Scientific Name(s): Laurus albidus, Sassafras albidum
Common Name(s): Ague tree, Asari Radix et Rhizoma, Cinnamon wood, Saloop, Sassafras, Saxifras, Winauk
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.
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
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
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
Antifungal activity of the essential oil of laurel plants, including sassafras, has been investigated in vitro.Simić 2004
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
An N-acylhydrazone extract of sassafras oil showed vasodilatory and hypotensive activity in rats.Zapata-Sudo 2010
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
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
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
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
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