Sarsaparilla: Benefits, Side Effects, Dosage, and Interactions

Sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla.

 

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Sarsaparilla, a plant with a medicinal root, has been used by health care professionals throughout the world to treat skin ailments, flu-like symptoms, and kidney and liver disease. 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.

While the herbal treatment is commonly found in teas and supplements, there is not enough evidence to know for sure if it provides any safe or effective benefits to humans.

Health Benefits

Sarsaparilla is found in herbal preparations to help with ailments such as improving immune functions and relieving joint inflammation. The plant’s medicinal properties stem from its active chemical compounds, which include:

  • Saponins: These anti-inflammatory compounds assist in killing bacteria.
  • Phytosterols: Sarsaparilla's plant sterols support heart health.

Sarsaparilla may provide other benefits, although studies are ongoing to fully understand the impact it may have on human health.

Cancer Prevention

Researchers have conducted in vitro studies investigating whether or not sarsaparilla may play a role in cancer prevention. Different variations of the herb have been studied.

In an in vitro 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 a variation of the sarsaparilla plant were found to contain anti-tumor activities in breast cancer tumors according to a Chinese study.

So far only in vitro studies (research conducted on cells in a test tube or culture dish) have been performed. More studies are needed in humans to know for sure if it provides any benefit.

Liver Protection

Sarsaparilla may offer a hepatoprotective effect, which is an ability to prevent damage to the liver. But human studies are lacking.

In a rodent 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, and did not cause any substantial side effects, at least in rats.

Syphilis Treatment

Throughout history, sarsaparilla was used to combat syphilis, a common STD. Today, medical professionals use standard conventional drugs to treat syphilis. There is not enough current evidence to know if sarsaparilla should be used to treat the condition.

Natural Treatment for Skin Issues

Sarsaparilla has been studied since the 1940s for its use as a favorable treatment for a range of dermatological issues. But not enough evidence is available to know if the treatments provide any real benefit.

One study conducted in on aboriginal people in Australia suggests that sarsaparilla may provide a benefit in the treatment of skin related ailments and infections.

Results from one animal study suggest 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 by some people to prevent coughs and other flu-like symptoms. It is believed that the herb works to improve the immune system and kill certain bacteria. But human studies to support this benefit are lacking.

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: Theoretically, sarsaparilla may make kidney disease worse. Those with kidney impairment are advised caution.
  • Asthma: There are some (limited) reports of asthma caused by sarsaparilla root dust in occupational settings. So, there is some concern that the herb may exacerbate the symptoms of asthma. 
  • Dehydration: 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 may also want to take it with food as sarsaparilla could upset the stomach, especially when first introducing it.

As always, check with your doctor before you take this or other supplement.

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.

Most modern-day foods, such as beverages and candy, do not contain traditional sarsaparilla. Almost everything sold in stores marketed as sarsaparilla contains artificial flavors and colors.

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. Sassafras is a plant that was used to make medicine and flavor beverages. But it is no longer used because safrole—a compound found in sassafras—was determined to be toxic.

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 teas, herb supplements, powders, and capsules.

What myths are associated with sarsaparilla?
Athletes are sometimes tempted to use sarsaparilla to enhance performance thinking that it’s a source of testosterone. Sarsaparilla contains saponins that can mimic estrogen and testosterone in the body. But they are not equivalent to taking these hormones In fact, no testosterone has ever been found in any plant.

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Article Sources
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