Arachidonic Acid, Leukotrienes, and Salicylates

In response to a post (on the Samter's group) about cherries containing salycitic acid,

Gerry Moore, Ph.D., Research Scientist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, provided the following informative reply. With his permission, I post it here.

Salicylates in general (or other compounds that behave like aspirin with regards to a certain chemical pathway called the arachidonic pathway) are potentially troublesome. As I understand the problem (my training is in botany not medicine), people with Samter's triad (like me) are sensitive to leukotrienes, inflammatory molecules. The key factor involves the chemical arachidonic acid (an essential fatty acid that is a component of lecithin, it can be synthesised by means of conversion reactions in the body, from linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid or are provided through diet -- in lean meat, egg yolks, vegetables, and some fish oils, including cod-liver oil), which is broken down in the body into two compounds: prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Aspirin and aspirin-like drugs and other substances containing salicylates inhibit the production of prostaglandins, resulting in all of the arachidonic acid being broken down into leukotrienes. Obviously, people who are sensitive to leukotrienes have much more trouble when they take aspirin due to the increased production of leukotrienes.

Salicylates are naturally produced by most plants. They are useful to the plants in disease and pest resistance. The more salicylates a plant accumulates, the more disease resistant it is. The question is do they have enough salicylates to cause symptoms in Samter's people who eat them? Some certainly do make me wheeze and cause nasal congestion (e.g., eating a lot of raspberries). Some candies are high in salicylates such as wintergreen candy (oil of wintergreen is methyl salicylate) and really set me off.

Of concern to me is that plant breeders, through selective breeding and genetic engineering, are breeding plants with elevated salicylate levels. Such plants are more disease resistant.

Other things also set me off, such as minty and mentholated products and alcohol. The question here I guess is do these compounds have salicylates in them (I believe some alcoholic beverages do -- but all alcohol seems to set me off!)? If not, I wonder if these products may also somehow increase leukotriene production.

Lists are available that identify plants that are high in salicylates. I seem to remember that species in the Rose Family (e.g., blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears, cherries) can have high salicylate levels. Keep in mind though that almost all plants can produce salicylates. Since salicylates are produced by plants in response to stress (e.g., disease, heat), the salicylate levels can vary considerably from individual plant to individual plant.

I have been taking the anti-leukotriene drug Singulair and it has been quite helpful. It has pretty much eliminated my asthma symptoms. Even my stubborn nasal symptoms have improved with Singulair (but alas they have not been eliminated).

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This page most recently revised on the 22nd of November, 2013.