Have you ever wondered how the wonder drug works? What magic does aspirin have that allows it to reduce pain and fever, save 110,000 lives globally per year, save the muscles of the heart, and the working power of the brain? And now, a recent study shows that women who take aspirin once a week have a reduced risk of certain types of breast cancer.
Aspirin’s magic comes from its ability to “lower the volume” of a critical inflammatory chemical called prostaglandin.
Suppose you bang your finger with a hammer. The nerve cells release chemicals called Cox-2 which increase the production of prostaglandins. The prostaglandins send pain signals to the brain. Like a bicycle lock, aspirin locks Cox-2, resulting in “lowering the volume” of prostaglandins, and, aaah comes the pain relief from aspirin.
Now suppose you have arthritis. Arthritis occurs because cells in the joint suspect there is some injury and make excessive Cox-2, which in turn produces more prostaglandins, resulting in swelling and inflammation. But, when a tablet of aspirin locks up the Cox-2, excessive prostaglandins are not made, and for a few hours the swelling subsides.
The effect of aspirin in preventing heart attacks and strokes doesn’t last for hours but for days. Many heart attacks and strokes are caused by platelets (tiny particles in the blood) clumping together and forming a clot, like a snowball, in the heart or the brain. Taking just one aspirin regularly or at the time of a heart attack causes the platelets to be less sticky (again through the effect of reduced prostaglandins) and the net result is reduced muscle damage from a heart attack.
So aspirin helps with lowering the pain, inflammation, the stickiness of platelets, but how does it reduce cancer? Certain breast cancers are dependant on estrogen, which is in turn dependant on the gene expression, a genetic on-off switch. This switch is regulated by prostaglandins. So, if you decrease prostaglandins by taking an aspirin once a week, you decrease gene expression for estrogen, and then you decrease estrogen receptor positive breast cancers. The alteration in gene expression switch by aspirin protects one from colon cancer as well.
A word of caution: With all its assets, aspirin also has liabilities. The lining of the stomach is protected by the effects of prostaglandins. Reduction of prostaglandin levels by the use of aspirin can cause ulcers or bleeding.
However, given some precautions, if you are not taking an aspirin, you have to wonder “why not?”
So next time the doctor tells you to take two aspirins and call her in the morning, ask her. “Doc, what do you want the aspirin to do, anti-pain, anti-inflammatory, anti-pyretic, anti-platelet, anti-dementia or anti-cancer?”
The doctor is probably just buying some sleep time, and it only costs you a few cents per tablet.