Sarsaparilla: Benefits, Side Effects, Dosage, and Interactions

Used for the treatment of skin issues, joint pain, and kidney and liver disease

Sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla.

 

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Sarsaparilla, a plant with a medicinal root, is used by health care professionals throughout the world to treat skin ailments, flu-like symptoms, and kidney and liver disease. The United States Pharmacopoeia also registered sarsaparilla to treat syphilis, one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) affecting more than 100,000 people in this country every year.

From the genus Smilax, sarsaparilla grows in deep rainforests found in the warm climates of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies. Other common names include Khao yern, Jupicanga, Liseron epineux and Zarzaparrillla.

Health Benefits

With proven, peer-reviewed benefits, sarsaparilla indeed provides a healing effect on the body. The plant is found in herbal preparations to help with ailments such as improving immune functions and relieving joint inflammation.

The plant’s curative properties stem from its active chemical compounds, which include:

  • Saponins—These anti-inflammatory compounds assist in killing bacteria.
  • Starch—The root is about 50% starch, which provides fiber for gut health.
  • Phytosterols—Sarsaparilla's plant sterols benefit the digestive system and support heart health.

Sarsaparilla's other health benefits include the following, although more studies are necessary to support the claims:

Cancer Prevention
In a study published in Anticancer Research, 24 extracts were obtained from wild sarsaparilla, including stem, leaf and fruit excerpts. Researchers found that these plant components yielded anticancer properties with little side effects and low cost.

Similarly, polyphenols of the sarsaparilla were found to contain anti-tumor activities in breast cancer tumors per a recent Chinese study.

Liver Protection
Sarsaparilla offers a hepatoprotective effect, which is an ability to prevent damage to the liver. In a study from Pharmaceutical Biology, researchers conducted acute and chronic toxicity examinations to understand the prolonged use of the plant. They found that sarsaparilla produced hepatoprotective potential, as well as did not cause any substantial side effects.

Syphilis Treatment
Throughout history, sarsaparilla was used to combat syphilis, a common STD. Today, medical professionals use standard conventional drugs to treat syphilis, but sarsaparilla can be used in conjunction with traditional, prescription medicine for a more inclusive treatment program.

Natural Treatment for Skin Issues
Considered a safe, natural remedy for skin problems ranging from psoriasis to contact dermatitis, sarsaparilla has been studied since the 1940s for its use as a favorable treatment for a range of dermatological issues. In such studies, researchers found that flavonoid isolates from sarsaparilla's root contain compounds that suppress T lymphocytes that contribute to skin inflammation.

Cough Prevention
Teas and supplements containing sarsaparilla are used to prevent coughs and other flu-like symptoms because the herb works to improve the immune system and kill the bacteria that causes a cold in the first place.

Possible Side Effects

Any time you use herbal supplements, you should consider the safety concerns and discuss them with your doctor. Although sarsaparilla is generally considered safe for medicinal use, you can experience stomach pain if taken in large doses.

You should not take sarsaparilla if any of the following apply:

  • Pregnant/breastfeeding: Due to the lack of evidence showing sarsaparilla as a safe supplement during pregnancy, you should avoid use.
  • Kidney disease: Because of the plant’s hepatoprotective properties, sarsaparilla could be considered contraindicated. You should see a doctor to make sure.
  • Asthma: The herb can exacerbate the symptoms of asthma.
  • Dehydrated: Sarsaparilla can act as a diuretic, causing you to urinate more often than usual. When in the sun, after a long workout, or when you’re sick and unable to hold down liquids, you should stay away from use. 

Dosage and Preparation

The appropriate dose depends on your age, health, and tolerance to herbs. You should pay attention to the label and not take more than the recommended daily allowance. You might also want to take it with food as sarsaparilla could upset the stomach, especially when first introducing it into your diet. As always, check with your doctor before you start.

What to Look For

You should take care when reading herbal supplement labels. Sarsaparilla is often confused with fake sarsaparilla or Indian Sarsaparilla, also listed as Hemidesmus indicus. This false sarsaparilla does not contain any of the healing properties found in true Smilax.

Most modern-day foods, such as beverages and candy, do not contain traditional sarsaparilla. Almost everything sold in stores marketed as sarsaparilla or sassafras contains artificial flavors and colors—you will not receive any of the health benefits the plant offers.

You might have heard of cowboys of the Old West drinking a sarsaparilla soda, known for its distinct flavor profile: a combination of sweet and bitter. But the drink actually did not contain any ingredients from the plant. Rather, the beverage included sassafras flavoring.

Other Questions

Where can I Purchase Sarsaparilla?
You can find sarsaparilla in grocery stores, health food stores, and online supplement stores. You will find the plant in products ranging from healthy teas, herb supplements, powders, and capsules. The cost typically starts at $9 on up.

What Myths are Associated with Sarsaparilla?
Bodybuilding, skill-based and endurance athletes will use sarsaparilla as a steroid, attempting to enhance their sports performance. Supplement companies will tout the sterols within the plant for their abilities to convert to anabolic steroids, such as testosterone. No research supports this claim. In fact, no testosterone has ever been found in any plant.

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