The root of a tropical plant we associate with the 19th-century Western sarsaparilla drink has a long history of use in traditional medicine. The root can also be brewed as a tea or taken as an extract. Find out about the preparations of this herb that were lost in time and how to safely use it.
Sarsaparilla is the common name of a climbing plant genus called Smilax . Sarsaparillas grow well in warm and tropical regions, especially Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, and parts of the United States. Some varieties thrive in Southeast Asia and Australia. The main species are [ 1 +]: Honduran or Jamaican sarsaparilla ( Smilax ornata )
Mexican sarsaparilla ( Smilax aristolochiifolia )
Chinaroot ( Smilax glabra or Smilax china )
Sweet or Australian sarsaparilla ( Smilax glyciphylla )
Mediterranean sarsaparilla ( Smilax aspera )
Canary sarsaparilla ( Smilax canariensis )
Indigenous North American people used Honduran and Mexican sarsaparilla for arthritis and skin problems such as psoriasis, eczema, and allergic reactions .
The first European explorers introduced the plant to Europe in the 16th century. They considered it a safer alternative to mercury, which was used back then for syphilis.
Note: It’s important not to confuse true sarsaparilla with other plants also called sarsaparilla such as Indian ( Hemidesmus indicus ) and wild ( Aralia nudicaulis ) sarsaparilla . Although their roots are also used in traditional medicine, these plants are not even related to sarsaparilla and their compositions are totally different [ 2 , 3 ].
In the 19th and early 20th century, sarsaparilla was used to “purify blood,” reduce water retention, and promote sweating. Additionally, it was considered a remedy for [ 4 ]
Chinaroot – the sarsaparilla most commonly used in China – has been used since the 1960s for some similar indications. It was also thought to clear vaginal and sexually transmitted infections, as well as tuberculosis and scabies. Aside from these, the root was used to improve [ 1 +]: Limb stiffness and twitching (after stroke and brain injuries)
Sarsaparilla is also considered an aphrodisiac and sexual stimulant in China [ 14 ].
In other countries such as Thailand, Korea, and Sri Lanka, chinaroot is used to reduce inflammation, improve blood vessel health, and help with kidney and liver diseases. Its use in folk medicine even spans some serious conditions such as blood poisoning, cancer, and AIDS [ 1 +].
Many of these traditional uses remain, however, scientifically unproven.
The belowground parts (roots and underground stems) of sarsaparilla are most commonly used. Their main active components are: Steroidal saponins (such as dioscin, beta-sitosterol, stigmasterol, and daucosterol) [ 19 , 1 +, 20 ]
The berries contain high amounts of carotenoids, including lycopene and beta-carotene, while the leaves are rich in phenolic antioxidants [ 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 ].
Since it’s the main active component, sarsaparilla remedies used in traditional Chinese medicine are standardized to an astilbin content of at least 0.45% [ 1 +].
Sarsaparilla is described as a strong anti-inflammatory in some studies. Scientists think this might explains its tradititional use for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and skin allergies, but the evidence is inconclusive.
Its active components block inflammatory proteins (such as NF-kB and PI3K / AKT ) and activate the anti-inflammatory AMPK – PPARgamma in cells and animals [ 25 , 26 , 27 , 28 , 29 , 30 ].
Additionally, it reduces numerous inflammatory messengers, cytokines, and enzymes (such as TNF-alpha , IL-1beta , IL-6 , IFN-gamma , prostaglandins , COX-2 , MMP-9 , iNOS , and ICAM-1 ) in the lab [ 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 ].
Scientists are also investifating whether sarsaparilla reduces the production and development of immune cells (including T cells, neutrophils , Th1 7 , CD4+, CD8 +, and macrophages), kills some of them, and prevents them from reaching the epicenters of inflammation [ 30 , 35 , 33 , 36 , 28 ].
But that’s not all.
Its compounds (especially astilbin) seem to reduce free radicals by blocking the enzymes that promote their buildup and activating detox enzymes that neutralize them (such as SOD , CAT , and glutathione peroxidase ) [ 37 +, 38 , 39 , 40 , 41 , 42 ].
To sum it up, scientists think that sarsaparilla may block some key pathways in the body that raise inflammation and oxidative stress, while boosting detoxification. A synergy of these effects may account for its overall wellness benefits in animals. However, whether sarsaparilla acts by the same mechanisms in humans is unknown. Additional research is needed. Sarsaparilla is also the name of a soft drink that became very popular in the US during the 19th century. It is often associated with Wild West saloons in popular culture. The main ingredients were Honduran or Mexican sarsaparilla root, sassafras root bark, and other herbs such as licorice and anise. Sarsaparilla was very popular due to the belief that it could improve skin diseases, arthritis, and high blood pressure. However, one of the herbs in this mix turned out to carry serious risks. Sassafras contains a compound (safrole) that was discovered to cause liver damage and cancer. In the 1960s, the FDA banned sassafras altogether. And at the time, coke drinks became increasingly popular. As a result, sarsaparilla drinks quickly became a thing of the past [ 43 , 44 ].Most people describe the sugary-sweet taste of sarsaparilla similar to root beer. Several other herbs mixed into the beverage give it a bold, medicinal flavor. Some find it stronger than root beer and slightly less sweet.Numerous microbreweries in the US make sarsaparilla nowadays, while it’s even more popular in the UK and in parts of Asia and Australia. Ultimately, the taste will depend on the brand, country of origin, and exact ingredients.Have in mind that some brands add artificial flavors and may not contain sarsaparilla at all.For example, soft drinks with artificial flavors that mimic the taste of sarsaparilla are popular in countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Australia. […]