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Medically reviewed on Oct 11, 2018

Scientific Name(s): Smilax species including Smilax aristolochiifolia Mill. (Mexican sarsaparilla), S. officinalis Kunth (Honduras sarsaparilla), Smilax regelii Killip et Morton (Honduras, Jamaican sarsaparilla), Smilax febrifuga Kunth (Ecuadorian sarsaparilla), Smilax ornata Lem. Family: Liliaceae.

Common Name(s): Sarsaparilla , smilax , smilace , sarsa , khao yen


Sarsaparilla has been used for treating syphilis, leprosy, psoriasis, and other ailments.


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.


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


None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

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


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


Sarsaparilla is a woody, trailing vine, which can grow to 50 meters in length. It is grown in the areas listed above. Many Smilax species are very similar in appearance regardless of origin. The part of the plant used for medicinal purposes is the root. Although 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. 1 , 2


The French physician 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. 3 Sarsaparilla has been used by many cultures for other ailments as well, including skin problems, arthritis, fever, digestive disorders, leprosy, and cancer. 1 , 3 Late 15 th century accounts explaining the identification and the first descriptions of American drugs include sarsaparilla. 4 Sarsaparilla's role as a medicinal plant in American and European remedies in the 16 th century is also evident. 5


Many Smilax species contain a number of steroidal saponins. S. sarsaparilla contains approximately 2% steroidal saponins, including sarsaponin, smilasaponin (smilacin), sarsaparilloside and its aglycones sarsasaponin (parillin), sarsasapogenin (parigenin), and smilagenin. 1 , 3 Other saponins include diosgenin, tigogenin, and asperagenin. 1 Phytosterols listed are sitosterol, stigmasterol, and pollinastanol. 1 , 2 One report lists three new steroidal saponins from S. officinalis . 6 Various saponins from other Smilex species exist as well, from S. menispermoidea , 7 S. sieboldii , 8 , 9 S. lebrunii , 10 S. riparia , and S. china . 11

Other constituents present in sarsaparilla include starch (50%), resin, cetyl alcohol, volatile oil, 1 , 2 caffeoylshikimic acid, shikimic acid, ferulic acid, 1 sarsapic acid, 12 kaempferol, and quercetin. 1 Minerals reported in the genus include aluminum, chromium, iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium, zinc, and others. 12 A related species, S. glabra , contains flavonol glycosides such as isoastilbin, isoengetitin, and astilbin. 13 , 14

Uses and Pharmacology

Sarsaparilla has been used for treating syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) throughout the world for 40 years and was documented as an adjuvant for leprosy treatment in 1959. 15

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. 3

Antibiotic/Leprosy treatment

Antibiotic actions of sarsaparilla are also seen but are probably secondary to its endotoxin-binding effects. 3

Animal data

Research reveals no animal data regarding the use of sarsaparilla for antibiotic/leprosy treatment.

Clinical data

Antibiotic properties of the plant 1 are shown by its treatment of leprosy and its actions against leptospirosis, a rare disease transmitted by rats, as proven by Chinese studies. 12

Psoriasis/Skin conditions

Other positive effects of sarsaparilla on the skin have been demonstrated. In addition, sarsaparilla has been used as an herbal or folk remedy for other skin conditions including eczema, pruritus, rashes, and wound care. 2 , 12

Animal data

Research reveals no animal data regarding the use of sarsaparilla for psoriasis/skin conditions.

Clinical data

The endotoxin-binding sarsaponin from the plant has improved psoriasis in 62% of patients and has completely cleared the disease in 18%, as seen in a 1940s study. 16 Antidermatophyte activity from the species S. regelii has been demonstrated in a later report. 17

Anti-inflammatory effects

Sarsaparilla's anti-inflammatory actions have made the plant useful for treating arthritis, rheumatism, and gout. 3 , 12

Animal data

S. sarsaparilla inhibited carrageenan-induced paw inflammation in rats, as well as cotton pellet-induced exudation. 18

Clinical data

Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of sarsaparilla for anti-inflammatory effects.

Other uses

The saponin sarsasapogenin can be synthetically transformed into testosterone, for example, but it is unlikely that this can happen in-vivo. Some advertising claims of sarsaparilla being a “rich source of testosterone,” are unsubstantiated as there is no testosterone present in the plant. 3 However, some sources state that sarsaparilla exhibits testosterogenic actions on the body, increasing muscle bulk and estrogenic actions as well to help alleviate female problems. In Mexico, the root is still used for its alleged aphrodisiac properties. 12 A recent review addresses smilax compounds (among others) present in bodybuilding supplements said to “enhance performance.” Results of the study of over 600 commercially available supplements determined that there was no research to validate these claims. 19

Other documented uses of sarsaparilla include the following: Improvement in appetite and digestion, 1 adaptogenic effects from S. regelii , 20 sarsaparilla in combination as an herbal remedy and mineral supplement, 21 and haemolytic activity of steroidic saponins from S. officinalis . 22 An overview of medicinal uses of sarsaparilla is available. 23 One report evaluating fracture healing finds sarsaparilla to have insignificant effects on tensile strength and collagen deposition. 24 Other species of smilax have been evaluated for antimutagenic actions ( S. china ), 25 GI disorders ( S. lundelii ), 26 and actions on hyperuricemic and hyperuricosuric rats ( S. macrophylla ). 27 The species S. glabra exhibits wormicidal effects, 28 improves hepatitis B in combination, 29 had marked therapeutic effects (in combination) in the treatment of intestinal metaplasia and atypical hyperplasia, 30 and hypoglycemic effects in mice, 31 and has displayed hepatoprotective effects in rats 32 , 33


Typical doses of sarsaparilla for a variety of uses range from 0.3 to 2 g/day of the powdered root. 34 , 35


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


None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

No major contraindications, warnings, or toxicity data have been documented with sarsaparilla use. No known problems have been seen regarding its use in pregnancy or lactation either; however, excessive ingestion should be avoided. 1 In unusually high doses, the saponins present in the plant could possibly be harmful, resulting in GI irritation. 2 The fact that sarsaparilla binds bacterial endotoxins in the gut, making them unabsorbable, greatly reduces stress on the liver and other organs. 3 Sarsaparilla has inhibited induced hepatocellular damage in rats, without any significant adverse reactions reported. 33

One report describing occupational asthma caused by sarsaparilla root dust exists in the literature. 36


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


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5. Elferink J. Significance of pre-Columbian pharmaceutical knowledge for European medicine in the XVΙ th century. Pharmaceutica Acta Helvitiae 1979;54(9-10):299-302.
6. Bernardo R, et al. Steroidal saponins from Smilax officinalis . Phytochemistry 1996;43(2):465-69.
7. Ju Y, et al. Steroidal saponins from the rhizomes of Smilax menispermoidea . Phytochemistry 1992;31(4):1349-51.
8. Kubo S, et al. Steroidal saponins from the rhizomes of Smilax sieboldii . Phytochemistry 1992;31(7):2445-50.
9. Okanishi T, et al. Studies on the steroidal components of domestic plants. XLVΙΙ. Constiuents of the stem of Smilax sieboldi Miq. (1). The structure of laxogenin. Chem Pharm Bull 1965;13(5):545-50.
10. Jia Z, et al. Steroidal saponins from Smilax lebrunii . Phytochemistry 1992;31(9):3173-75.
11. Sashida Y, et al. Steroidal saponins from Smilax riparia and S. china . Phytochemistry 1992;31(7):2439-43.
12. Chevallier A. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York, NY: DK Publishing 1996;268.
13. Chen G, et al. Flavanonol glucosides of Smilax glabra Roxb. Chung Kuo Chung Yao Tsa Chih 1996;21(6):355-57,383.
14. Li Y, et al. Studies on the structure of isoastilbin. Yao Hsueh Hsueh Pao 1996;31(10):761-63.
15. Rollier R. Int J Leprosy 1959;27:328-40.
16. Rafatullah S, et al. Hepatoprotective and safety evaluation studies on sarsaparilla. Int J Pharmacognosy 1991;29(4):296-301.
17. Caceres A, et al. Plants used in Guatemala for the treatment of dermatophytic infections. 1. Screening for antimycotic activity of 44 plant extracts. J Ethnopharmcol 1991 Mar;31(3):263-76.
18. Ageel A, et al. Experimental studies on antirheumatic crude drugs used in Saudi traditional medicine. Drugs Exp Clin Res 1989;15(8):369-72.
19. Grunewald K, et al. Commercially marketed supplements for bodybuilding athletes. Sports Med 1993;15(2):90-103.
20. Di Pasquale M. Stimulants and adaptogens. Part 2. Drugs in Sports 1993 Feb;2:2-4.
21. Hamlin T. Matol. Can J Hosp Pharm 1991;44(1):39-40.
22. Santos W, et al. Haemolytic activities of plant saponins and adjuvants. Effect of Periandra mediterranea saponin on the humoral response to the FML antigen of Leishmania donovani . Vaccine 1997;15(9):1024-29.
23. Osborne F, et al. Sarsaparilla. Can Pharm J 1996 Jun;129:48-51.
24. Ahsan S, et al. Studies on some herbal drugs used in fracture healing. Int J Crude Drug Res 1989 Dec;27:235-39.
25. Lee H, et al. Antimutagenic activity of extracts from anticancer drugs in Chinese medicine. Mutat Res 1988;204(2):229-34.
26. Caceres A, et al. Plants used in Guatemala for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders. 1. Screening of 84 plants against enterobacteria. J Ethnopharmacol 1990;30(1):55-73.
27. Giachetti D, et al. Effects of Smilax macrophylla Vers. in normal or hyperuricemic and hyperuricosuric rats. Pharmacol Res Commun 1988;20 Suppl 5:59-62.
28. Rhee J, et al. Screening of the wormicidal Chinese raw drugs on Clonorchis sinensis . Am J Chin Med 1981;9(4):277-84.
29. Chen Z. Clinical study of 96 cases with chronic hepatitis B treated with jiedu yanggan gao by a double-blind method. Chung Hsi I chieh Ho Tsa Chih 1990;10(2):71-74, 67.
30. Liu X, et al.Treatment of intestinal metaplasia and atypical hyperplasia of gastric mucosa with xiao wei yan powder. Chung Kuo Chung Hsi I chieh Ho Tsa Chih 1992;12(10):602-3, 580.
31. Fukunaga T, et al. Hypoglycemic effect of the rhizomes of Smilax glabra in normal and diabetic mice. Biol Pharm Bull 1997;20(1):44-46.
32. Chen T, et al. A new flavanone isolated from rhizoma smilacis glabrae and the structural requirements of its derivatives for preventing immunological hepatocyte damage. Planta Med 1999;65(1):56-59.
33. Thurman F. New Engl J Med 1942;227:128-33.
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35. Gruenwald J, ed. PDR for Herbal Medicines . 2nd ed. Montvale, NJ: Thomson Medical Economics; 2000: 661-662.
36. Vandenplas O, et al. Occupational asthma caused by sarsaparilla root dust. J Allergy Clin Immunol 1996;97(6):1416-18.

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