Today aspirin is no longer used as widely for pain and fever, as more people now reach for acetomenophin (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). But in the 1990s, aspirin found a new use as a preventative treatment for heart attack and stroke prevention. But because of the risks associated with even low-dose aspirin, today this preventative measure is only recommended in certain scenarios when directed by a physician . Fortunately, several natural substances confer similar, and sometimes superior protective effects without the risks associated with aspirin!
Risks of aspirin use
Even relatively short-term daily use of aspirin has been demonstrated to result in negative side effects. One 2009 study administered either low-dose aspirin or a placebo daily for 14 days to a group of healthy volunteers and found that 80% of the aspirin group developed small bowel pathology, compared to 20% in the control. The authors specify that the difference between the two groups was not significant but conclude that low-dose aspirin was associated with mild inflammation of the small intestine .
Natural alternatives to aspirin
Fortunately, several natural alternatives are readily available that provide comparable, and in some cases superior cardiovascular protection, without the risks associated with aspirin. Most of these substances work by reducing platelet aggregation, or the clumping together of platelets in blood to form a blood clot.
Platelet aggregation can lead to stroke, infarction, or other cardiovascular event and is of particular concern in individuals with atherosclerosis. When atherosclerotic plaque narrows blood vessels, platelet aggregation becomes a larger concern, as narrow blood vessels can more easily become blocked by aggregated platelets.
In the following sections we will present research about specific natural substances that have been demonstrated to reduce risk of cardiovascular events by reducing platelet aggregation and supporting the vascular endothelium.
Pycnogenol is a standardized extract of maritime French pine bark that has antioxidative and antiinflammatory effects. It is high in phenolic acids, catechin and taxifolin . It is hard to spell but quite effective at reducing cardiovascular risk factors.
One study assessed the effects of Pycnogenol and aspirin on platelet function in cigarette smokers, who are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension. There were somewhat conflicting results on study groups that used lower doses of Pycnogenol (100-150mg), with some groups demonstrating reduced platelet aggregation and other not at this dose. But high-dose (200mg) Pycnogenol significantly reduced platelet aggregation, compared to subjects taking 100mg or 150mg.
Impressively, a single dose of 200mg of Pycnogenol remained effective at preventing smoking-induced platelet aggregation for six days! Some other study groups showed benefit from either 100-125mg Pycnogenol or 500mg aspirin, when taken after smoking. Although aspirin conferred a similar benefit, one clear benefit of Pycnogenol was that aspirin significantly increased bleeding time, whereas Pycnogenol did not. This observation led the researchers to conclude that Pycnogenol has an advantageous risk-benefit ratio .
Policosanol is a great natural alternative to aspirin. It is a a wax extract primarily made from sugar cane that is known for its ability to reduce blood cholesterol levels without the dangerous side-effects of statin drugs. In addition, policosanol inhibits blood clotting as effectively as aspirin, but without the dangerous side-effects. One study compared the effects of policosanol with aspirin in reducing platelet aggregation in 43 healthy volunteers and found similar benefits.
In this clinical trial, policosanol reduced aggregation induced by adenosine diphosphate (ADP), epinephrine and collagen, whereas aspirin was only effective in reducing collagen- and epinephrine-induced aggregation. Aspirin was more effective at reducing collagen-induced aggregation and less effective than policosanol at reducing epinephrine-induced aggregation. Overall, researchers conclude that policosanol at 20mg/day is as effective as 100mg/day at reducing platelet aggregation .
Omega-3 Fish Oil
The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are also helpful in reducing platelet aggregation. A 2013 study compared the effects of aspirin monotherapy and combined fish oil and aspirin in type 2 diabetics. Researchers found that the addition of 4g of fish oil per day reduced platelet aggregation more than aspirin alone. This study also observed that the addition of fish oil to aspirin treatment further reduced NF-κB compared to aspirin alone, which may result from the ability of DHA to inhibit NF-κB related signal transduction and activation .
Another study evaluated the effects of a much lower dose of fish oil, 640mg/day, on platelet aggregation in two group of subjects – a healthy group and a group with cardiovascular disease (CVD). Platelet aggregation was induced by ADP and adrenaline. In the healthy group, the administration of fish oil significantly reduced platelet aggregation in both models. In the CVD arm of the study, platelet aggregation was also reduced, but not as significantly. The authors suggest that higher dose fish oil may deliver more significant results in CVD patients .
Turmeric and Curcumin
Curcumin is a primary constituent of the Ayurvedic spice turmeric, and appears to prevent platelet aggregation as well. An in vitro study found that curcumin inhibited platelet aggregation induced by arachidonate, adrenaline and collagen by modulating eicosanoids. The authors suggest that curcumin’s antiinflammatory effects may result, at least in part, from its effects on eicosanoid biosynthesis .
Another similar study found similar results. In this research, curcumin preferentially inhibited platelet aggregation induced by platelet-activating factor (PAF) and arachidonic acid (AA). Much higher concentrations of curcumin were required to reduce platelet aggregation induced by collagen, epinephrine and ADP. In addition, curcumin inhibited A-23187-induced mobilization of intracellular Ca2+ as well as the formation of thromboxane A2 (TXA2) by platelets.
In contrast, curcumin did not inhibit aggregation induced by protein kinase C (PKC) activator phorbol myrsitate acetate. These results lead the authors of the study to suggest that curcumin inhibits PAF- and AA-induced platelet aggregation by reducing TXA2 synthesis and Ca2+ signaling, and that PKC is not involved in its effects .
In good news for chocolate lovers, the flavonoids in cocoa powder also appear to inhibit platelet aggregation. One study found that cocoa-rich dark chocolate inhibited platelet aggregation induced by collagen but not ADP in healthy volunteers . Another similar study evaluated the effects of dark chocolate in a group of otherwise healthy cigarette smokers. Dark chocolate significantly improved flow-mediated dilation two hours after ingestion, and the benefits lasted six hours.