Vine-like plants in the sarsaparilla family are found in many parts of the world. The most common form, Smilax officinalis, is grown primarily in Jamaica. Other common forms include S. glyciphylla (Australia), S. japicanga (Brazil), S. glabra (Sri Lanka), S. china (China), and S. luzonensis (Malaysia). The root is the part used medicinally.
Traditionally, various forms of sarsaparilla have been use to treat cancer, psoriasis, eczema, and other skin diseases. These uses are all tied together by an outdated treatment concept known as “blood purification.” It was thought that numerous ailments, including skin diseases, cancer, and other conditions, were due to impurities in the blood. Herbs said to have blood purifying properties, such as sarsaparilla, were used to correct this traditionally acknowledged problem.
Additionally, sarsaparilla was recommended for joint pain, “female problems,” and syphilis.
An entirely different plant, Aralia nudicaulis, is sometimes called “Wild Sarsaparilla.” However, it is more closely related to ginseng than to the forms of sarsaparilla discussed here.
Sarsaparilla should also not be confused with sassafras, a flavoring traditionally used in root beer.
There are no medicinal uses of sarsaparilla with meaningful scientific support.
Like numerous other herbs, sarsaparilla contains substances in the saponin family. One of these, sarsasapogenin, is often said to reproduce the effect of various hormones. However, there is no evidence whatsoever to support this claim.
Based on traditional usage, as well as ungrounded extrapolation from test tube findings, sarsaparilla is sold today as a treatment for psoriasis and other skin problems as well as cancer, menstrual disorders, and asthma. Other unsubstantiated uses include enhancing sexual function, improving mental function in Alzheimer’s disease, protecting the liver, and improving sports performance.
A typical dose of sarsaparilla is 2-4 g three times per day. Various tinctures are also available; these should be taken according to label instructions.
Although the use of sarsaparilla has not been associated with any serious adverse consequences, comprehensive safety studies have not been performed. Sarsaparilla is traditionally not recommended for use during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Safety in young children and people with liver or kidney disease is also questionable.
As with most substances taken orally, sarsaparilla may cause gastrointestinal distress. Germany’s Commission E also reports short-term “kidney irritation” as a side effect; what this means, precisely, remains unclear.
Note that though various species of sarsaparilla are often used somewhat interchangeably; it is quite possible that some varieties of this plant are safer than others.
Finally, some sarsaparilla products have been found to contain unsafe levels of lead.8
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8. Ang HH, Lee KL, Kiyoshi M. Determination of lead in Smilax luzonensis herbal preparations in Malaysia. Int J Toxicol. 2005;24:165-171.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015