How to Get the Benefits of Aspirin Without the Risks

For people without a personal history of cardiovascular disease, aspirin’s risks may outweigh its benefits, but aspirin may have additional benefits. “We have long recognized the preventative role of daily aspirin for patients with atherosclerotic [heart] disease; however, it now appears that we can hatch 2 birds from 1 egg. Daily low-dose aspirin may help prevent certain forms of cancer, as well, as I discuss in my video Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Cancer? In an analysis of eight different studies involving more than 25,000 people, “the authors found a 20 percent decrease in risk of death from cancer among those randomized to daily aspirin…” The researchers wrote, “[T]he search for the most efficacious and safe treatments for malignant disease remains an enormous and burdensome challenge. If only we could just stop cancer in its tracks—prevent it before it strikes. Perhaps we can.” Indeed, perhaps we can with salicylic acid, the plant phytonutrient that’s marketed as aspirin.

How does aspirin affect cancer? The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to the team who discovered how aspirin works. Enzymes named COX (cyclooxygenase) take the pro-inflammatory, omega-6, fatty-acid arachidonic acid our body makes or we get directly in our diet (primarily from eating chicken and eggs), and turns it into inflammatory mediators, such as thromboxane, which produces thrombosis (clots), and prostaglandins, which cause inflammation. Aspirin suppresses these COX enzymes. Less thromboxane means fewer clots, and less prostaglandin means less pain, swelling, and fever. However, prostaglandins can also dilate the lymphatic vessels inside tumors, allowing cancer cells to spread. So, one way cancer tries to kill us is by boosting COX activity.

We think one way aspirin can prevent cancer is by counteracting the tumor’s attempts to pry open the lymphatic bars on its cage and spread throughout the body. Indeed, reduction in mortality due to some cancers occurred within two to three years after aspirin was started. That seems too quick to be accounted for by an effect only on tumor formation . Cancer can take decades to develop, so the only way aspirin could work that fast is by suppressing the growth and spread of tumors that already exist. Aspirin appeared to cut the risk of metastases in half, particularly for adenocarcinomas, like colon cancer.

Given this, should we all take a daily baby aspirin? Previous risk-benefit analyses did not consider the effects of aspirin on cancer, instead just balancing cardiovascular benefits with bleeding risks, but these new cancer findings may change things.

If daily aspirin use were only associated with a reduction of colon cancer risk, then the benefits might not outweigh the harms for the general population, but we now have evidence that it works against other cancers, too. “[E]ven a 10% reduction in overall cancer incidence…could tip the balance” in favor of benefits over risks.

How does the cancer benefit compare? We know that using aspirin in healthy people just for cardiovascular protection is kind of a wash, but, by contrast, the cancer prevention rates might save twice as many lives, so the benefits may outweigh the risks. If we put it all together—heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and bleeding—aspirin comes out as protective overall, potentially extending our lifespan. There is a higher risk of major bleeding even on low-dose aspirin, but there are fewer heart attacks, clotting strokes, and cancers. So, overall, aspirin may be beneficial.

It’s important to note that the age categories in that study only went up to 74 years, though. Why? Because the “risk of bleeding on aspirin increases steeply with age,” so the balance may be tipped the other way at 75 years and older. But, in younger folks, these data certainly have the research community buzzing. “The emerging evidence on aspirin’s cancer protection highlights an exciting time for cancer prevention…”

“In light of low-dose aspirin’s ability to reduce mortality from both vascular events and cancer to a very notable degree, it is tempting to recommend this measure…for most healthy adults…However, oral aspirin, even in low doses, has a propensity to damage the gastroduodenal mucosa [linings of our stomachs] and increase risk for gastrointestinal bleeding; this fact may constrain health authorities from recommending aspirin use for subjects deemed to be at low cardiovascular risk”—that is, for the general population. “Recent meta-analyses estimate that a year of low-dose aspirin therapy will induce major gastrointestinal bleeding (requiring hospitalization) in one subject out of 833…”

If only there were a way to get the benefits without the risks.

Those who remember my video Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods already know there is. The aspirin phytonutrient salicylic acid isn’t just found in willow trees, but throughout the plant kingdom, from blackberries and white onions to green apples, green beans, and beyond. This explains why the active ingredient in aspirin is found normally in the bloodstream even in people not taking aspirin. The levels of aspirin in people who eat fruits and vegetables are significantly higher than the levels of those who don’t. If we drink just one fruit smoothie, our levels rise within only 90 minutes. But, one smoothie isn’t going to do it, of course. We need to have regular fruit and vegetable consumption every day. Are these kinds of aspirin levels sufficient to suppress the expression of the inflammatory enzyme implicated in cancer growth and spread, though? Using umbilical cord and foreskin cells—where else would researchers get human tissue?—they found that even those low levels caused by smoothie consumption significantly suppressed the expression of this inflammatory enzyme on a genetic level.

Since this aspirin phytonutrient is made by plants, we might expect plant-eaters to have higher levels. Indeed, not only did researchers find higher blood levels in vegetarians, but there was an overlap between people taking aspirin pills. Some vegetarians had the same level in their blood as people actually taking aspirin. Vegetarians may pee out as much of the active metabolite of aspirin as those who take aspirin do, simply because vegetarians eat so many fruits and vegetables. “Because the anti-inflammatory action of aspirin is probably the result of SA [salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin], and the concentrations of SA seen in vegetarians have been shown to inhibit [that inflammatory enzyme] COX-2 in vitro, it is plausible that dietary salicylates may contribute to the beneficial effects of a vegetarian diet, although it seems unlikely that most [omnivores] will achieve sufficient dietary intake of salicylates to have a therapeutic effect.”

Aspirin can chew away at our gut. With all that salicylic acid flowing through their systems, plant-eaters must have higher ulcer rates, right? No. Both vegetarian women and men appear to have a significantly lower risk of ulcers. So, for the general population, by eating plants instead of taking aspirin, we may not only get the benefits without the risks, we can get the benefits with even more benefits. How is this possible? In plants, the salicylic acid can come naturally pre-packaged with gut-protective nutrients.

For example, nitric oxide from dietary nitrates exerts stomach-protective effects by boosting blood flow and protective mucus production in the lining of the stomach—“effects which demonstrably oppose the pro-ulcerative impact of aspirin and other NSAIDs.”

The researcher notes that while “[d]ark green leafy vegetables…are among the richest dietary sources of nitrate…it may be unrealistic to expect people to eat ample servings of these every day,” so we should just give people pills with their pills, but I say we should just eat our greens. People who’ve had a heart attack should follow their physician’s advice, which probably includes taking aspirin every day, but what about everyone else? I think everyone should take aspirin—but in the form of produce, not a pill.


To see the pros versus cons for people trying to prevent or treat heart attacks and stroke, see my video Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Heart Disease?.

Does the COX enzyme sound familiar? I talked about it in my Anti-Inflammatory Life Is a Bowl of Cherries video.

Where does one get “dietary nitrates”? See Vegetables Rate by Nitrate and Veg-Table Dietary Nitrate Scoring Method. I also discuss nitrates in Slowing Our Metabolism with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables and Oxygenating Blood with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables.

Do some plant foods have more aspirin than others? Definitely. In fact, some foods have the same amount as a “baby” aspirin. Check out Plants with Aspirin Aspirations.

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 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:

Vegans Should Consider Taking DHA Supplements

We are all fatheads.

Indeed, about half the dry weight of our brain is fat. Lower levels of the long-chain omega-3 fat DHA in some areas of Alzheimer’s brains got people thinking that perhaps DHA is protective. Since the level of DHA in the brain tends to correlate with the level of DHA in the blood, cross-sectional studies of dementia and pre-dementia patients have been done. The result? The dementia and pre-dementia subjects do tend to have lower levels of both long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, circulating in their bloodstream. This doesn’t necessarily mean that lower omega-3 levels cause cognitive impairment, however. It was just a snapshot in time, so we don’t know which came first. As I discuss in my video Should Vegans Take DHA to Preserve Brain Function?, maybe the dementia led to a dietary deficiency, rather than a dietary deficiency leading to dementia.

What we need is to measure long-chain omega-3 levels at the beginning and then follow people over time, and, indeed, there may be a slower rate of cognitive decline in those who start out with higher levels. We can actually see the difference on MRI. Thousands of older men and women had their levels checked and were scanned and then re-scanned. The brains of those with higher levels looked noticeably healthier five years later.

The size of our brain actually shrinks as we get older, starting around age 20. Between ages 16 and 80, our brain loses about 1 percent of its volume every two to three years, such that by the time we’re in our 70s, our brain has lost 26 percent of its size and ends up smaller than that of 2- to 3-year-old children.

As we age, our ability to make long-chain omega-3s like DHA from short-chain omega-3s in plant foods, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and greens, may decline. Researchers compared DHA levels to brain volumes in the famed Framingham Study and found that lower DHA levels were associated with smaller brain volumes, but this was just from a snapshot in time, so more information was needed. A subsequent study was published that found that higher EPA and DHA levels correlated with larger brain volume eight years later. While normal aging results in overall brain shrinkage, having lower levels of long-chain omega-3s may signal increased risk. The only thing we’d now need to prove cause and effect is a randomized controlled trial showing we can actually slow brain loss by giving people extra long-chain omega-3s, but the trials to date showed no cognitive benefits from supplementation…until now.

A “double-blind randomized interventional study provide[d] first-time evidence that [extra long-chain omega-3s] exert positive effects on brain functions in healthy older adults,” a significant improvement in executive function after six and a half months of supplementation, and significantly less brain shrinkage compared to placebo. This kind of gray matter shrinkage in the placebo might be considered just normal brain aging, but it was significantly slowed in the supplementation group. The researchers also described changes in the white matter of the brain, increased fractional anisotropy, and decreases in mean and radial diffusivity—terms I’ve never heard before but evidently imply greater structural integrity.

So, we know that having sufficient long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA may be important for preserving brain function and structure, but what’s “sufficient” and how do we get there? The Framingham Study found what appears to be a threshold value around an omega-3 index of 4.4, which is a measure of our EPA and DHA levels. Having more or much more than 4.4 didn’t seem to matter, but having less was associated with accelerated brain loss equivalent to about an extra two years of brain aging, which comes out to about a teaspoon less of brain matter, so it’s probably good to have an omega-3 index over 4.4.

The problem is that people who don’t eat fish may be under 4.4. Nearly two-thirds of vegans may fall below 4.0, suggesting a substantial number of vegans have an omega-3 status associated with accelerated brain aging. The average American just exceeds the threshold at about 4.5, though if we age- and gender-match with the vegans, ironically, the omnivores do just as bad. There aren’t a lot of long-chain omega-3s in Big Macs either, but having a nutrient status no worse than those eating the Standard American Diet is not saying much.

What we need is a study that gives those with such low levels some pollutant-free EPA and DHA, and then sees how much it takes to push people past the threshold…and here we go: Phase 2 of the study gave algae-derived EPA and DHA to those eating vegan diets with levels under 4.0. About 250mg a day took them from an average of 3.1 over the threshold to 4.8 within four months. This is why I recommend everyone consider eating a plant-based diet along with contaminant-free EPA and DHA to get the best of both worlds—omega-3 levels associated with brain preservation while minimizing exposure to toxic pollutants.


A list of my recommendations can be found here: Optimum Nutrition Recommendations.

Why not just eat fish or take fish oil? I explain why in these videos:

How else can we protect our brains? See, for example:

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: