Sarsparilla

Scientific names: Smilax species including Smilax aristolochiifolia (Mexican sarsaparilla), S. officinalis (Honduras sarsaparilla), Smilax regelii (Honduras, Jamaican sarsaparilla), Smilax febrifuga (Ecuadorian sarsaparilla), Smilax ornate.

Common names: Sarsaparilla also is known as smilax, smilace, sarsa, and khao yen.

Efficacy-safety rating:

ÒÒ...Ethno or other evidence of efficacy.

Safety rating:

...Little exposure or very minor concerns.

What is Sarsparilla?

Sarsaparilla is a woody, trailing vine, which is grown in the Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, and Ecuador. Many Smilax species are very similar in appearance regardless of origin. The root of the plant is used for medicinal purposes. This root has a pleasant fragrance and spicy sweet taste, and has been used as a natural flavoring agent in medicines, foods, and non-alcoholic beverages. It should not be confused with the sassafras tree, which has the distinctive flavoring of American root beer.

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What is it used for?

Traditional/Ethnobotanical uses

The French physician Nicholas Monardes described using sarsaparilla to treat syphilis in 1574. In 1812, Portuguese soldiers suffering from syphilis recovered faster if sarsaparilla was taken to treat the disease instead of mercury, the standard treatment at the time. Sarsaparilla has been used by many cultures for other ailments as well, including skin problems, arthritis, fever, digestive disorders, leprosy, and cancer. Late 15th century accounts explaining the identification and the first descriptions of American drugs include sarsaparilla. Sarsaparilla's role as a medicinal plant in American and European remedies in the 16th century also is evident.

Sarsaparilla has been used for treating syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) throughout the world for 40 years. It has been used for psoriasis, and was documented as an adjuvant for leprosy treatment in 1959.

Miscellaneous uses

The ability of sarsaparilla to bind to endotoxins may be a possible mechanism of action as to how the plant exerts its effects. Problems associated with high endotoxin levels circulating in the blood stream such as liver disease, psoriasis, fevers, and inflammatory processes, all seem to improve with sarsaparilla. Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of sarsaparilla for anti-inflammatory effects. A recent review addresses smilax compounds present in bodybuilding supplements said to “enhance performance.” Results of the study of more than 600 commercially available supplements determined that there was no research to validate these claims.

What is the recommended dosage?

Typical doses of sarsaparilla for a variety of uses range from 0.3 to 2 g/day of the powdered root.

How safe is it?

Contraindications

Contraindications have not yet been identified.

Pregnancy/nursing

Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.

Interactions

None well documented.

Side Effects

No major contraindications, warnings, or side effects have been documented. Avoid excessive ingestion. In unusually high doses, the plant may be harmful, including GI irritation.

Toxicities

Research reveals little or no information regarding toxicology with the use of sarsaparilla.

References

  1. Sarsaparilla. Review of Natural Products. factsandcomparisons4.0 [online]. 2005. Available from Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. Accessed April 23, 2007.

Copyright © 2009 Wolters Kluwer Health

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