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Forgotten Sarsaparilla Root Benefits + Side Effects

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Reviewed by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:
Jonathan Ritter
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Reviewed by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:

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Sarsaparilla
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The root of a tropical plant we associate with the 19th-century, Western sarsaparilla drink has also been researched for its potential health effects. Yet, most of the traditional uses of this herb have almost been forgotten. Find out about which of its purported benefits are supported by modern science.

Does Sarsaparilla Root Have Health Benefits?

Plant Overview

Sarsaparilla is the common name of a climbing plant genus called Smilax, which grows well in warm and tropical regions. Different plant varieties thrive in Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, parts of the United States, Southeast Asia and Australia [1+].

Indigenous North American people likely used sarsaparilla for inflammatory issues such as arthritis,  psoriasis, eczema, and allergic reactions.

Note: True sarsaparilla shouldn’t be confused with other plants such as Indian (Hemidesmus indicus) and wild (Aralia nudicaulis) sarsaparilla. The roots of these two plants are also used in traditional medicine, but their compositions and botanical characteristics different [2, 3].

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.

Sarsaparilla is often included in supplements for bodybuilders claiming to help build muscle, burn fat, and increase physical performance. None of these benefits have been proven [4+, 5, 6+].

Snapshot

Proponents:

  • Reduces inflammation
  • May soothe eczema
  • Has antioxidant activity
  • May help fight infections
  • May protect the liver from damage

Skeptics:

  • 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

Purported Sarsaparilla Benefits

Due to the scarcity of clinical studies, sarsaparilla and its active components have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Further research will be required to determine whether sarsaparilla is effective or safe for long-term use.

Nevertheless, sarsaparilla is commercially available as a supplement. Regulations set manufacturing standards for supplements but don’t guarantee that they are safe or effective. Talk to your doctor before using sarsaparilla supplements to avoid unexpected interactions.

Insufficient Evidence For:

The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies.

There is insufficient evidence to support the use of sarsaparilla for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before taking sarsaparilla supplements. Herbs should never be used as a replacement for approved medical therapies.

1) 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 [7].

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) [8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15].

While promising, the existing evidence is insufficient to claim that sarsaparilla improves gout. More clinical studies are required.

2) Fighting 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 [16].

Note, however, that the study is small, relatively old, and hasn’t been translated from Chinese. The evidence cannot be considered sufficient to support the use of sarsaparilla for hepatitis B.

Several studies tested sarsaparilla and its components against infectious organisms in cell-based studies. Note that these are very preliminary results that have not yet been studied in humans or even in animals. Further research should determine if sarsaparilla is effective against the diseases caused by these organisms

Sarsaparilla and its components reduced the division of the viruses causing:

Sarsaparilla also 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) [22, 23, 24].

Sarsaparilla’s saponins inhibited three Candida species [25, 26, 23].

Although preliminary studies suggest that sarsaparilla may be active against viruses and help with gout symptoms, additional clinical trials are needed.

Lacking Evidence For:

No clinical evidence supports the use of sarsaparilla for any of the conditions listed in this section.

Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.

3) Rheumatoid Arthritis

In a single case report, an Ayurvedic remedy containing chinaroot improved joint pain and inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis [27].

Several sarsaparilla species and their active component astilbin also reduced joint inflammation due to rheumatoid arthritis in rats [28, 29, 30, 31].

However, a single case study and three animal studies cannot be considered valid evidence. Studies in humans are needed before we can make any claims about sarsaparilla’s effects on rheumatoid arthritis.

4) Liver Health

Sarsaparilla is traditionally used as an herbal remedy for liver disease in Cambodia, Vietnam, and China [32+].

In animal and cellular studies, sarsaparilla and several of its components prevented liver damage caused by:

  • Inflammation [33]
  • Tylenol [34]
  • Toxins [35, 36]
  • Lead [37, 38]
  • A harmful bean lectin (concanavalin A) [39]

Further research in humans should determine if sarsaparilla effectively supports liver health.

5) 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 [40, 41, 42].

What’s more, sarsaparilla’s main active compound astilbin had comparable effects taken by mouth and in cell-based studies [43].

Sarsaparilla extracts reduced inflammation in rats and mice with skin allergies [44, 40, 45].

No clinical evidence supports the use of sarsaparilla for skin inflammation. Although these preliminary studies are promising, their results should be validated by conducting clinical trials.

Although sarsaparilla seems to reduce arthritic inflammation, liver damage, and skin inflammation in lab animals, no human studies have yet been carried out.

6) Brain Protection

In animal and cell-based studies, both sarsaparilla and its active components reduced the damage caused to brain cells by:

  • Alzheimer’s disease [46, 47, 48]
  • Parkinson’s disease [49]
  • Stroke [50]
  • Overactivation of their glutamate receptors [50]

Again, these benefits were only observed in animals and cells. Further studies in humans are needed.

7) Heart Health

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 [51].

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 [52, 53, 54].

Whether sarsaparilla and its components also protect the heart from ischemia-reperfusion injury and heart disease triggered by high blood pressure in humans remains unknown.

8) Obesity

In mice fed high-fat and high-sugar diets, sarsaparilla reduced weight gain, blood fat and sugar levels, and fat buildup in the liver [55, 56].

In fat cells, sarsaparilla reduced fat buildup by increasing its breakdown [57].

Note that no human studies have been conducted to investigate sarsaparilla’s effects on weight loss.

Based on animal experiments, some scientists think sarsaparilla should be further researched for supporting brain, heart, and metabolic health.

9) Blood Sugar Control

In mice, sarsaparilla and its active components lowered blood sugar and reduced insulin resistance [58, 52].

In test tubes, they blocked the enzymes that break down complex sugars, which may explain their potential to reduce blood sugar levels [59, 60].

Once again, this potential benefit should be confirmed in human studies.

10) Water Retention

Sarsaparilla has been traditionally used for water retention in the Canary Islands. In rats, it increased the elimination of water and electrolytes with urine [61, 62].

However, we cannot conclude that sarsaparilla helps with water retention based on just one animal study.

[/sh_summary]The impact of sarsaparilla root on water retention and blood sugar control remains to be tested in humans.[/sh_summary]

11) Cancer

Below, we will discuss some preliminary research on sarsaparilla’s anticancer activity. It’s still in the animal and cell stage and further clinical studies have yet to determine if sarsaparilla’s compounds are useful in cancer therapies.

Do not under any circumstances attempt to replace conventional cancer therapies with sarsaparilla or any other supplements. If you want to use it as a supportive measure, talk to your doctor to avoid any unexpected interactions.

Sarsaparilla killed the following cancer types in multiple cell-based and a few animal studies:

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) [75, 77, 71].

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. However, no human studies have been carried out [83, 84, 85].

Although a couple of animal studies have been published, it’s still too early to know whether sarsaparilla can help detox nicotine or have any effect on cancer prevention.

Sarsaparilla Side Effects & Precautions

Overall Safety

Keep in mind that the safety profile of sarsaparilla is relatively unknown, given the lack of well-designed clinical studies. The list of side effects below is, therefore, not a definite one. You should consult your doctor about other potential side effects based on your health condition and possible drug or supplement interactions.

Because the use of sarsaparilla during pregnancy and breastfeeding hasn’t been investigated, it’s better avoided in these situations.

Sarsaparilla supplements should be bought from reputable sources, since plants grown in contaminated areas may contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and chromium [86, 87, 88, 89].

Reported Side Effects

In a clinical trial with an herbal remedy containing chinaroot, the adverse effects were rare (3.3%) and limited to digestive issues such as [7+]:

  • 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 [90+].

A man working in a tea factory developed asthma and nasal allergies in response to sarsaparilla dust [91+].

Sarsaparilla root is thought to be generally safe, but it can cause digestive issues in some people. Caution is advised since supplement contamination with heavy metals has also been reported.

How to Tell True Sarsaparilla from Similar Varieties

Indian sarsaparilla, also known as false sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus), is a completely different plant. It belongs to another plant genus (outside Smilax) and doesn’t contain the same active compounds. The same applies to wild sarsaparilla (Araulia nudicaulis).

Check the supplement label and don’t confuse Indian or wild sarsaparilla with the sarsaparilla plants mentioned in this article [2].

Drug Interactions

Sarsaparilla may enhance the effects of the following drugs by increasing their uptake and reducing their elimination [92+, 90+]:

  • 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)

In turn, it accelerates the elimination of hypnotic drugs [92+, 90+].

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 [61, 62].

Sarsaparilla and its components increased the effects of allopurinol on lowering blood uric acid levels in animal studies [13, 14, 15].

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 [93].

Sarsaparilla may interact with several drugs. It’s important to speak to your doctor before supplementing.

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 specific 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.

Takeaway

Sarsaparilla is a tropical plant traditionally used by the indigenous people of North and Central America. Similar varieties are also used in some parts of Asia.

Due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, limited evidence suggests that sarsaparilla may help in conditions such as psoriasis and skin allergies. Scientists are researching whether sarsaparilla root may reduce water retention and blood sugar, protect the liver, heart, and brain, and detox nicotine.

However, the evidence for all these benefits is insufficient and more clinical studies are needed.

Further Reading

About the Author

Carlos Tello

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.

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