Is aspirin a magic pill for mood disorders and anxiety?
…I’m talking about the stuff grandma used for headaches!
In today’s article we are going to look at why aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is so awesome.
- What Is Aspirin?
- How Can Aspirin Help You Chill Out And Feel Better?
- How Inflammation Messes With Your Mental Health
- Aspirin Lowers Cortisol Like a Champ
- Aspirin Boosts Dopamine Signalling (The “Feel Good Neurotransmitter”)
- How Much Aspirin Should You Take?
- Conclusion – Aspirin, is it a Magic Pill?
What Is Aspirin?
Acetylsalicylic acid – more commonly known as aspirin – is an OTC medicine used to relieve pain, inflammation and fever.
This is truly an ancient drug.
Salicin (a precursor molecule to aspirin) found in willow bark tree was used over 4000 years ago (!) for pain relief and to treat inflammatory conditions.
Allegedly Hippocrates was a fan of using willow leaf tea way back in 400 BC.
Aspirin’s Mechanism of Action
How does aspirin work?
Aspirin is what is known as a NSAID (non-steroidal anti inflammatory agent).
It reduces inflammation in the body through blocking an enzyme called cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2).
Th COX-2 enzyme is responsible for producing inflammatory signalling molecules called prostaglandins. And by inhibiting COX-2 you lower the levels of inflammatory prostaglandins… which is how aspirin can give you relief from a headache!
In the body, aspirin is rapidly broken down into the main metabolite salicylic acid which also has anti-inflammatory effects not related to COX-2 inhibition.
(Through COX-2 inhibition ASA also prevents formation of blood clots which is why it’s beneficial for individuals at risk for strokes and heart attacks.)
How Can Aspirin Help You Chill Out And Feel Better?
I found this anecdote on reddit where a person took an aspirin for a particularly bad headache.
Not only did the aspirin get rid off the nasty headache… it also got rid of all anxiety and tension!
Here you can read the aspirin testimony for yourself:
“So I get a stress build up from working and everything else in my life and it’s gets bad to the point where I snap and get super bad headaches and anxiety. Today it was happening and had this huge tension headache and normally I take Tylenol but I had to take aspirin because I didn’t have any. And boom I was completely calm 20 minutes later it was like it relived all the tension in my body and mind. So weird has anyone had this happen to them with aspirin?”
I, too, get a very similar effect from taking an aspirin.
I find that it is tremendously helpful for relieving any stress, tension and anxiety!
And as it turns out, there is a surprising amount of scientific evidence that anxiety can help soothe anxiety and improve mood…
Here is one such fascinating study:
This was a randomized, double-blinded and placebo-controlled study done on 70 individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorders.
These patients were divided into two groups and either got the standard antipsychotic treatment, or adjuvant treatment with 1 gram of aspirin per day.
During follow-up after 3 months, the patients that received aspirin together with the antipsychotic treatment saw greatly reduced symptoms of schizophrenia!
Okay, but how does a headache medicine improve your mood???
How Inflammation Messes With Your Mental Health
Though I should point out that inflammation is not bad per se.
An inflammatory response (i.e inflammation) is the body’s way of dealing with injury, toxins, pathogens, trauma, etc!
You do WANT your immune system to get activated and take care of any pathogenic bacteria, viruses or parasites. Additionally, an inflammatory response (with pain, redness, swelling) is super important to bring blood and immune cells to an injured area which aids in the healing process.
A chronic low-grade inflammatory response, on the other hand, is the “bad” kind of inflammation.
And many of the pharmaceutical drugs used to treat depression, as well as exercise and psychotherapy/CBT, has been shown to lower the levels of pro-inflammatory signalling molecules in the blood called cytokines.
Aspirin to The Rescue!
Remember what aspirin did?
Aspirin inhibits the COX-2 system (thus lowering inflammation in the body) which makes it a super valuable tool for combatting stress, inflammation and anxiety!
Moreover, aspirin has valuable neuroprotective effects and can calm down overexcited neurons.
Bottomline here is that:
Too much inflammation tends to worsen anxiety, depression, OCD, etc, and soothing this inflammation (with an anti-inflammatory such as aspirin) can make you feel a whole lot better!
Why is inflammation high to begin with?
There is no straight-forward answer to that question as there are SO MANY potential causes. But if I had to guess, one of the biggest culprits is probably emotional stress (the stress system and the immune system being closely linked). Psychological stress, particularly chronic stress, in itself can cause some serious inflammation in the body. A poor lifestyle can also contribute to excessive inflammation – e.g eating a poor diet, nutritional deficiencies, smoking, gut issues, iron overload, not sleeping enough, exposure to toxins, untreated low thyroid function, and so on and so forth.
Aspirin Lowers Cortisol Like a Champ
As the informercials say:
A sign that you may be running on high cortisol is the sensation of feeling “tired but wired”, i.e you feel completely exhausted but your nervous system is all fired up.
Again, I should mention that like inflammation, cortisol is not a “bad guy”.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is an important part of the stress system and gets activated whenever the body is challenged by some kind of stressor.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone which main purpose is to mobilize stored energy so that you can deal with stress, and it also acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.
Examples of these stressors could be:
- Stressful situations or traumatic events
- Intense exercise
- Thinking fearful or negative thoughts, e.g worrying or rumination
- Having low blood sugar levels
- Eating very low calories, or not eating carbohydrates
- Bacterial toxins
To sum up:
Stress (internal or external) → HPA axis activation → cortisol is produced and released by the adrenal glands.
How Aspirin Can Calm Down a Hyperactive HPA-Axis
Chronic stress throws a monkey wrench into the HPA axis!
Repeated exposure to stressors leads to increased HPA axis activity and higher baseline levels of cortisol in the blood.
What happens during chronic stress is that the natural negative-feedback loop goes haywire → causing a hyperactive HPA axis.
This is bad news.
A hyperactive HPA axis (i.e chronically elevated cortisol) has been implicated in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders.
If only there was a way to dial down an over-active HPA-axis….
Aspirin has been shown to reduce HPA axis overactivity which may be a necessary part in the treatment of major depression.
- In this study pre-treatment with aspirin (300 mg daily for 7 days) significantly lowered the cortisol awakening response & improved working memory.
- 1.6 g of aspirin, taken daily for 3 days, significantly blunted the cortisol response to exercise compared with placebo!
- Aspirin lowers levels of inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-6 which can help normalise the HPA axis.
Aspirin Boosts Dopamine Signalling (The “Feel Good Neurotransmitter”)
And last but not least, aspirin can help boost dopamine signalling in the brain!
Dopamine is a super important neurotransmitter in the brain which helps with motivation and pleasure seeking, stress resilience and overall just feeling good and having ‘zest for life’, etc.
Basically, a low dopamine state can really mess with your mood and headspace.
An enzyme called tyrosine hydroxylase is the rate-limiting enzyme in dopamine synthesis pathway.
This enzyme converts the amino acid tyrosine → L-DOPA which then gets converted to → dopamine.
This study done on mice demonstrated that low-dose aspirin increased tyrosine hydroxylase expression & production of dopamine in dopaminergic neurons!
The aspirin also increased locomotor activities (running around) of the mice which correlates with dopamine levels.
A boost in brain dopamine levels could also explain the antidepressant/mood-lifting effects of aspirin!
How Much Aspirin Should You Take?
Generally speaking, aspirin (in normal doses) is safe and well-tolerated for most people.
But it is a drug and for some individuals, and under certain circumstances, it may be a good idea to be a bit more careful.
The most common side effect is stomach upset due to aspirin being an acidic substance. Very rarely, it can cause stomach ulcers, or worsening asthma in salicylate sensitive individuals, or ringing ears.
And as mentioned aspirin is a known blood thinner which may increase risk of bleeding.
If you feel unsure about any of this, please talk with your doctor before taking any medicines!
Recommendation: Mix Aspirin With Baking Soda
To reduce the risk of gut irritation, I usually take about 100-500 mg aspirin mixed with baking soda in a glass of water.
Taking it with a meal further reduces risk of gut irritation.
Here is a 100% pure aspirin powder available on Amazon.
It’s not something I would use on a daily basis, but more so during periods of high stress.
If you plan on taking more than 500 mg aspirin for several days, it is important to include vitamin K rich foods in your diet like leafy greens, eggs or full-fat dairy products. Or you could simply take a vitamin K2 supplement.
This is because aspirin in high doses can deplete vitamin K levels in the body, and vitamin K is needed for normal clotting.
Conclusion – Aspirin, is it a Magic Pill?
Taking an aspirin won’t treat any of the root causes of why you feel stressed out, anxious or depressed, but it is a pretty decent bandaid until you can get that other stuff sorted out.
I can’t guarantee it will work for you as every individual is unique and will respond differently to different substances, but I definitely think it could be worth a try.
Until next time.