Medically reviewed: June 7, 2018
What is Sarsaparilla?
Sarsaparilla is a woody, trailing vine that can grow to 50 m in length. Many Smilax species are similar in appearance, regardless of origin. The root of the plant is used for medicinal purposes, and the nectar-rich flowers are used in honey production. This root has a pleasant fragrance and spicy sweet taste, and has been used as a natural flavoring agent in medicines, foods, and nonalcoholic beverages. It should not be confused with the sassafras tree, which has the distinctive flavoring of American root beer.
Smilax species including Smilax aristolochiifolia (Mexican sarsaparilla), Smilax china, Salvia officinalis (Honduras sarsaparilla), Smilax regelii (Honduras, Jamaican sarsaparilla), Smilax febrifuga (Ecuadorian sarsaparilla), Smilax ornata.
Sarsaparilla also is known as Ba Qia catbrier, greenbrier, smilax, smilace, sarsa, Jin Gang Teng, Rhizoma Smilacis Glabrae, zarzaparilla, and khao yen.
What is it used for?
The Spanish 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 and was documented as an add-on treatment for leprosy in 1959.
Extracts of the roots may be effective in treating gout and metabolic syndrome (a combination of conditions, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol); however, evidence is based largely on animal studies and clinical trials are limited. Sarsaparilla has been traditionally used for treating syphilis, leprosy, and psoriasis; however, evidence to support these uses is lacking. Interest in cell-killing potential in treating cancer exists.
What is the recommended dosage?
Clinical trials are lacking to provide dosages. Typical doses of sarsaparilla for a variety of uses range from 0.3 to 2 g/day of the powdered root.
Contraindications have not yet been identified.
Avoid use. Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.
None well documented.
GI irritation and increased urination have been reported. Clinical studies are lacking to provide evidence (or lack of evidence) of harm.
Information regarding toxicology with the use of sarsaparilla is limited.
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