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 benefits of this herb that were lost in time and how to safely use it.
What Is Sarsaparilla?
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 [R+]:
- 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 [R, R].
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 [R]:
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 [R+]:
- Limb stiffness and twitching (after stroke and brain injuries)
- Bone and muscle pain
Sarsaparilla is also considered an aphrodisiac and sexual stimulant in China [R].
In other countries such as Thailand, Korea, and Sri Lanka, sarsaparilla 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 [R+].
Many of these traditional uses remain scientifically unproven.
Does it Boost Testosterone?
There is no evidence to suggest that sarsaparilla increases testosterone, nor that it can help you gain more muscle.
Its active compounds, called steroidal saponins, are mistakenly perceived as prohormones that can be converted to testosterone in the human body.
- Reduces inflammation
- May soothe eczema
- Has antioxidant activity
- May help fight infections
- May protect the liver from damage
- Few adverse effects
- Insufficient evidence for most benefits
- Only investigated in combination with other herbs in clinical trials
- Low quality of some supplements (contaminated with heavy metals)
- Fraudulent bodybuilding claims
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 [R, R].
What Does Sarsaparilla Taste Like?
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, the 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. They are often sold under the brand name “Sarsi.”
In the UK, sarsaparilla drinks became a legacy of the 19th – 20th-century temperance movement against alcohol consumption.
A different sarsaparilla ritual is practiced in Japan: people drink a tea containing chinaroot and other herbs (Toso-shu) on the morning of January 1st based on the belief that it will prevent diseases in the family [R].
The taste of sarsaparilla tea is described as sweet and similar to cream soda and soft drinks.
Sarsaparilla vs Root Beer
It’s commonly believed that sarsaparilla and root beer are identical. But there are some important differences between the two. For one, root beer doesn’t contain sarsaparilla root.
Root beer is a carbonated, most often non-alcoholic drink inspired by beverages prepared by North American indigenous people. First marketed in the 19th century, it was originally made with sassafras root bark, licorice root, wintergreen leaves, vanilla bean, ginger root, and other flavors. It was developed as an alternative for those who didn’t like the taste of sarsaparilla.
But unlike most sarsaparilla drinks, root beer could maintain a similar taste even after sassafras was banned. Nowadays, many commercial brands of root beer contain artificial sassafras flavoring or safrole-free sassafras extract for a more “authentic” taste.
Sarsaparilla Root Components
The belowground parts (roots and underground stems) of sarsaparilla are most commonly used. Their main active components are:
- Phenolic antioxidants (such as astilbin, quercetin, resveratrol, and catechin) [R, R]
- Organic acids (such as syringic, vanillic, and caffeic) [R, R]
- Steroidal saponins (such as dioscin, beta-sitosterol, stigmasterol, and daucosterol) [R, R+, R]
- Essential oils, proteins, and sugars [R+]
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% [R+].
Sarsaparilla Health Benefits
1) May Improve Gout
A traditional Chinese remedy called Rebixiao contains ash bark and chinaroot. In a clinical trial on 90 people with gouty arthritis, this remedy (2 packets 3x/day) lowered blood uric acid and improved arthritis. It worked better than the pain-relief medication diclofenac [R].
Studies in mice and rats support this benefit: sarsaparilla and several of its components lowered blood uric acid levels, increased its flushing with urine, and enhanced the effect of a conventional drug for gout (allopurinol) [R, R, R, R, R, R, R, R].
2) Helps with Rheumatoid Arthritis
An ayurvedic remedy containing chinaroot reduced joint pain and inflammation in a woman with rheumatoid arthritis [R].
3) May Fight Infections
In a clinical trial on almost 100 people with hepatitis B, a traditional Chinese medicine with chinaroot (Jiedu Yanggan Gao) killed the virus and reduced liver damage [R].
In cell-based studies, sarsaparilla and its components reduced the division of the viruses causing:
Sarsaparilla inhibited the bacterium causing typhoid fever and the parasites causing Chagas disease and leishmaniasis. However, it had no effect on two bacteria that cause antibiotic-resistant infections (Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus) [R, R, R].
4) Liver Support
Sarsaparilla is traditionally used as an herbal remedy for liver disease in Cambodia, Vietnam, and China [R+].
In animal and cellular studies, sarsaparilla and several of its components prevented liver damage caused by:
5) May Reduce Skin Inflammation
In mice with psoriasis, a Chinese remedy with sarsaparilla called Tuhuai extract applied on the skin reduced excessive skin cell division and inflammation. Quercetin, found in the plant, had the same beneficial effect when applied to the skin in mice [R, R, R].
What’s more, sarsaparilla’s main active compound astilbin had comparable effects taken by mouth and in cell-based studies [R].
6) May Protect the Brain
In animal and cell-based studies, both sarsaparilla and its active components reduced the damage caused to brain cells by:
- Alzheimer’s disease [R, R, R]
- Parkinson’s disease [R]
- Stroke [R]
- Overactivation of their glutamate receptors [R]
7) May Protect the Heart
New blood entering the heart after a heart attack can trigger damage to the vulnerable tissue – this is called ischemia-reperfusion injury. Recovery can be hard or slow if this happens. Sarsaparilla’s component astilbin protected rats from damage and inflammation caused by restoring blood flow after a heart attack [R].
High blood pressure is the leading cause of heart disease. Sarsaparilla extract lowered blood pressure in mice with metabolic syndrome. Additionally, flavonoids from sarsaparilla prevented heart cell swelling due to high blood pressure in cell-based studies [R, R, R].
8) May Fight Obesity
In fat cells, sarsaparilla reduced fat buildup by increasing its breakdown [R].
9) May Lower Blood Sugar
10) Water Retention
Although the anticancer effects of sarsaparilla in humans are unknown, it killed the following cancer types in multiple cell-based and a few animal studies:
- Liver [R, R, R, R, R, R, R, R+, R]
- Breast [R, R, R, R+, R, R]
- Cervical [R, R, R+]
- Uterus [R+]
- Ovarian [R]
- Prostate [R+]
- Bladder [R, R+]
- Lung [R, R+]
- Stomach [R, R, R+]
- Colon [R, R+]
- Skin [R]
- Salivary gland [R]
- Leukemia [R, R]
Its active compounds reduced the production and activity of proteins that promote cancer growth, survival, and spreading (including Bcl-2, Bcl-X, and TGF-beta1), while activating those that help kill cancer cells (such as Bax, caspases, and PARP) [R, R, R, R].
12) Detoxifying Nicotine
In animal and cell-based studies, chinaroot extracts increased nicotine breakdown and prevented it from causing inflammation and producing free radicals. This suggests that smokers may benefit from this herb to reduce the toxic effects of nicotine or to speed up detox when quitting [R, R, R].
How Sarsaparilla Works
Sarsaparilla is a strong anti-inflammatory, which explains its use for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and skin allergies.
Sarsaparilla also reduces the production and development of immune cells (including T cells, neutrophils, Th17, CD4+, CD8+, and macrophages), kills some of them, and prevents them from reaching the epicenters of inflammation [R, R, R, R, R].
But that’s not all.
Its compounds (especially astilbin) 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) [R+, R, R, R, R, R].
To sum it up, sarsaparilla blocks many key pathways in the body that raise inflammation and oxidative stress, while boosting detoxification. A synergy of these effects accounts for its overall wellness benefits.
Sarsaparilla Side Effects & Precautions
In a clinical trial with an herbal remedy containing chinaroot, the adverse effects were rare (3.3%) and limited to digestive issues such as [R+]:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Upset stomach
- Soft or loose stools
The German scientific advisory board (Commission E for Herbal Medicines) warns that sarsaparilla may cause temporary kidney problems, including increased urination. People with kidney disease or taking drugs eliminated through urine should avoid this herb [R+].
A man working in a tea factory developed asthma and nasal allergies in response to sarsaparilla dust [R+].
Because the use of sarsaparilla during pregnancy and breastfeeding hasn’t been investigated, it’s better avoided in these situations.
Indian sarsaparilla, also known as false sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus) is a completely different plant. It belongs to another plant genus (outside Smilax) doesn’t contain the same active compounds.
Check the supplement label and don’t confuse Indian sarsaparilla with the sarsaparilla plants mentioned in this article [R].
- Digoxin (used for congestive heart failure and irregular heart rate)
- Bismuth (used for upset stomach, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, and ulcers)
- Lithium (used for bipolar disorder)
Because sarsaparilla increases urination, it may enhance the effects of diuretics while reducing those of drugs eliminated with urine. Sarsaparilla is not recommended in case of dehydration for the same reason [R, R].
This herb may enhance or reduce the effects of the immunosuppressant drug methotrexate depending on the disease site, since it alters the drug’s distribution in the body [R].
Limitations and Caveats
The use of sarsaparilla in humans has only been investigated in 3 studies. They all used traditional Chinese or ayurvedic medicines combining it with other herbs, so the contribution of sarsaparilla to the effects observed is difficult to estimate.
Although sarsaparilla has been used for some of these conditions for centuries, its effects on liver damage, cancer, obesity, psoriasis, skin allergic reactions, heart disease, brain damage, diabetes, and water retention have only been tested in animals and cells. Studies in humans are required to validate these preliminary results.
Sarsaparilla Supplements & Tea Recipe
Sarsaparilla is normally taken by mouth. The most common supplement forms are:
- Powdered root (to prepare tea)
- Tinctures and liquid extracts
- Pills and tablets
Creams containing sarsaparilla are also available for skin conditions such as psoriasis, acne, and allergies.
Due to the lack of clinical trials using sarsaparilla alone, supplement manufacturers and users have established unofficial dosing guidelines based on trial and error.
Typical doses are 0.3 – 2 g/day of powdered root and half a teaspoon of tincture 2x/day. For commercial supplements and creams, it’s important to read the instructions carefully and start with a low dose to test for side effects.
A homemade tea claimed to improve cough and fever can be brewed from the powdered or chopped root.
You can purchase sarsaparilla root powder or ready-to-use tea bags. Alternatively, you can buy dried roots and finely chop them yourself.
To prepare the tea:
- Pour one cup of boiling water (approximately 240 mL) over one teaspoon of powder/chopped roots (approximately 2 g) or tea bag
- Let it steep for 20-30 minutes
- Strain the tea and serve
Certain people used sarsaparilla supplements for psoriasis, infections, obesity, and high blood pressure. Most were satisfied with the results.
Others, however, sarsaparilla for muscle building, erectile dysfunction, and hot flashes–all of which are unproven. Expectedly, a few reported that it didn’t work.
A lot of users took in sarsaparilla supplements for Lyme disease and reported satisfactory results. Although the effects of sarsaparilla on this condition haven’t been studied, symptoms similar to Lyme disease – an overactivation of the immune system, inflammation, and pain – are typically improved with sarsaparilla.
Side effects were very rare. Only one person reported feeling jittery after taking the supplement and another one developed an allergic reaction.
The drink was normally appreciated for its moderately sweet taste with hints of licorice, vanilla, wintergreen, and caramel. Depending on the brand, some users complained about unbalanced flavors, excessive carbonation, and high price.
Where to Buy Sarsaparilla
You can buy sarsaparilla online as a cut or powdered dried root, liquid extract, or dry extract in capsules.
Sarsaparilla is a tropical plant used in traditional medicine – especially in North America and Southeast Asia – to improve several conditions. Its root was also the main ingredient of a 19th-century drink similar to root beer that is no longer so popular but can still be found in some countries.
Due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, sarsaparilla may help in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, skin allergies; it may protect the liver, heart, and brain. Evidence suggests its potential to reduce water retention, blood sugar, obesity, cancer, and detox nicotine.
Sarsaparilla supplements are available as pills, tinctures, powdered roots, and creams. You can make a tasty tea from the chopped or powdered roots.