Scientific Name(s): Smilax aristolochiifolia Mill. (Mexican sarsaparilla), Smilax china, Smilax febrifuga Kunth (Ecuadorian sarsaparilla), Smilax officinalis Kunth (Honduras sarsaparilla), Smilax ornata Lem., Smilax regelii Killip et Morton (Honduras, Jamaican sarsaparilla), Smilax
Common Name(s): Ba Qia catbrier, Greenbrier, Jin Gang Teng, Khao yen, Rhizoma Smilacis Glabrae, Sarsa, Sarsaparilla, Smilace, Smilax, Zarzaparilla
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jul 1, 2019.
Extracts of the roots may be effective in treating gout and metabolic syndrome; 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. Evidence is also lacking for purported ergogenic/adaptogenic effects. Interest in cytotoxic potential in treating cancer exists.
Clinical trials are lacking to provide guidance on therapeutic dosages. Typical sarsaparilla doses 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. Estrogenic and antiestrogenic activities have been described for extracts of at least one of the species.
None well documented.
GI irritation and increased diuresis 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.
- Smilacaceae (Catbrier)
Many Smilax species are very similar in appearance, regardless of origin. Sarsaparilla is a woody, trailing vine that can grow to 50 m in length. The nectar-rich flowers are used in honey production, and the root is used for medicinal purposes. The root has a pleasant fragrance and spicy sweet taste and is used as a natural flavoring agent in medicines, foods, and nonalcoholic beverages; however, the sarsaparilla root should not be confused with the sassafras tree, which is the source of the distinctive flavoring of American root beer.1, 2, 3
The Spanish physician Nicolás 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 versus mercury, the standard treatment at the time.4 Sarsaparilla has been used by many cultures for other ailments as well, including skin disorders, arthritis, fever, digestive disorders, leprosy, and cancer.1, 4 Late 15th century accounts of the identification and first descriptions of American drugs include sarsaparilla.5 Sarsaparilla was used as a medicinal plant in American and European remedies in the 16th century as well.6 Sarsaparilla has been used for treating syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases throughout the world and was documented as an adjuvant for leprosy treatment in 1959.7 S. china (Ba Qia or Jin Gang Teng) was included in the 2010 Chinese Pharmacopoeia.8
The rhizomes and roots of the genus are of primary interest. Due to the diversity of the species, standardization of preparations is difficult.9
Smilax species contain a number of steroidal saponins, including sarsaponin, smilasaponin (smilacin), sarsaparilloside and its aglycones sarsasaponin (parillin), sarsasapogenin (parigenin), and smilagenin.1, 4, 10, 11 Other saponins include diosgenin, furostanol, tigogenin, and asperagenin,1, 10 as well as the phytosterols sitosterol, stigmasterol, and pollinastanol.1, 2 At least 50 phenolic compounds and flavonoids have been described.12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 Flavonol glycosides, such as isoastilbin, isoengetitin, and astilbin, have been identified.19 Other constituents in sarsaparilla include starch (50%), resin, cetyl alcohol, volatile oil, caffeoylshikimic acid, shikimic acid, ferulic acid, sarsapic acid, kaempferol, and quercetin. Minerals reported in the genus include aluminum, chromium, iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium, zinc, and others.1, 2, 20, 21, 22
The berries contain large amounts of carotenoids (up to 375 mcg/g fresh weight), including lycopene, beta-carotene, cryptoxanthin,23 while the leaves contain phenolic and flavonoid compounds.24
Uses and Pharmacology
In vitro studies report effects on inflammatory markers.22, 25, 26
Extracts of Smilax species have been shown to inhibit induced paw inflammation in rats26, 27 and antiproliferative activity in mice models of psoriasis.28
There are no clinical data regarding the use of sarsaparilla for anti-inflammatory effects.
Experiments report antioxidant activity for extracts of this genus.24, 29, 30, 31 Protective effects against oxidative stress and induced hepatotoxicity have been demonstrated.32, 33
There are no quality clinical data regarding the use of sarsaparilla for antioxidant activity.
Antimycotic activity has been described in a screening study.34 In vitro antimicrobial activity has been described for Smilax glabra rhizome extracts and Smilax campestris, including activity against Candida albicans.12, 35 Butanol extracts of S. china showed activity against HIV in vitro.36
There are no quality clinical data regarding the use of sarsaparilla for antimicrobial activity.
Studies with extracts for individual Smilax species have investigated cytotoxic activity against human cell lines (including cervical, hepatic, breast, gastric, and colon cancer), and induced tumors in mice.11, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41 In castrated mice with induced benign prostatic hyperplasia, extracts from S. china reduced dihydrotestosterone levels and histopathological examination reveals possible protective effect against prostate enlargement.8
Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of sarsaparilla in cancer.
In vitro studies suggest modulatory effects on endothelial dysfunction.42
Hypoglycemic effects have been demonstrated in mice, possibly via effects on inflammatory aspects of metabolic syndrome.43, 44 Astilbin protected against induced reperfusion injury in rats, possibly via modulation of proinflammatory markers.19 Astilbin and smitilbin from S. glabra, however, did not stimulate insulin secretion.45
In saline-challenged mice, Smilax canariensis (Canary Islands) increased diuresis similarly to hydrochlorothiazide and furosemide.46 S. glabra flavonoids inhibited induced intracellular calcium ion release in cardiomyoblast cells.47
There are no clinical data regarding the use of sarsaparilla in cardiovascular-related conditions.
A study in mice with induced seizures reported an antiepileptic effect (increased seizure latency) for extracts of the rhizome of S. china.48
There are no clinical data regarding the use of sarsaparilla in CNS-related conditions.
Several studies in hyperuricemic and hyperuricosuric rats have been conducted with positive findings. 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55
Rhizoma Smilacis Glabrae, in combination with ash bark, has been studied in patients with gout. The “Rebixiao” preparation was effective in reducing serum uric acid levels56; however, the study had methodological limitations.57
Sarsaparilla may bind to endotoxins; however, clinical studies are lacking.4 An older study conducted in the 1940s suggested sarsaponin improved psoriasis.58 The fact that the saponin sarsasapogenin can be synthetically transformed into testosterone bears no relevance in vivo. A review of more than 600 commercially available supplements determined that no research validated purported ergogenic claims.59, 60
Clinical trials are lacking to provide guidance on therapeutic dosages. Typical sarsaparilla doses for a variety of uses range from 0.3 to 2 g/day of the powdered root.61, 62
Pregnancy / Lactation
Avoid use. Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking. Estrogenic and antiestrogenic activities have been described for extracts of Smilax corbularia (Thai sarsaparilla).41
Case reports are lacking. Hepatic induction of cytochrome P450 2A6 has been described for extracts of S. china species.63 An increased absorption of digitalis and elimination of hypnotics may be expected.64 An additive effect with diuretics and allopurinol might also be anticipated, based on animal studies.46, 53
Clinical studies are lacking to provide evidence (or lack of evidence) of harm; however, traditional use of sarsaparilla, eaten raw or in soups and used in Chinese medicine, suggests safety at usual dosages.2, 38 GI irritation and increased diuresis have been reported.2, 60 Occupational asthma caused by sarsaparilla root dust has been reported.64
Information regarding toxicology with the use of sarsaparilla is limited.
1. Newall C, Anderson L, Phillipson J. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals
. London, England: Pharmaceutical Press; 1996:233-234.
2. Duke J, Bogenschutz-Godwin M, duCellier J, Duke P. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs
. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2002.
3. Smilax aristolochiifolia
. USDA, NRCS. 2015. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov
, 2015). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
4. Murray M. The Healing Power of Herbs
. 2nd ed. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing; 1995:302-305.
5. Estes J. The European reception of the first drugs from the New World. Pharm Hist
6. Elferink JG. The significance of pre-Columbian pharmaceutical knowledge for European medicine in the XVΙth
century. Pharm Acta Helv
7. Rollier R. Treatment of lepromatous leprosy by a combination of DDS and sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata
). Int J Lepr
8. Chen J, Xiong CM, Song SS, Han P, Ruan JL. Fraction of macroporous resin from Smilax china
L. inhibits testosterone propionate-induced prostatic hyperplasia in castrated rats. J Med Food
9. Martins AR, Abreu AG, Bajay MM, et al. Development and characterization of microsatellite markers for the medicinal plant Smilax brasiliensis
(Smilacaceae) and related species. Appl Plant Sci
10. Liang Y, Yao S, Liang F, et al. Structural characterization of steroidal saponins from Smilax trinervula
using ultra high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with LTQ-Orbitrap mass spectrometry. J Chromatogr B Analyt Technol Biomed Life Sci
11. Xu J, Feng S, Wang Q, Cao Y, Sun M, Zhang C. Four new furostanol saponins from the rhizomes and roots of Smilax scobinicaulis
and their cytotoxicity. Molecules
12. Xu S, Shang MY, Liu GX, et al. Chemical constituents from the rhizomes of Smilax glabra
and their antimicrobial activity. Molecules
13. Bernardo RR, Pinto AV, Parente JP. Steroidal saponins from Smilax officinalis
14. Ju Y, Jia ZJ. Steroidal saponins from the rhizomes of Smilax menispermoidea
15. Kubo S, Mimaki Y, Sashida Y, Nikaido T, Ohmoto T. Steroidal saponins from the rhizomes of Smilax sieboldii
16. Okanishi T, Akahori A, Yasuda F. Studies on the steroidal components of domestic plants. XLVΙΙ. Constituents of the stem of Smilax sieboldi
Miq. (1). The structure of laxogenin. Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo)
17. Jia ZH, Ju Y. Steroidal saponins from Smilax lebrunii
18. Sashida Y, Kubo S, Mimaki Y, Nikaido T, Ohmoto T. Steroidal saponins from Smilax riparia
and S. china
19. Diao H, Kang Z, Han F, Jiang W. Astilbin protects diabetic rat heart against ischemia-reperfusion injury via blockade of HMGB1-dependent NF-kappaB signaling pathway. Food Chem Toxicol
20. Chen G, Shen L, Jiang P. Flavanonol glucosides of Smilax glabra
Roxb [in Chinese]. Chung Kuo Chung Yao Tsa Chih
. 1996;21(6):355-357, 383.9388924
21. Li YQ, Yi YH, Tang HF, Xiao K. Studies on the structure of isoastilbin [in Chinese]. Yao Xue Xue Bao
22. Lu CL, Zhu YF, Hu MM, et al. Optimization of astilbin extraction from the rhizome of Smilax glabra
, and evaluation of its anti-inflammatory effect and probable underlying mechanism in lipopolysaccharide-induced RAW264.7 macrophages. Molecules
23. Delgado-Pelayo R, Hornero-Méndez D. Identification and quantitative analysis of carotenoids and their esters from sarsaparilla (Smilax aspera
L.) berries. J Agric Food Chem
24. Huang AC, Wilde A, Ebmeyer J, Skouroumounis GK, Taylor DK. Examination of the phenolic profile and antioxidant activity of the leaves of the Australian native plant Smilax glyciphylla
. J Nat Prod
25. Lu CL, Zhu W, Wang M, Xu XJ, Lu CJ. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of phenolic-enriched extracts of Smilax glabra
. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med
26. Ruangnoo S, Jaiaree N, Makchuchit S, Panthong S, Thongdeeying P, Itharat A. An in vitro inhibitory effect on RAW 264.7 cells by anti-inflammatory compounds from Smilax corbularia
Kunth. Asian Pac J Allergy Immunol
27. Ageel AM, Mossa JS, al-Yahya MA, al-Said MS, Tariq M. Experimental studies on antirheumatic crude drugs used in Saudi traditional medicine. Drugs Exp Clin Res
28. Vijayalakshmi A, Ravichandiran V, Malarkodi V, Nirmala S, Jayakumari S. Screening of flavonoid "quercetin" from the rhizome of Smilax china
Linn. for anti-psoriatic activity. Asian Pac J Trop Biomed
29. Park G, Kim TM, Kim JH, Oh MS. Antioxidant effects of the sarsaparilla via scavenging of reactive oxygen species and induction of antioxidant enzymes in human dermal fibroblasts. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol
30. Yoon SR, Yang SH, Suh JW, Shim SM. Fermentation of Smilax china
root by Aspergillus usami
and Saccharomyces cerevisiae
promoted concentration of resveratrol and oxyresveratrol and the free-radical scavenging activity. J Sci Food Agric
31. Xia D, Yu X, Liao S, Shao Q, Mou H, Ma W. Protective effect of Smilax glabra
extract against lead-induced oxidative stress in rats. J Ethnopharmacol
32. Xia D, Fan Y, Zhang P, Fu Y, Ju M, Zhang X. Protective effects of the flavonoid-rich fraction from rhizomes of Smilax glabra
Roxb. on carbon tetrachloride-induced hepatotoxicity in rats. J Membr Biol
33. Murali A, Ashok P, Madhavan V. Effect of Smilax zeylanica
roots and rhizomes in paracetamol induced hepatotoxicity. J Complement Integr Med
. 2012;9:Article 29.23152428
34. Caceres A, Lopez BR, Giron MA, Logemann H. Plants used in Guatemala for the treatment of dermatophytic infections. 1. Screening for antimycotic activity of 44 plant extracts. J Ethnopharmacol
35. Morais MI, Pinto ME, Araújo SG, et al. Antioxidant and antifungal activities of Smilax campestris
Griseb. (Smilacaceae). Nat Prod Res
36. Wang WX, Qian JY, Wang XJ, Jiang AP, Jia AQ. Anti-HIV-1 activities of extracts and phenolics from Smilax china
L. Pak J Pharm Sci
37. Gao Y, Su Y, Qu L, et al. Mitochondrial apoptosis contributes to the anti-cancer effect of Smilax glabra
Roxb. Toxicol Lett
38. Cao B, Zhang Z, Zhang Y, Li J, Liang G, Ling J. Effect of Smilax china
L.-containing serum on the expression of POLD1 mRNA in human hepatocarcinoma SMMC-7721 cells. Exp Ther Med
39. Wang WX, Li TX, Ma H, Zhang JF, Jia AQ. Tumoral cytotoxic and antioxidative phenylpropanoid glycosides in Smilax riparia
A. DC. J Ethnopharmacol
40. Wu LS, Wang XJ, Wang H, Yang HW, Jia AQ, Ding Q. Cytotoxic polyphenols against breast tumor cell in Smilax china
L. J Ethnopharmacol
41. Wungsintaweekul B, Umehara K, Miyase T, Noguchi H. Estrogenic and anti-estrogenic compounds from the Thai medicinal plant, Smilax corbularia
42. Sang HQ, Gu JF, Yuan JR, Zhang MH, Jia XB, Feng L. The protective effect of Smilax glabra
extract on advanced glycation end products-induced endothelial dysfunction in HUVECs via RAGE-ERK1/2-NF-kappaB pathway. J Ethnopharmacol
43. Fukunaga T, Miura T, Furuta K, Kato A. Hypoglycemic effect of the rhizomes of Smilax glabra
in normal and diabetic mice. Biol Pharm Bull
44. Amaro CA, González-Cortazar M, Herrera-Ruiz M, et al. Hypoglycemic and hypotensive activity of a root extract of Smilax aristolochiifolia
, standardized on N-trans-feruloyl-tyramine. Molecules
45. Nguyen KH, Ta TN, Pham TH, et al. Nuciferine stimulates insulin secretion from beta cells-an in vitro comparison with glibenclamide. J Ethnopharmacol
46. Abdala S, Martin-Herrera D, Benjumea D, Gutiérrez SD. Diuretic activity of some Smilax canariensis
fractions. J Ethnopharmacol
47. Shou Q, Pan S, Tu J, et al. Modulation effect of Smilax glabra
flavonoids on ryanodine receptor mediated intracellular Ca2+ release in cardiomyoblast cells. J Ethnopharmacol
48. Vijayalakshmi A, Ravichandiran V, Anbu J, Velraj M, Jayakumari S. Anticonvulsant and neurotoxicity profile of the rhizome of Smilax china
Linn. in mice. Indian J Pharmacol
49. Giachetti D, Taddei I, Taddei E. Effects of Smilax macrophylla
Vers. in normal or hyperuricemic and hyperuricosuric rats. Pharmacol Res Commun
. 1988;(20)(suppl 5):59-62.3247354
50. Xu WA, Yin L, Pan HY, et al. Study on the correlation between constituents detected in serum from Rhizoma Smilacis Glabrae and the reduction of uric acid levels in hyperuricemia. J Ethnopharmacol
51. Wu XH, Zhang J, Wang SQ, Yang VC, Anderson S, Zhang YW. Riparoside B and timosaponin J, two steroidal glycosides from Smilax riparia
, resist to hyperuricemia based on URAT1 in hyperuricemic mice. Phytomedicine
52. Wu XH, Yu CH, Zhang CF, Anderson S, Zhang YW. Smilax riparia
reduces hyperuricemia in mice as a potential treatment of gout. Am J Chin Med
53. Wu XH, Wang CZ, Wang SQ, et al. Anti-hyperuricemia effects of allopurinol are improved by Smilax riparia
, a traditional Chinese herbal medicine. J Ethnopharmacol
54. Wu XH, Ruan JL, Zhang J, Wang SQ, Zhang YW. Pallidifloside D, a saponin glycoside constituent from Smilax riparia
, resist to hyperuricemia based on URAT1 and GLUT9 in hyperuricemic mice. J Ethnopharmacol
55. Chen L, Yin H, Lan Z, et al. Anti-hyperuricemic and nephroprotective effects of Smilax china
L. J Ethnopharmacol
56. Ji W, Zhu XX, Tan WF, Lu Y. Effects of Rebixiao granules on blood uric acid in patients with repeatedly attacking acute gouty arthritis. Chin J Integr Med
57. Li XX, Han M, Wang YY, Liu JP. Chinese herbal medicine for gout: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Clin Rheumatol
58. Rafatullah S, Mossa JS, Ageel AM, Al-Yahya MA, Tariq M. Hepatoprotective and safety evaluation studies on sarsaparilla. Int J Pharmacognosy
59. Grunewald KK, Bailey RS. Commercially marketed supplements for bodybuilding athletes. Sports Med
60. King DS, Baskerville R, Hellsten Y, et al. A-Z of nutritional supplements: dietary supplements, sports nutrition foods and ergogenic aids for health and performance-Part 34. Br J Sports Med
61. Claus E, ed. Pharmacognosy
. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febiger; 1956.
62. Gruenwald J, ed. PDR for Herbal Medicines
. 2nd ed. Montvale, NJ: Thomson Medical Economics; 2000: 661-662.
63. Kim KM, Suh JW, Yang SH, Kim BR, Park TS, Shim SM. Smilax china
root extract detoxifies nicotine by reducing reactive oxygen species and inducing CYP2A6. J Food Sci
64. Vogel JH, Bolling SF, Costello RB, et al; American College of Cardiology Foundation Task Force on Clinical Expert Consensus Documents. Integrating complementary medicine into cardiovascular medicine. A report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation Task Force on Clinical Expert Consensus Documents (Writing Committee to Develop an Expert Consensus Document on Complementary and Integrative Medicine). J Am Coll Cardiol
65. Vandenplas O, Depelchin S, Toussaint G, Delwiche JP, Weyer RV, Saint-Remy JM. Occupational asthma caused by sarsaparilla root dust. J Allergy Clin Immunol
This information relates to an herbal, vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplement. This product has not been reviewed by the FDA to determine whether it is safe or effective and is not subject to the quality standards and safety information collection standards that are applicable to most prescription drugs. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to take this product. This information does not endorse this product as safe, effective, or approved for treating any patient or health condition. This is only a brief summary of general information about this product. It does NOT include all information about the possible uses, directions, warnings, precautions, interactions, adverse effects, or risks that may apply to this product. This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your health care provider. You should talk with your health care provider for complete information about the risks and benefits of using this product.
This product may adversely interact with certain health and medical conditions, other prescription and over-the-counter drugs, foods, or other dietary supplements. This product may be unsafe when used before surgery or other medical procedures. It is important to fully inform your doctor about the herbal, vitamins, mineral or any other supplements you are taking before any kind of surgery or medical procedure. With the exception of certain products that are generally recognized as safe in normal quantities, including use of folic acid and prenatal vitamins during pregnancy, this product has not been sufficiently studied to determine whether it is safe to use during pregnancy or nursing or by persons younger than 2 years of age.
Copyright © 2019 Wolters Kluwer Health
Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.
More about sarsparilla
Related treatment guides