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:

How Not to Die from High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is the number-one risk factor for death in the world. In the United States, it affects nearly 78 million people, one in three adults. As we age, our blood pressures get higher and higher, such that by age 60, high blood pressure strikes more than half of us.

Given that it affects most of us when we get older, could high blood pressure be less a disease and more just an inevitable consequence of aging? No. We’ve known since the 1920s that high blood pressure need not occur, which I discuss in my video How Not to Die from High Blood Pressure.

Researchers measured the blood pressures of a thousand people in rural Kenya, where their traditional diet included more whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, and dark leafy greens. Though our pressures go up as we age, their pressures actually go down.

With blood pressure, the lower, the better. The 140/90 cut-off you may have heard here or there is arbitrary. Even people who start out with blood pressures under 120/80 appear to benefit from blood pressure reduction. Your doctor would likely give you a gold star if you had a blood pressure of 120/80, but research indicates the ideal blood pressure—blood pressure that wouldn’t get benefit from being any lower—may actually be 110/70.

Is it even possible to get blood pressures as low as 110/70? It’s not just possible—it’s normal for those living healthy enough lives.

Over two years, 1,800 patients were admitted to a rural Kenyan hospital. How many cases of high blood pressure were found? Zero. Wow they must have had low rates of heart disease. No, in fact, they had no rates of heart disease. Not a single case of our number-one killer, arteriosclerosis, was found. Rural China, too. There, people are about 110/70 their entire lives—70-year-olds with the same average blood pressure as 16-year-olds.

Those in Asia and Africa traditionally eat vastly different diets, but they do share a commonality: Both were plant-based day-to-day, with meat eaten only on special occasions. Why do we think it’s the plant-based nature of their diets that was so protective? Because in the Western world, as the American Heart Association has pointed out, the only people getting their blood pressures down that low were those eating strictly plant-based diets, coming in around 110/65.

The largest study to date of people eating plant-based diets studied 89,000 Californians. Non-vegetarians were compared to semi-vegetarians (also called flexitarians, those who eat meat more on a weekly rather than daily basis), pesco-vegetarians (those who eat no meat except fish), lacto-ovo-vegetarians (those who eat no meat at all), and vegans (who eat no meat, eggs, or dairy).

The subjects were Seventh-day Adventists, who all tended to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise, and not smoke, and even the nonvegetarians didn’t eat a lot of meat. So, even compared to a group of relatively healthy meat-eaters, there appeared to be a step-wise drop in hypertension rates as people ate more and more plant-based diets, with vegans having lower rates than lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who had lower rates than pesco-vegetarians, and so on—and the researchers found the same for diabetes and obesity.

So, yes: We can wipe out most of our risk by eating a strictly plant-based diet, but it’s not all-or-nothing. It isn’t black-or-white. Any movement we can make along the spectrum towards healthier eating can accrue significant health benefits.

This can be shown experimentally: Give vegetarians some meat (and pay them enough to eat it), and their blood pressures go up. In another study, meat was removed from people’s diets, and their blood pressures went down—and did so in only seven days. What’s more, this was after the vast majority had reduced or even stopped their blood pressure medications completely. Indeed, the subjects had to stop their medications because once you treat the cause, you can’t be on multiple blood pressure pills with normal blood pressure. Your pressures could fall too low and you could get dizzy, fall, and hurt yourself, so your doctor has to take you off the pills. Lower blood pressures on fewer drugs—that’s the power of plants.

So, does the American Heart Association recommend a no-meat diet? No, it recommends a low-meat diet, known as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or the DASH diet. Why wouldn’t the AHA recommend a completely plant-based diet? When the DASH diet was being created, were they just not aware of this landmark research, done by Harvard’s Frank Sacks showing those who eat strictly plant-based average 110/65? No, they were aware. The Chair of the Design Committee that came up with the DASH diet was Frank Sacks.

As he described, the DASH diet was designed explicitly with the number-one goal of capturing “the blood pressure-lowering benefits of a vegetarian diet, yet contain enough animal products to make them palatable” to the general population. They didn’t think the public could handle the truth.

In their defense, just as drugs don’t work unless you actually take them, diets don’t work unless you actually eat them. So, maybe they thought few would eat strictly plant-based, so by soft-peddling the message, by coming up with a kind of compromise diet perhaps on a population scale they felt it would do more good. Fine, but tell that to the thousand American families who lose a loved one every day to high blood pressure.

Maybe it’s time to start telling the American public the truth.


The first time someone visits NutritionFacts.org can be overwhelming. With videos on more than 2,000 health topics, where do you even begin? Imagine stumbling onto the site not knowing what to expect and the new video-of-the-day is about how a particular spice can be effective in treating a particular form of arthritis. It would be easy to miss the forest for the trees, which is precisely why I created a series of overview videos that are essentially taken straight from my live, hour-long 2016 presentation How Not to Die: Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

The other videos in this overview series are:

Inspired to learn more about the role diet may play in preventing and treating high blood pressure? Check out these other popular videos on the topic:

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:

The Best Source of Vitamin D

If one is going to make an evolutionary argument for what a “natural” vitamin D level may be, how about getting vitamin D in the way nature intended—that is, from the sun instead of supplements? I run through the pros and cons in my video The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons?. Though supplements may only cost about 10 dollars a year, sunlight is free. We never have to worry about getting too much vitamin D from sunlight, since our body has a way to regulate production in the skin, so if we get our D from the sun, we don’t have to trust poorly regulated supplement companies not to mislabel their products. Indeed, only about half the supplement brands that researchers tested came within 10 percent of their labeled amount.

Sunlight may also have benefits beyond vitamin D, such as how our body may use the sun’s near-infra-red rays that penetrate our skin to activate chlorophyll by-products in our bloodstream to make Co-Q10. (See my video How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally for more on this.) There’s another way our body appears to use the sun’s rays to maximize the effects of the greens we eat: Within 30 minutes of exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight, we can get a significant drop in blood pressure and improvement in artery function, thanks to a burst of nitric oxide-releasing compounds that flow into our bloodstream. We can even measure the nitric oxide gas coming straight off our skin. Of course, we have to eat greens or beets in the first place, but that combo of greens and sunlight may help explain some of the protection that plant-based eaters experience.

Morning sun exposure may help those with seasonal affective disorder, as well as improve the mood of wheelchair-bound nursing home residents. Previously, I’ve talked about the benefits of avoiding light at night—see my video Melatonin and Breast Cancer if you’d like to know more—but underexposure to daytime sunlight may also affect our melatonin levels, which don’t only regulate our circadian rhythms but may also be helpful in the prevention of cancer and other diseases. Older men and women getting two hours of outside light during the day appear to secrete 13 percent more melatonin at night, though we’re not sure what, if any, clinical significance this has.

The downsides of sun exposure include increased risk of cataracts, a leading cause of vision loss, though this risk can be minimized by wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses. Sunlight also ages our skin. In my The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons? video, you can see a dramatic photo of a truck driver who spent decades getting more sun on the left side of his face—though his driver’s side window. “The effects of sunlight on the skin are profound, and are estimated to account for up to 90% of visible skin aging”—that is, wrinkles, thickening, and loss of elasticity. Things like sun exposure and smoking can make us look 11 years older. Cosmetic surgery can make us look up to eight years younger, but a healthy lifestyle may work even better. Doctors don’t preach about sun protection for youthful facial looks, though, but because of skin cancer. Medical authorities from the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, to the Surgeon General warn about excess sun exposure and for good reason, given the millions of skin cancers and thousands of deaths diagnosed every year in the United States alone.

The UV rays in sunlight are considered a complete carcinogen, meaning they can not only initiate cancer, but promote its progression and spread. Melanoma is the scariest, which “makes the rising incidence of melanoma in young women particularly alarming.” This increase has been blamed on the increased usage of tanning salons. Tanning beds and UV rays in general are considered class 1 carcinogens, like processed meat, accounting for as many as three quarters of melanoma cases among young people and six times the risk of melanoma for those who visited tanning salons ten or more times before the age of 30.

The tanning industry is big business, bringing in billions of dollars. There may be more tanning salons than there are Starbucks, and they use those dollars like the tobacco industry: to downplay the risks of their products. Laws are being passed to regulate tanning salons, from complete prohibitions, like in the country of Brazil, to age restrictions for minors. But, unlike tobacco, tanning isn’t addictive. Or is it?

Have you heard of “tanorexia”? Some people tan compulsively and report a so-called tanner’s high. Describing tanning behavior like a substance abuse disorder might seem a little silly—that is, until you stick people in a brain scanner and can show the same kind of reward pathways light up in the brain, thanks to endorphins that are released by our skin when we’re exposed to UV rays. In fact, we can even induce withdrawal-like symptoms by giving tanners opiate-blocking drugs. So, tanning is potentially addictive and dangerous. Harvard researchers suggest that we should “view recreational tanning and opioid drug abuse as engaging in the same biological pathway.” But there’s a reason sun exposure feels good. Sunlight is the primary natural source of vitamin D, and, evolutionarily, it’s more important, in terms of passing along our genes, not to die of rickets in childhood. Unlike natural sunlight, tanning bed lights emit mostly UVA, which is the worst of both worlds: cancer risk with no vitamin D production. The small amount of UVB many tanning beds do emit, however, may be enough to raise vitamin D levels. Is there a way to raise D levels without risking cancer? Yes: vitamin D supplements.


Indeed, we can get some of the benefits of sun exposure without the risks by taking vitamin D supplements. But, for the sake of argument, what if such supplements didn’t exist? Would the benefits of sun exposure outweigh the risks? That’s the subject of my video The Risks and Benefits of Sensible Sun Exposure.

For other videos in this vitamin D series, see:

I also explore Vitamin D as it relates to specific diseases:

Here’s the video about that amazing chlorophyll activation: How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally.

What do greens and beets have to do with artery function? Check out some of my latest videos on the wonders of nitrate-rich vegetables:

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: