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 Sesame Seeds for Knee Osteoarthritis

Doctors have been injecting arthritis patients with gold since the 1920s. In fact, “[g]old-based medicines have been in use for thousands of years…and remarkably…are still in clinical use as DMARDs,” or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, meaning they can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, such drugs can be toxic and even fatal, causing conditions such as gold lung, a gold-induced lung disease. “Although its use can be limited by the incidence of serious toxicity,” injectable gold has been shown to be beneficial to patients with rheumatoid arthritis. But maybe, as some researchers have suspected, some of that benefit comes from the sesame oil that’s injected, which is used as the liquid carrier for the gold.

As I discuss in my video Sesame Seeds for Knee Osteoarthritis, sesame seeds contain anti-inflammatory compounds with names such as sesamin and sesamol, which researchers suggest “may serve as a potential treatment for various inflammatory diseases.” Those observations, however, came from in vitro (test tube) studies. First, we have to see if sesame seeds have an anti-inflammatory effect in people, not just in cells in a petri dish, but there haven’t been any studies on the effects of sesame seeds on inflammatory markers in people with arthritis, for example…until now.

The abstract states: “Considering the high prevalence of osteoarthritis (OA) and since until now there had not been any human studies to evaluate the effect of sesame in OA patients, this study was designed to assess the effect of administration of sesame on inflammation…” Indeed, researchers found a significant drop in inflammatory markers, but what effect did sesame seeds have on the patients’ actual disease?

Fifty patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were split into two groups. Both received standard treatment, but the sesame group also received about a quarter cup of sesame seeds a day for two months. Before they started, the patients described their pain as about nine out of ten, where zero is no pain and ten is the maximum tolerable pain. After two months, the control group felt a little better and reported their pain was down to seven, but the sesame group dropped down to three and a half, significantly lower than the control group. The researchers concluded that sesame appeared to have a “positive effect…improving clinical signs and symptoms in patients with knee OA…”

The main problem with the study, though, is that the control group hadn’t been given a placebo. It’s hard to come up with a fake sesame seed, but without a placebo, researchers basically compared doing nothing to doing something, and any time you have patients do something, you can’t discount the placebo effect. That said, what are the downsides? That’s the nice thing about using food as medicine—only good side effects. Though the results are mixed, there have been studies using placebo controls that found that adding sesame seeds to our diet may improve our cholesterol and antioxidant status, and the amount of sesamin found in as little as about one tablespoon of sesame seeds can modestly lower blood pressure a few points within a month, enough, perhaps, to lower fatal stroke and heart attack risk by about 5 percent, potentially saving thousands of lives.

What other dietary interventions can help with arthritis? Check out:

If the placebo effect is really that powerful, should doctors prescribe them? They already do! Check out 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, year-in-review presentations:

The Best Source of Resistant Starch

Resistant starch wasn’t discovered until 1982. Before that, we thought all starch could be digested by the digestive enzymes in our small intestine. Subsequent studies confirmed that there are indeed starches that resist digestion and end up in our large intestine, where they can feed our good bacteria, just like fiber does. Resistant starch is found naturally in many common foods, including grains, vegetables, beans, seeds, and some nuts, but in small quantities, just a few percent of the total. As I discuss in my video Getting Starch to Take the Path of Most Resistance, there are a few ways, though, to get some of the rest of the starch to join the resistance.

When regular starches are cooked and then cooled, some of the starch recrystallizes into resistant starch. For this reason, pasta salad can be healthier than hot pasta and potato salad can be healthier than a baked potato, but the effect isn’t huge. The resistant starch goes from about 3 percent up to 4 percent. The best source of resistant starch is not from eating cold starches, but from eating beans, which start at 4 or 5 percent and go up from there.

If you mix cooked black beans with a “fresh fecal” sample, there’s so much fiber and resistant starch in the beans that the pH drops as good bacteria churn out beneficial short-chain fatty acids, which are associated both directly and indirectly with lower colon cancer risk. (See Stool pH and Colon Cancer.) The more of this poopy black bean mixture you smear on human colon cancer, the fewer cancer cells survive.

Better yet, we can eat berries with our meals that act as starch blockers. Raspberries, for example, completely inhibit the enzyme that we use to digest starch, leaving more for our friendly flora. So, putting raspberry jam on your toast, strawberries on your corn flakes, or making blueberry pancakes may allow your good bacteria to share in some of the breakfast bounty.

Another way to feed our good bacteria is to eat intact grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. In one study, researchers split people into two groups and had them eat the same food, but in one group, the seeds, grains, beans, and chickpeas were eaten more or less in a whole form, while they were ground up for the other group. For example, for breakfast, the whole-grain group got muesli, and the ground-grain group had the same muesli, but it was blended into a porridge. Similarly, beans were added to salads for the whole-grain group, whereas they were blended into hummus for the ground-grain group. Note that both groups were eating whole grains—not refined—that is, they were eating whole foods. In the ground-grain group, though, those whole grains, beans, and seeds were made into flour or blended up.

What happened? Those on the intact whole-grain diet “resulted in a doubling of the amount excreted compared to the usual diet and produced an additional and statistically significant increase in stool mass” compared with those on the ground whole-grain diet, even though they were eating the same food and the same amount of food. Why? On the whole-grain diet, there was so much more for our good bacteria to eat that they grew so well and appeared to bulk up the stool. Even though people chewed their food, “[l]arge amounts of apparently whole seeds were recovered from stools,” but on closer inspection, they weren’t whole at all. Our bacteria were having a smorgasbord. The little bits and pieces left after chewing transport all this wonderful starch straight down to our good bacteria. As a result, stool pH dropped as our bacteria were able to churn out so many of those short-chain fatty acids. Whole grains are great, but intact whole grains may be even better, allowing us to feed our good gut bacteria with the leftovers.

Once in our colon, resistant starches have been found to have the same benefits as fiber: softening and bulking stools, reducing colon cancer risk by decreasing pH, increasing short-chain fatty acid production, reducing products of protein fermentation (also known as products of putrefaction), and decreasing secondary bile products.

Well, if resistant starch is so great, why not just take resistant starch pills? It should come as no surprise that commercial preparations of resistant starch are now available and “food scientists have developed a number of RS-enriched products.” After all, some find it “difficult to recommend a high-fiber diet to the general public.” Wouldn’t be easier to just enrich some junk food? And, indeed, you now can buy pop tarts bragging they contain “resistant corn starch.”

Just taking resistant starch supplements does not work, however. There have been two trials so far trying to prevent cancer in people with genetic disorders that put them at extremely high risk, with virtually a 100-percent chance of getting cancer, and resistant starch supplements didn’t help. A similar result was found in another study. So, we’re either barking up the wrong tree, the development of hereditary colon cancer is somehow different than regular colon cancer, or you simply can’t emulate the effects of naturally occurring dietary fiber in plant-rich diets just by giving people some resistant starch supplements.

For resistant starch to work, it has to get all the way to the end of the colon, which is where most tumors form. But, if the bacteria higher up eat it all, then resistant starch may not be protective. So, we also may have to eat fiber to push it along. Thus, we either eat huge amounts of resistant starch—up near the level consumed in Africa, which is twice as much as were tried in the two cancer trials—or we consume foods rich in both resistant starch and fiber. In other words, “[f]rom a public health perspective, eating more of a variety of food rich in dietary fibre including wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, and pulses [such as chickpeas and lentils] is a preferable strategy for reducing cancer risk.”

What’s so great about resistant starch? See my video Resistant Starch and Colon Cancer.

I first broached the subject of intact grains in Are Green Smoothies Bad for You?.

Why should we care about what our gut flora eats? See Gut Dysbiosis: Starving Our Microbial Self.

Did I say putrefaction? See Putrefying Protein and “Toxifying” Enzymes.

Berries don’t just help block starch digestion, but sugar digestion as well. See If Fructose Is Bad, What About Fruit?.

The whole attitude that we can just stuff the effects into a pill is a perfect example of reductionism at work. See Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality and Why is Nutrition So Commercialized? 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, year-in-review presentations: