Medically reviewed on June 13, 2018
Scientific Name(s): Sassafras albidum (Nuttal) Nees. Family: Lauraceae
Common Name(s): Sassafras , saxifras , ague tree , cinnamon wood , saloop
Sassafras has been used historically for a variety of illnesses, and is now banned in the US, even for use as a flavoring or fragrance.
Sassafras root bark has been used as an aromatic and carminative at doses of 10 g; however, the carcinogenicity of its constituent safrole has limited its use.
No longer considered safe.
Documented emmenagogue, abortifacient effects. Avoid use.
None well documented.
Besides being a cancer-causing agent, sassafras can induce vomiting, stupor and hallucinations. It can also cause abortion, diaphoresis, and dermatitis.
Sassafras oil and safrole have been banned for use as flavors and food additives by the FDA because of their carcinogenic potential.
Sassafras is the name applied to three species of trees, two native to eastern Asia and one native to eastern North America. Fossils show that sassafras was once widespread in Europe, North America and Greenland. The trees grow up to 100 feet in height and 6 feet in diameter, though they are usually smaller. Sassafras bears leaves 10 to 15 cm long that are oval on older branches but mitten-shaped or three-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). 1 Synonyms are S. officinale Nees et Erbem. and S. variifolium Kuntze.
Native Americans have used sassafras for centuries and told early settlers that it would cure a variety of ills. The settlers then exported it to Europe, where it was found to be ineffective. 2 A report on experiences of explorers and doctors finding, identifying and describing sassafras bark and other drugs during the late 16th century is available. 3
Over the years 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 are often dried and steeped for tea, and sassafras was formerly used as a flavoring in root beer. Its use as a drug or food product has been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as carcinogenic; however, its use and sale persist throughout the United States. Medicinally, sassafras has been applied to insect bites and stings to relieve symptoms. 2
The pleasant-tasting oil of sassafras 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, which comprises up to 80% of the oil. Volatile oil also contains anethole, pinene apiole, camphor, eugenol and myristicin. 4 , 5
The plant contains less than 0.2% total alkaloids (primarily boldine and its derivatives and reticuline) along with tannins, resins, mucilage and wax. 4 , 5 , 6 Six alkaloids, aporphine and benzylsoquinoline derivatives, have been found in root bark. 1 Two antimicrobial neolignans, magnolol and its related isomer (isomagnolol), from related species S. randaiensis have been isolated. 1 Analysis has also been performed on sassafras teas, using supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) with gas chromatographic-mass spectrometric (GC-MS) methods, commonly reporting 1% safrole levels. 7
Uses and Pharmacology
Sassafras has been used as a sudorific agent, 8 a flavoring agent for dentifrices, root beers and tobaccos, and for treatment of eye inflammation. 4 Extracts of the roots and bark have been found to mimic insect juvenile hormone in Oncopeltus fasciatus . 9 The oil has been applied externally for relief of insect bites and stings and for lice. Other external uses include treatment of rheumatism, gout, sprains, swelling and cutaneous eruptions. 4 , 5 A recent report compares safrole (the main constituent from sassafras oil), to indomethacin for anti-inflammatory activity and pain treatment in mice. 10
The plant has been reported to have antineoplastic activity 11 and to induce cytochorme P-488 and P-450 enzymes. 5 Sassafras is said to be antagonistic to certain alcohol effects. 4 Alcohol extracts of the related S. randaiense Rehder exhibit antimicrobial and antifungal activity in vitro, and this activity appears to be due to the presence of magnolol and isomagnolol. 12
Sassafras root bark has been used as an aromatic and carminative at doses of 10 g; however, the carcinogenicity of its constituent safrole has limited its use. 13
None well documented.
Sassafras can cause diaphoresis 17 and contact dermatitis in certain individuals. 4 A case study reported oil of sassafras in combination as a teething preparation, which resulted in false positive blood tests for diphenylhydantoin, in a 4-month-old child. 18
Sassafras oil and safrole have been banned for use as flavors and food additives by the FDA because of their carcinogenic potential. Safrole and its metabolite, 1′-hydroxysafrole, act as nerve poisons and have caused malignant hepatic tumors in animals. Based on animal data and a margin-of-safety factor of 100, a dose of 0.66 mg safrole per kg body weight is considered hazardous for humans; the dose obtained from sassafras tea may be as high as 200 mg (3 mg/kg). 1 , 19 One study showed that even a safrole-free extract produced malignant mesenchymal tumors in more than 50% of black rats treated. These tumors corresponded to malignant fibrous histiocytomas in humans. 20
Oil of sassafras is toxic in doses as small as 5 ml in adults. 21 Ingestion of 1 tsp (5 ml) produced shakes, vomiting, high blood pressure and pulse in a 47-year-old female. 22 Another case of a 1 tsp dose of sassafras oil in a young man also caused vomiting, along with dilated pupils, stupor and collapse. 4 There have been additional reports of the oil being fatal, 5 causing abortion 4 and causing liver cancer. 1 , 4 , 5 Safrole is a potent inhibitor of liver microsome hydroxylating enzymes; this effect may result in toxicity caused by altered drug metabolism. 19 Aqueous and alcoholic extracts of root bark can cause a range of effects in mice, inducing ataxia, ptosis, hypersensitivity to touch, CNS depression and hypothermia. Symptoms of sassafras oil poisoning in humans may include vomiting, stupor, lowering of body temperature, exhaustion, tachycardia, spasm, hallucinations, paralysis and collapse. 1 , 5
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22. Grande G, et al. Vet Hum Toxicol 1987;29:447.
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