Sarsaparilla is a brambled, woody vine that grows up to 50 m long, with paired tendrils for climbing (often high into the rainforest canopy). It produces small flowers and black, blue, or red berry-like fruits which are eaten greedily by birds. Smilax, a member of the lily family, is native to tropical and temperate parts of the world and comprises about 350 species worldwide. It is native to South America, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Mexico, Honduras, and the West Indies. The name sarsaparilla or zarzaparilla comes from the Spanish word zarza (bramble or bush), parra (vine), and illa (small)—a small, brambled vine. Sarsaparilla contains the plant steroids sarsasapogenin, smilagenin, sitosterol, stigmasterol, and pollinastanol; and the saponins sarsasaponin, smilasaponin, sarsaparilloside, and sitosterol glucoside, among others. The majority of sarsaparilla’s pharmacological properties and actions have been attributed to these steroids and saponins.
There’s an herbal remedy that’s been used by native populations in Central and South America for thousands for years, shown to help relieve a wide range of problems from skin dermatitis to coughs. Starting in around the 1950s, European physicians considered sarsaparilla root a “tonic, blood purifier, diuretic and sweat promoter” that could help treat serious, even life-threatening infections, such as leprosy or cancer.
Today, sarsaparilla products go by many different names depending on exactly which roots or plants are used to make the product, how they’re prepared, and what part of the world they come from. Other common names for sarsaparilla include Smilax, Honduran sarsaparilla, Jamaican sarsaparilla and zarzaparilla. While it’s no longer used to treat skin infections from tropical bugs, leprosy or syphilis, sarsaparilla can commonly still be found in herbal preparations for balancing hormones, lowering fluid retention and improving overall immune function.
Sarsaparilla Nutrition Facts
What is sarsaparilla exactly? Sarsaparilla (which has the species names Smilax Ornata, Smilax regelii or Smilax officinalis) is technically a perennial vine that grows in warm temperatures, such as those in the southern most states of the U.S. or Central and South America. The plant is a member of the Liliaceae (lily) group of vines in the plant family called Smilacaceae, which includes over 300 different plant species.
Sarsaparilla vines can grow very long (sometimes up to eight feet), have starchy, edible roots, and produce small berries that are edible for both humans and animals, especially birds. Although the roots are much more often used to make remedies today than the berries are, the berries and leaves can also be consumed for their benefits, effects and mild taste.
In fact, in the the past, sarsaparilla plants, roots, vines and berries were all used in various ways to create beverages, fermented snacks and other treats that were enjoyed in places like India and Latin America. Sarsaparilla is actually the name for a type of soft drink (similar to root beer) that’s flavored with the root of the plant — although the soft drink doesn’t have the same benefits as real sarsaparilla teas or tinctures do, of course.
In herbal medicine practices, sarsaparilla plant roots are ground up and used to make natural remedies (tinctures, teas, supplements, etc.) that help treat some of the following health problems:
- Cancer and tumor growth
Coughs and colds
Rheumatoid arthritis pains, joint pain or rheumatism
Skin problems, including psoriasis, toe fungus, wounds, ulcers and ringworm
Muscle pains or weakness
Low libido and sexual impotence
Infections, such as sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea
Overheating and fevers
What gives sarsaparilla its healing abilities? Researchers have identified numerous active chemical properties within sarsaparilla, including strong antioxidants, along with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory compounds.
These include:Saponins: Anti-inflammatory chemical compounds that taste bitter and help kill fungus, bacteria, cancer cells and harmful microbes. Saponins also naturally mimic effects of certain reproductive hormones associated with youthful characteristics, including testosterone and estrogen. Sarsaparilla contains approximately 2 percent steroidal saponins, including sarsaponin, smilasaponin (smilacin), sarsaparilloside, sarsasaponin parillin and smilagenin.
Plant sterols: Found in many high-fiber plant foods and shown to benefit gut health, heart health and digestive health. Phytosterols within sarsaparilla include sitosterol, stigmasterol and pollinastano.
Flavonoid antioxidants: Found in brightly colored fruits and veggies, such as berries, and linked to longevity, reduced inflammation, skin health, eye health and improved immune function. One of the most important flavonoids found within sarsaparilla is called astilbin.
Other steroidal/anti-inflammatory phytochemicals: These include diosgenin, tigogenin and asperagenin.
Starch: The root is about 50 percent starch and when eaten provides fiber and other nutrients.
Volatile oils and acids: Including caffeoylshikimic acid, shikimic acid, ferulic acid, sarsapic acid, kaempferol and quercetin.
Trace minerals: Including aluminum, chromium, iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium and zinc.
Benefits of Sarsaparilla
1. Contains Anti-Tumor and Cancer-Preventative Properties
Certain studies have found evidence of at least 24 extracts obtained within the roots, stems, leaves and fruits of wild sarsaparilla plants that help naturally treat or prevent cancer. The majority of the pharmacological benefits are attributed to its concentration of natural steroids and saponins, which help with the absorption of other drugs or herbs, reduce inflammatory effects, and have other anti-aging properties.
According to research done at the University of Queensland in Australia, sarsaparilla contains at least five steroidal saponins, including two newly discovered furostanol saponins known as sarsaparilloside B and sarsaparilloside C. These saponins have been found to have antiproliferative activities that help to kill cancer cells, especially those that affect the lining of the colon.
Sarsaparilla also contains dozens of other anti-inflammatory, antioxidant acids, oils and chemicals that lower oxidative stress and have anti-aging effects. Studies conducted at Peking University Cancer Hospital and Institute in China found that flavonoids, alkaloids and phenylpropanoids were some of the major bioactive components identified within wild sarsaparilla that induce apoptosis and have growth-inhibitory effects without damaging healthy cells.
2. Protects the Liver and Has Natural Diuretic, Detoxifying Abilities
Because sarsaparilla helps promote urine production and improve perspiration, it can be helpful for relieving fluid retention, puffiness, or swelling and stomach bloating. Traditionally, teas made from sarsaparilla root were also used to “clean the blood,” improve liver function and remove toxins from the body.
Research shows that one way sarsaparilla might help improve detoxification is through binding to “endotoxins” within the GI tract, which are chemicals stored inside cells (especially bacterial cells) that are released into the bloodstream and contribute to problems like liver disease, psoriasis, fevers and inflammatory processes. Studies have found that sarsaparilla has hepatoprotective effects (fighting liver damage and liver disease) due to its antioxidants, acids and plant sterols.
These compounds found within medicinal herbs can serve as important therapeutic agents for ridding the body of endotoxins by making them less absorbable within the gut. This ultimately helps with controlling tissue damage caused by free radical damage and inflammatory responses. Certain studies have found that chemical compounds called astilbin (types of flavonoids) and smilagenin (types of saponin) help protect liver cells and are useful in preventing liver disease, growth of cancer cells and other problems associated with toxicity.
3. Promotes Hormonal Balance
Smilax Ornata is a common ingredient in natural hormone-balancing supplements or tinctures due to its ability to improve libido and lower impotence. Research suggests that saponins and plant steroids found within sarsaparilla might help mimic the effects of natural reproductive hormones and growth steroids, including estrogen and testosterone. The plant itself does not contain growth hormones but can help regulate hormone production by reducing inflammation and improving liver function.
Some even call saponins “natural steroids” for their ability to help lower symptoms of menopause and aging. Other herbal remedies containing saponins, such as fenugreek, are commonly used to reduce effects due to declining reproductive hormones, such as weight gain, impotence, loss of muscle mass, weakening bones and other side effects.
4. Helps Soothe Coughs, Fevers and Colds
Sarsaparilla tinctures, teas and supplements are used to help treat coughs, colds and the flu in several ways, including preventing them from occurring in the first place by raising immune function and killing bacteria. They also treat symptoms themselves through mucolytic effects and/or inhibitory effects on cough reflexes. While herbal treatments cannot always help treat serious problems like bronchitis or chronic respiratory infections, throughout history they’ve often been useful for reducing the frequency and/or intensity of coughing and also increasing mucus clearance.
Due to the effects that sarsaparilla’s antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds have on breaking mucus bonds and making mucus less sticky, phlegm and bacteria are able to be passed out of the body more easily. In the case of fevers or other viruses that cause upset stomach, sarsaparilla is sometimes helpful for lowering nausea and helping regulate bowel function.
5. Naturally Treats Skin Problems
Sarsaparilla is considered an effective and safe folk remedy for skin conditions, including fungus, eczema, pruritus, rashes and wounds. Because conditions like skin rashes, bites and bacterial infections are common problems in developing and tropical countries, natural herbal remedies serve as important treatments for preventing complications thanks to their antifungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.
The Integrative Medicine and Dermatology Clinic in New York points out that herbal remedies help treat skin problems differently than medications do because they “strengthen the host, as opposed to destroying the vector or manifestation of the disease.”
Studies conducted over the past six decades have shown that sarsaparilla can help decrease skin swelling, itching, redness, peeling and the formation of blotches. Certain studies have identified astilbin flavonoid isolates taken from the root of Smilax plants as the active compounds responsible for immunosuppressive activities and inhibition against activated T lymphocytes that cause skin inflammation.
Early studies from the 1940s found that sarsaparilla used topically on the skin to treat psoriasis helped improve symptom severity in over 40 percent of patients. One study investigating the effects of over 100 plants for treating bacterial infections of the skin found that sarsaparilla was one of the mot effective for fighting symptoms of dermatophyte infections, which often impact populations living in third-world countries, due to its fungicidal and fungistatic activities.
Sarsparilla History and Interesting Facts
It’s believed that many Native American populations used sarsparilla to treat conditions like coughs and colds. According to the authors of “Secret Native American Herbal Remedies,” the Penobscot Indians were one tribe that frequently made a tea using sarsaparilla roots, which they drank to soothe throats and inflamed nasal passageways. Centuries ago, it was believed to have strong medicinal uses that even could even help treat life-threatening illnesses, such as leprosy, which affected people living in jungles like the Amazon.
Other native populations living in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America used sarsaparilla for thousands of years before settlers eventually introduced its benefits to those in Europe around the year 1400. In Europe, especially during the Dark Ages when “purification” was seen as an important practice, this herb was used mostly as a tonic, detoxification agent and blood cleanser. (15)
Once European travelers brought sarsaparilla back to the colonies and elsewhere, it became a common medical treatment for infections, including syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, in the U.S. from about 1820 to 1910, it was registered in the official U.S. Pharmacopoeia as an effective treatment for syphilis. (16)
How to Prepare and Use Sarsaparilla
Homemade Sarsaparilla Root Tea: You can prepare freshly made tea using dried sarsaparilla root by boiling water and pouring about one cup over one teaspoon of the roots. Let the mixture steep for about 30 minutes, then drain the liquid and drink several times daily. Sarsaparilla tea is great when you feel a cold, cough or fever coming on and want to help prevent symptoms from getting worse.
Sarsaparilla Capsules or Supplements: Dosages vary depending on the brand and concentration. It’s common for several herbs to be combined together in order to increase the benefits, so you might find a product made with sarsaparilla along with elderberry or other immune system boosters. Always read the instructions on the bottle carefully and start with a low dose to test for any side effects.
Possible Side Effects of Sarsaparilla
Although it’s been consumed safely by indigenous populations for centuries, there are some potential side effects when using any herb. Only very rarely have side effects been reported, but it’s possible to experience signs of an allergic reaction or an upset stomach. If you take any medications or have sensitives to other herbs, speak with a doctor before using sarsaparilla. If you’re pregnant, it’s best to avoid sarsaparilla since there haven’t been many studies showing it’s safe to be used during this time.
Final Thoughts on Sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla is a plant that’s native to South and Central America and has been used in folk medicine for thousands of years to lower inflammation, raise immunity and promote longevity.
Sarsaparilla has long been used in the treatment of liver problems, skin infections, coughs or colds, sexual dysfunction, and even growth of cancerous tumors.
You can consume sarsaparilla in tea, tonic, tincture or capsule form. Tea is the most popular way to consume the many beneficial compounds found within sarsaparilla roots.