A few years ago, our family doctor, who is a big believer in preventative medicine, encouraged me to start taking one low dose aspirin tablet ever day. He said that you can’t argue with the statistics, which show all kinds of health benefits for people over the age of 50, including reduced risk of heart attack, from popping one of the tiny 81 milligram pills when you get up in the morning. Since then, it’s become part of my daily routine.
But, because I’m curious, I found myself wondering . . . what’s in aspirin, anyway?
The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, which is based on a substance generated in plants of the Spiraea genus. For almost as long as humans have been around, since the days of ancient Egypt, they’ve been chewing the barks and leaves of certain trees or eating certain foods to obtain the pain reduction effects of the acid, without knowing that it was the acid that was doing the heavy lifting. In the 1800s, doctors and scientists realized that chewing tree bark might not be the best way to deliver the therapeutic effects and began to focus on what was actually causing people to feel better. They discovered that salicylic acid was the key ingredient, and then developed the acid synthetically. The acetylsalicylic acid was reduced to powder form and mixed with other substances — stomach-friendly buffers like corn starch — for delivery to patients. Bayer aspirin is called that because it was developed by a chemist in Bayer, Germany, and was first sold in pill form in 1915.
I remember taking St. Joseph’s aspirin for children, in those tasty, chewable, orange-flavored tablets, when I was a kid, and then as a teenager I graduated to the Bayer bottle, taking one of those dusty, bitter white pills if I had a bad headache. Now those little 81 milligram pills, helpfully coated to go down easy, are working every day in my blood stream, trying keep the platelets flowing rather than clumping.
Those ancient Egyptians obviously knew what they were doing, but I’m glad that I can get the benefits by taking a pill rather than munching on some tree bark.