The Health Benefits of Sarsaparilla

Sarsaparilla is a woody, tropical vine that’s found in Mexico, South America, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Honduras, and the West Indies. It comes in several different forms that are all known by the botanical name Smilax. Its other common names include Liseron epineux, Liseron piquant, Salsaparilha, Zarzaparrilla, Khao yern, and Jupicanga, among others.

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.

Health Benefits

Many parts of the sarsaparilla plant are used as flavorings in foods and beverages. Interestingly, the 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.

The sarsaparilla root has been used medicinally for centuries. It is sometimes used in alternative medicine today, and it has been studied to a degree by modern scientists. Some health claims may be accurate if preliminary studies are correct; however, some claims are false or have yet to be investigated.

In old folk medicine and alternative medicine, you run across often unsubstantiated claims that the sarsaparilla root is effective in a variety of ways, including:

  • Preventing and treating cancer
  • Lowering inflammation
  • Increasing sex drive
  • Boosting the immune system
  • Improving weight loss
  • Treating skin problems (such as dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis)
  • Detoxifying the body
  • Relieving digestive problems
  • Improving kidney health
  • Increasing muscle mass from working out
  • Treating syphilis

None of these claims are considered proven by medical science, and sarsaparilla hasn’t been studied for all of them either. 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.

The medicinal uses that research has shown some support for include:

  • Treating cancer
  • Protecting the skin
  • Lessening inflammation and pain
  • Improving kidney function

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 seen in mice, however, which means that 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. In one study published in PLoS One, a peer-reviewed science journal, Chinese scientists found that sarsaparilla was able to stop cancer from spreading by inhibiting signaling of something called transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-ß1).

Later, the journal Nutrition and Cancer published a paper by many of the same researchers that suggested sarsaparilla promoted beneficial changes in cancerous cells that slowed growth and increased cellular death.

Only time will tell as to whether these findings will be supported by further investigation, but the early results do appear promising.

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.

The study concluded that sarsaparilla root can protect collagen production from damage due to rays of the sun.

This should contribute to having skin appear younger and healthier.

Additionally, a study published in an edition of Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy suggested that a substance 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 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.

Improving 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.

Researchers say astilbin also inhibited a process that’s hazardous to the kidneys in mice with abnormally high levels of uric acid in their blood, which can be the result of kidney disease. It also appeared to play an anti-inflammatory role.

Sarsaparilla also has been shown to increase urine output, which can be beneficial to the kidneys and help prevent or relieve fluid retention.

Other preliminary studies appear to support these results.

These kinds of findings may be used to support claims of sarsaparilla’s “detoxifying” properties. The need to detox isn’t supported by medical science in people without severe liver and/or kidney disease. These organs, when functioning properly, prevent toxins from building up in your body.

Therefore, it is important to be careful with any products claiming to detoxify you. Be sure to consult with a doctor first.

Increasing 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.

Possible Side Effects

Sarsaparilla is generally considered a safe supplement with few side effects. High doses may result in stomach upset. An allergic reaction is possible.

Because it's a diuretic and increases urine output, it is best not to take sarsaparilla while you're dehydrated.

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

Dosage and Preparation

So far, there is no recommended dosage for sarsaparilla. Amounts in supplement preparations vary, and quite often, specific amounts aren’t listed on the label.

The effect of sarsaparilla may vary depending on which specific type of sarsaparilla plant is used, and depending on which parts are included. The root is most often used medicinally, but you sometimes find leaves or berries used as well.

If you’re considering sarsaparilla supplementation, be sure to talk to your doctor and pharmacist about dosages and forms, as well as any potential risks based on your medical history and any medications you may be taking.

What to Look for

You can find sarsaparilla supplements in numerous forms including capsules, tablets, tinctures, and powders.

Modern forms of the drink called sarsaparilla don’t generally contain any part of the plant—it may not even 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.

Other Questions

Since sarsaparilla is natural, does that mean it is safe to add as a supplement to my diet?

A lot of people believe that if something is natural, that means it’s perfectly safe. That’s not always the case. Many natural treatments have potentially dangerous side effects, can interact negatively with medications, and can even be toxic.

How do I know if sarsaparilla will negatively interact with my current medications?

You should always use caution with natural treatments and follow your doctor’s dosing recommendations. Your pharmacist can help you identify any potential problems with adding supplements to your treatment regimen.

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