ability to protect itself from stomach acid, so blocking acid production with a second drug can lower the risk. However, ginger can actually improve stomach lining protection. Indeed, at the kinds of doses used to treat osteoarthritis—about a quarter- to a half-teaspoon a day—ginger can be considered not just neutral on the stomach, but beneficial. So, ginger can be as pain-relieving as ibuprofen but without the risk of stomach ulcers.

What about topical ginger treatment, as in externally applying a ginger-soaked cloth or patch to the affected joint? In a controlled study, compress versus patch, both showed remarkable and lasting pain relief for osteoarthritis sufferers. What was missing from the study, though, was a control group: There was no placebo patch. I don’t care if ginger has been applied externally to painful joints for a thousand years. The placebo effect has been shown to be remarkably effective in osteoarthritis in providing pain relief. So, until there’s a controlled study on topical ginger, I’m not going to believe it.

There wasn’t such a study until… 24 men stuck ginger slices on their scrotum.

Men with inflamed testicles applied six to ten paper-thin slices of ginger “over the affected testes,” and, evidently, the ginger group healed nearly three times faster than the control group. Unfortunately, the original source is in Chinese, so I can’t get further details, as is the only other controlled study on topical ginger I could find, whose title apparently translates to “Evaluation of point plaster therapy with ginger powder in preventing nausea and vomiting occurred after platinum-based interventional chemotherapy.” We know ginger powder taken orally can be a miracle against chemo-induced vomiting, but what about stuffing it in your belly button?

The external application of ginger powder to the so-called point of Shenque, which is the navel, was compared to the control group, who got potato powder in their belly buttons instead. The ginger group evidently had significantly less nausea and vomiting. Unfortunately, only the abstract is in English, so I can’t tell how effectively the researchers blinded the patients to the treatment. Presumably, it would be easy to tell whether or not you were in the ginger or placebo group simply by the smell, but perhaps the researchers controlled for that? Until we know more, I would suggest those who want to try ginger use it in the stomach, rather than on the stomach.

What other dietary interventions can help with arthritis? See, for example:

What else can ginger do? Check out:

If the placebo effect is really that powerful, should doctors prescribe them? They already do. See my video The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos? for more on this.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Is Milk Lowering Uric Acid a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s, is characterized by a slowness of movement, rigidity, tremor, and stooping posture, all of which worsen over time. Non-movement symptoms such as cognitive impairment and sleep, smell, and mood disturbances occur as the disease spreads to other areas of the brain. The cause of Parkinson’s is perhaps “one of the important questions posed by the neurobiology [science] of aging.” For example, why is the consumption of dairy products associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s? Perhaps because they contribute to our exposure to pesticides and other neurotoxins like dieldrin, which continues to be found in the autopsied brains of Parkinson’s victims. Even though dieldrin was banned decades ago, it lingers in the environment and we “continue to be exposed to the pesticide through contaminated dairy and meats…”

The cause of Parkinson’s “is unlikely to be due to milk compounds such as calcium, vitamin D, total fat, or total protein as these compounds are not associated with [the disease] when derived from other sources.” However, it could be lactose, the milk sugar, perhaps accounting for the increased associated risk of death and bone fractures, as well as Parkinson’s. Earlier onset of Huntington’s disease has also been identified. There is, however, a third possibility.

As I discuss in my video Parkinson’s Disease and the Uric Acid Sweet Spot, milk lowers uric acid levels, and uric acid may be protective against Huntington’s and also slow the decline caused by Parkinson’s. More importantly, it may lower the risk of getting Parkinson’s in the first place. Why? Perhaps because uric acid is an important antioxidant in the brain, something we’ve known for more than 30 years. We can demonstrate uric acid’s importance directly on human nerve cells in a petri dish. When the pesticide rotenone is added, oxidative stress goes up. Add the pro-oxidant homocysteine, and it goes up even more. But, when uric acid is added, it completely suppresses the oxidative stress caused by the pesticide.

Drinking milk, however, has a uric acid-lowering effect. In the paper making this assertion, a study they cited was “A cute effect of milk on serum urate concentrations,” but that was just a cute typothey meant Acute effect. Indeed, drink cow’s milk, and, within hours, uric acid levels drop 10 percent. Drink soymilk, and, within hours, they go up 10 percent. Now, for gout, a painful arthritic disease caused by too much uric acid, the uric acid-lowering effect of dairy is a good thing—but uric acid is “a double-edged sword.”

If our uric acid levels are too high, we can get gout, but, if they’re too low, it may increase our risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.

Incidence rates of gouty arthritis over five years indicate that if our uric acid is over 10.0 mg/dl, we have a 30 percent chance of suffering an attack of gout within the next 5 years. However, at levels under 7.0 mg/dl, our risk is less than 1 percent, so it might make sense to have levels as high as possible without going over 7.0 to protect the brain without risking our joints. But having excessive uric acid in the blood puts more than just our joints in jeopardy. Yes, having levels that are too low may increase our risk of MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer, but having levels that are too high may increase our risk of gout, kidney disease, and heart disease.

In fact, having a uric acid level over 7.0 mg/dl isn’t only associated with an increased risk of gout, but also an increased risk of dying from all causes. However, having a low uric acid level may also shorten our lifespan by increasing mortality. High uric acid levels are associated with increased risk of death from heart disease, but low uric acid levels are associated with increased risk of fatal stroke. So, keeping uric acid at optimum levels, the sweet spot between 5.0 and 7.0 mg/dl, may protect the brain in more ways than one.

If we measure the uric acid levels in patients with Parkinson’s, they come in around 4.6 mg/dl, which may help explain why dairy consumption may increase risk for Parkinson’s since milk pushes down uric acid levels. Dairy intake may also explain the differences in uric acid levels among meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. In the graph in my video, you can see that vegan men have significantly higher uric acid levels at 5.7 mg/dl than vegetarians, presumably because vegans don’t drink milk, and those who both eat meat and consume milk fall between the vegans and vegetarians.

For more on Parkinson’s see:

Uric acid as an antioxidant? I’ve touched on that before in Miocene Meteorites and Uric Acid.

If uric acid levels are too high consider cutting down on Flesh and Fructose and eating cherries. (See Gout Treatment with a Cherry on Top and Treating Gout with Cherry Juice for more information.) Also, check out Preventing Gout Attacks with Diet.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: