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Sassafras

Scientific Name(s): Laurus albidus, Sassafras albidum
Common Name(s): Ague tree, Asari Radix et Rhizoma, Cinnamon wood, Saloop, Sassafras, Saxifras, Winauk

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Nov 1, 2018.

Clinical Overview

Use

Sassafras has been used for a variety of illnesses, but the safrole in sassafras root bark and oil has been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), including for use as a flavoring or fragrance. The constituent safrole has been used in the illegal production of 3,4-methylene-dioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also known by the street names "ecstasy" or "Molly," and the sale of safrole and sassafras oil is monitored by the US Drug and Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Dosing

Clinical applications are lacking to provide guidance. Long-term use should be avoided due to the potential carcinogenicity of its constituent safrole. Sassafras root bark has been traditionally used at doses of 10 g.

Contraindications

No longer considered safe for use.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Avoid use. Documented emmenagogue and abortifacient effects. Information on use during breast-feeding is lacking.

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

Diaphoresis, hot flashes, and dermatitis have been reported.

Toxicology

Sassafras oil and safrole have demonstrated carcinogenicity in animal studies. Symptoms of sassafras oil poisoning in humans include vomiting, stupor, lowering of body temperature, exhaustion, tachycardia, spasms, hallucinations, and paralysis, and may also be fatal.

Scientific Family

  • Lauraceae (laurel)

Botany

There are 3 recognized species of sassafras trees, 2 native to Asia (Sassafras tzuma, Sassafras randaiense) and 1 native to eastern North America (Sassafras albidum). Fossils show that sassafras was once widespread in Europe, North America, and Greenland. The trees grow up to 30 m in height and 2 m in diameter, although they are usually smaller. Sassafras bears small, light-yellow flowers and leaves that are 10 to 15 cm long, oval on older branches but mitten-shaped or 3-lobed on younger shoots and twigs. All parts of the tree are strongly aromatic. The drug is from the peeled root of the plant (root bark).Bisset 1994, Khan 2009

Synonyms include L. albidus Nutt.; Laurus sassafras L.; S. albidum (Nutt.) Nees var. molle (Raf.) Fernald; Sassafras officinale Nees & Eberm.; Sassafras sassafras (L.) Karst., nom. inval.; Sassafras variifolium (Salisb.) Kuntze.USDA 2015 The plant should not be confused with the evergreen Doryphora sassafras.

History

Native Americans used sassafras for centuries and told early settlers that it would cure a variety of illnesses. The settlers then exported it to Europe, where it was ultimately found to be ineffective.Winter 1984 The experiences of explorers and physicians finding, identifying, and describing sassafras bark and other drugs during the late 16th century have been described.Estes 1995

The oil obtained from the roots and wood has been used as a scent in perfumes and soaps. The leaves and pith, when dried and powdered, have been used as a thickener in soups. The roots have often been dried and steeped for tea. The oil has been applied externally for the relief of insect bites and stings, and for eradicating lice. Other external uses have included treatment of rheumatism, gout, sprains, swelling, and cutaneous eruptions.Duke 2002, Newall 1996 Sassafras has also been used as a sweat-inducing agent, a flavoring for dentifrices, root beers, and tobaccos, and as a treatment for eye inflammation.Duke 2002, Khan 2009 Sassafras has been anecdotally thought to be a CNS stimulant.Duke 2002

The FDA banned the use of sassafras as a drug or food product due to potential carcinogenicity; however, its use and sale persist throughout the United States. Safrole-free sassafras is permitted for use.FDA 2014, Khan 2009

Chemistry

Sassafras oil consists of approximately 2% of the roots and 6% to 9% of the root bark. The main constituent of the oil is safrole, which chemically is p-allyl-methylenedioxybenzene. Safrole is composed of up to 80% of the oil. Volatile oil also contains anethole, pinene apiole, camphor, eugenol, and myristicin.Duke 1992, Newall 1996

The plant contains less than 0.2% total alkaloids (primarily boldine and its derivatives and reticuline) along with tannins, resins, mucilage, and wax.Duke 1992, Newall 1996 A wide variety of mineral elements are found in the leaves and stem of the plant.Duke 1992

An analysis has also been performed on sassafras teas using supercritical fluid extraction with gas chromatographic-mass spectrometric methods, commonly reporting 1% safrole levels.Heikes 1994

Uses and Pharmacology

Use of sassafras as a drug or food product has been banned by the FDA as potentially carcinogenic.FDA 2014, Khan 2009 Clinical trial data are lacking.

Cancer

Animal data

An in vitro study demonstrated apoptotic-inducing activity of safrole on human tongue squamous cancer cells.Heikes 1994 The plant has also been reported to have antineoplastic activity.Hartwell 1969

Clinical data

Sassafras has been shown to be potentially carcinogenic.FDA 2014, Khan 2009 Studies have suggested an association of oral squamous cell carcinoma among chewers of safrole-containing betel quid.Dietz 2011

Other uses

Antimicrobial

Antifungal activity of the essential oil of laurel plants, including sassafras, has been investigated in vitro.Simić 2004

Anti-inflammatory

A report compared safrole with indomethacin for anti-inflammatory activity and pain treatment in mice.Pereira 1989 Sassarandianol, extracted from the related S. randaiense plant, exhibited anti-inflammatory activity in vitro.Hou 2015

Cardiovascular

An N-acylhydrazone extract of sassafras oil showed vasodilatory and hypotensive activity in rats.Zapata-Sudo 2010

CNS

Safrole is used as the base material for piperonylmethylketone, a precursor to the illicit MDMA.Schäffer 2013 Gas chromatographic forensic analysis of sassafras oil has been used in Germany.Schäffer 2013

Dosing

Clinical applications are lacking to provide guidance. Long-term use should be avoided due to the potential carcinogenicity of its constituent safrole.Duke 2002, FDA 2014, Khan 2009 Sassafras root bark 10 g has been traditionally used.

Pregnancy / Lactation

Avoid use in pregnancy.Ernst 2002, Newall 1996 Documented emmenagogue and abortifacient effects. Information on use during breast-feeding is lacking.

Interactions

None well documented. Because safrole is a potent inhibitor of cytochrome P450 enzymes, interactions may be expected.Khan 2009, Segelman 1976, Ueng 2005 A case study in a 4-month-old infant reported sassafras oil in combination as a teething preparation resulted in false positive blood tests for diphenylhydantoin.Jones 1971

Adverse Reactions

Diaphoresis, hot flashes,Haines 1991 and contact dermatitis have been reported.Duke 2002

Toxicology

Safrole and its metabolite 1′-hydroxysafrole is genotoxic and hepatotoxic, and has caused hepatic tumors in animal studies.Chiang 2011, Dietz 2011, Khan 2009, Ueng 2005 Sassafras oil and safrole have thus been banned for use as flavors and food additives by the FDA because of their carcinogenic potential.Duke 2002, Newall 1996 One report suggested that safrole-free extracts have also induced malignant mesenchymal tumors in more than 50% of black rats treated.Benedetti 1977

Based on animal data and a margin of safety factor of 100, safrole 0.66 mg/kg body weight is considered hazardous for humans; the amount obtained from sassafras tea may be as high as 200 mg (3 mg/kg).Bisset 1994, Segelman 1976

Sassafras oil is toxic in doses as low as 5 mL in adults.Duke 2002, Grande 1987, Spoerke 1980 Symptoms of sassafras oil poisoning in humans include vomiting, stupor, lowering of body temperature, exhaustion, tachycardia, spasm, hallucinations, and paralysis, and may also be fatal.Duke 2002, Newall 1996

Index Terms

  • Laurus albidus Nutt.
  • Laurus sassafras L.
  • Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees var. molle (Raf.) Fernald
  • Sassafras officinale Nees & Eberm.
  • Sassafras randaiense
  • Sassafras sassafras (L.) Karst., nom. inval.
  • Sassafras tzuma
  • Sassafras variifolium (Salisb.) Kuntze

References

Benedetti MS, Malnoë A, Broillet AL. Absorption, metabolism and excretion of safrole in the rat and man. Toxicology. 1977;7(1):69-83.
Bisset N. Sassafras lignum. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. Stuttgart, Germany: CRC Press, 1994;455-56.
Chiang SY, Lee PY, Lai MT, et al. Safrole-2',3'-oxide induces cytotoxic and genotoxic effects in HepG2 cells and in mice. Mutat Res. 2011;726(2):234-241.21986196
Dietz BM, Bolton JL. Biological reactive intermediates (BRIs) formed from botanical dietary supplements. Chem Biol Interact. 2011;192(1-2):72-80.
Duke JA. Handbook of Biologically Active Phytochemicals and Their Activities. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Inc.; 1992.
Duke JA, Bogenschutz-Godwin M, duCellier J, Duke PK. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2002.
Ernst E. Herbal medicinal products during pregnancy: Are they safe? BJOG. 2002;109(3):227-235.
Estes JW. The European reception of the first drugs from the New World. Pharm Hist. 1995;37(1):3-23.
FDA. Code of Federal Regulations. 2014; 21: 3. CITE: 21CFR189.180.
Grande GA, Dannewitz SR. Symptomatic sassafras oil ingestion. Vet Hum Toxicol. 1987;29(6):447.
Haines J. Sassafras tea and diaphoresis. Postgrad Med. 1991;90(4):75-76.
Hartwell JL. Plants used against cancer. A survey. Lloydia. 1969;32(3):247-296.
Heikes DL. SFE with GC and MS determination of safrole and related allylbenzenes in sassafras teas. J Chromatogr Sci. 1994;32(7):253-258.
Hou YL, Chang HS, Wang HC, et al. Sassarandainol: a new neolignan and anti-inflammatory constituents from the stem of Sassafras randaiense. Nat Prod Res. 2015;29(9):827-832.
Jones MD Jr, Helfer RE. A teething lotion resulting in the misdiagnosis of diphenylhydantoin administration. Am J Dis Child. 1971;122(3):259-260.
Khan I, Abourashed E. Leung’s Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley; 2009.
Newall CA, Anderson LA, Phillipson JD. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals. London, England: Pharmaceutical Press; 1996.
Pereira EF, Pereira NA, Lima ME, Coelho FA, Barreiro EJ. Anti-inflammatory properties of new bioisosteres of indomethacin synthesized from safrole which are sulindac analogues. Braz J Med Biol Res. 1989;22(11):1415-1419.
Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees sassafras. USDA, NRCS. The PLANTS database (http://plants.usda.gov, 30 September 2015). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. 2015.
Schäffer M, Gröger T, Pütz M, Zimmermann R. Forensic profiling of sassafras oils based on comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography. Forensic Sci Int. 2013;229(1-3):108-115.
Segelman AB, Segelman FP, Karliner J, Sofia RD. Sassafras and herb tea. Potential health hazards. JAMA. 1976;236(5):477.
Simić A, Soković MD, Ristić M, Grujić-Jovanović S, Vukojević J, Marin PD. The chemical composition of some Lauraceae essential oils and their antifungal activities. Phytother Res. 2004;18(9):713-717.
Spoerke DG. Herbal Medications. Santa Barbara, CA: Woodridge Press; 1980.
Ueng YF, Hsieh CH, Don MJ. Inhibition of human cytochrome P450 enzymes by the natural hepatotoxin safrole. Food Chem Toxicol. 2005;43(5):707-712.
Winter R. The People's Handbook of Allergies and Allergens. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books; 1984.
Yu FS, Huang AC, Yang JS, et al. Safrole induces cell death in human tongue squamous cancer SCC-4 cells through mitochondria-dependent caspase activation cascade apoptotic signaling pathways. Environ Toxicol. 2012;27(7):433-444.
Zapata-Sudo G, Pereira SL, Beiral HJ, et al. Pharmacological characterization of (3-thienylidene)-3,4-methylenedioxybenzoylhydrazide: a novel muscarinic agonist with antihypertensive profile. Am J Hypertens. 2010;23(2):135-141.

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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.

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