What Is Sarsaparilla?

Sarsaparilla capsules, tablets, powder, and tincture

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Sarsaparilla (Smilax glabra) is a woody, tropical vine in the Smilacaceae family originating in Asia. It comes in several different forms that are all known by the botanical name Smilax.

It's also common to refer to sarsaparilla with the name of the country where it's found (Chinese sarsaparilla or Mexican sarsaparilla, for instance). Sarsaparilla is not to be confused, however, with Indian sarsaparilla—also known as fake sarsaparilla—which is another plant altogether.

This article discusses the traditional uses of sarsaparilla and if there is scientific evidence to support these traditional uses. It also covers any side effects and any cautions of sarsaparilla use.

Dietary supplements are not regulated in the United States, meaning the FDA does not approve them for safety and effectiveness before products are marketed. When possible, choose a supplement that has been tested by a trusted third party, such as USP, ConsumerLabs, or NSF. However, even if supplements are third-party tested, that doesn't mean that they are necessarily safe for all or effective in general. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider about any supplements you plan to take and to check in about any potential interactions with other supplements or medications.

Supplement Facts

  • Active Ingredient(s): Astilbin, phenylpropanoids, phenolic acids, flavonoids
  • Alternate Name(s): Greenbriar, catbrier, greenbrier
  • Legal Status: Herbal supplement
  • Suggested Dose: 4 drops in a tsp of water 3 times per day
  • Safety Considerations: digoxin, bismuth subsalicylate, pregnant or breastfeeding

Uses of Sarsaparilla

Supplement use should be individualized and vetted by a healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, pharmacist, or doctor. No supplement is intended to treat, cure, or prevent disease.

The sarsaparilla root has been used medicinally for centuries. Many parts of the sarsaparilla plant are used as flavorings in foods and beverages. Interestingly, in the United States, the once-common drink named sarsaparilla—commonly associated with the Old West—didn’t actually contain any ingredients from the plant; it contained flavoring from the sassafras plant.

Treating Cancer

Sarsaparilla is believed to be an antioxidant, which means that it can lower your body’s levels of free radicals. Free radicals are essentially molecules that are out of balance, and high levels of them are believed to contribute to many diseases, including cancer.

So far, several studies suggest that sarsaparilla extract can slow the growth and migration of cancer cells, and possibly even kill them. The results are from cancer cells in a lab and were also seen in mice. However, we haven’t seen any human trials yet. Still, these promising early results may well lead to studies on humans down the road.

Researchers have identified a couple of mechanisms that they believe are at work in the anti-cancer processes of sarsaparilla. Preliminary studies have found that sarsaparilla was able to stop cancer from spreading by inhibiting the signaling of transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-ß1).

Later, research by some of the same researchers suggested sarsaparilla promoted beneficial changes in cancerous cells by slowing growth and increasing cancer cell death.

However, these findings need to be supported by further investigation in humans not just in the lab.

Protecting the Skin

Sarsaparilla’s antioxidant status may also make it beneficial to the health of your skin. In a study out of Korea, researchers wanted to see whether folk beliefs about sarsaparilla and the skin were scientifically verifiable.

They found that the root appeared to significantly inhibit oxidative damage and slow some processes associated with aging, which makes sense since these are known effects of antioxidants. Sarsaparilla also seemed to increase several beneficial substances in the body and decrease destructive ones. This should contribute to having skin appear younger and healthier.

Additionally, one study suggested that a flavonoid in sarsaparilla called astilbin shows promise as a treatment for the skin condition psoriasis.

Inflammation and Pain

A few preliminary studies support the claims that sarsaparilla is an anti-inflammatory, which could mean it has a role in treating inflammatory diseases such as hepatitis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Another study suggested that two extracts of the sarsaparilla plant were able to suppress multiple causes of inflammation, including nitric oxide, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and interleukin-6.

The journal Steroids published a paper that suggested numerous anti-inflammatory activities in a laboratory setting.

Again, the work is in the early stages, but the body of research is growing and much of it appears to agree with these results. This promising start may prompt further research.

Kidney Function

Chinese researchers looked at the potential of astilbin derived from Chinese sarsaparilla, mentioned above as a potential psoriasis treatment, for improving kidney function.

Oxidative stress, which is associated with free radicals and nitric oxide, can be harmful to the kidneys. As an antioxidant, astilbin appears to suppress oxidative stress and thereby offers some kidney protection.

These kinds of findings may be used to support claims of sarsaparilla's traditional detoxifying effect. However, the need to detox isn't supported by medical science in people without severe liver and/or kidney disease. Therefore, it is important to be careful with any products claiming to have detoxifying effects. Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider first before using any such supplements.

Muscle Mass

A claim that science refutes is that the body can use sarsaparilla in the same way it uses anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass from working out. These types of steroids are not found in sarsaparilla, so this claim is highly unlikely.

Even so, some supplement blends that purport to increase muscle mass do contain sarsaparilla.

Sarsaparilla, in addition to those discussed above, is used in folk medicine to also address other health issues such as:

  • Liver injury
  • Hyperinsulinemia
  • Skin issues
  • Gout
  • Treating syphilis

None of these claims are considered proven by medical science, and sarsaparilla hasn’t been studied for all of them. Some of these uses have limited support from preliminary studies that suggest sarsaparilla could show these effects, but it’s too early in the process to know for certain. Other claims have been disproven.

What Are the Side Effects of Sarsaparilla?

Sarsaparilla is generally considered a safe supplement with few side effects. As with all supplements, an allergic reaction is possible.

Common Side Effects

There are few known side effects of sarsaparilla. The known common side effect is stomach irritation.

If you should experience either of these effects while taking sarsaparilla, stop using it and consult with your healthcare provider.

Severe Side Effects

There are no severe side effects of sarsaparilla documented. One study did note, at the cellular level, that sarsaparilla did not show toxicity. However, as with all supplements, there is a risk of allergic reaction. A severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis is possible.

Signs of anaphylaxis include the swelling of the tongue and throat and hives. If you begin to experience any of these symptoms, seek medical assistance immediately. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening.

Precautions

The lack of research on sarsaparilla means there is also a lack of information on how it may affect certain groups or populations. It is not known how sarsaparilla will affect all health conditions.

There is no data on sarsaparilla’s safety for pregnancy or breastfeeding, so the recommendation is usually to avoid it during these times.

Sarsaparilla tablets
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Dosage: How Much Sarsaparilla Should I Take?

Always speak with a healthcare provider before taking a supplement to ensure that the supplement and dosage are appropriate for your individual needs.

When taking a capsule, it is recommended to take 1 - 4 grams of dried root. If you are taking a sarsaparilla tincture, the suggested dose is 5-10 mL per day.

These doses are only suggestions. Always discuss the dosage amount with your healthcare provider.

What Happens If I Take Too Much Sarsaparilla?

Sarsaparilla has no known upper limit. The lack of research and clinical data gives no evidence of what's considered too much.

When considering using sarsaparilla, it is best to discuss this with your healthcare provider. They can discuss proper dosing for you and your individual health needs.

Interactions

Sarsaparilla may interact with a couple of drugs. However, because of the small amount of research on sarsaparilla and its components, there may be other drugs with which it may interact.

Digoxin is a drug that helps the heart. Sarsaparilla may affect how much of this drug is absorbed into the body. With the potential of increased absorption, there is the potential for increased effects of digoxin.

It is important to carefully read the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel of a supplement to know which ingredients and how much of each is included. Please review the supplement label with your healthcare provider to discuss any potential interactions with foods, other supplements, and medications.

How to Store Sarsaparilla

When storing supplements, it is good to follow packing instructions. For storage and discard directions of sarsaparilla, follow the instructions found on the packaging.

Similar Supplements

Supplements that may have similar effects to sarsaparilla may be but are not limited to:

  • Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
  • Celery
  • Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
  • Nettle (Urtica dioica)
  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
  • Boswellia (Boswellia serrata)
  • Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa)
  • Devil's claw (Proboscidea parviflora)
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does sarsaparilla tea offer any benefits?

    There is a limited amount of information from studies that suggest sarsaparilla tea can offer health benefits. In fact, research has not fully proven of these benefits yet, but preliminary research has shown improved skin protection, reduced inflammation and pain, improved kidney function, and cancer treatment.

  • Where can you buy sarsaparilla root?

    There are online storefronts that sell sarsaparilla root by mail, but it is unlikely that the root is available at your local pharmacy or drug store. Sarsaparilla is more often sold in the form of a capsule, tablet, powder, or tincture.

Sources of Sarsaparilla & What To Look For

You can find sarsaparilla supplements in numerous forms. They can be found on the internet and in various grocery stores.

Modern forms of the drink called sarsaparilla don’t generally contain any part of the plant—it may not even contain the plant that the drink was made from historically (sassafras).

Instead, most of them now contain artificial flavors. That means drinking sarsaparilla soda will not give you the same benefits that consuming the root might.

Sarsaparilla Supplements

Sarsaparilla supplements come in capsule, tablet, tincture, and powder forms. These supplements are available over the counter (OTC, without a prescription).

Use caution when purchasing supplements, especially through the internet. These are not regulated by the FDA.

Summary

The many traditional medicinal uses of sarsaparilla have not been verified by clinical studies. There is early research on a few of the suspected health benefits of sarsaparilla. These are the effects it has on cancer, inflammation, skin issues, and kidney health. The preliminary research is promising. More clinical data is necessary to validate any claim of the health benefits of sarsaparilla.

It is important to discuss taking sarsaparilla with your healthcare provider. There is little information on dosing, precautions, and interactions. For this reason, it is not recommended for use by people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Dawn Sheldon, RN
Dawn Sheldon, RN, is a registered nurse and health writer. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge and empowering others.