Sarsaparilla is the common name for Smilax ornata (formally Smilax regelii), native to Central and South America. These plants are characterized by their woody vines, thorny stems and clusters of small flowers. Sarsaparilla has been traditionally used for its medicinal properties and as a flavoring agent in beverages. The root is the part used medicinally.

History of Sarsaparilla Use

Sarsaparilla is valued for its potential medicinal properties, flavor and cultural significance.

Sarsaparilla has likely been used for thousands of years by indigenous tribes of South America, but was first introduced to Europe near the end of the Dark Ages. Sarsaparilla first came to Europe in the 1400s as a medicine discovered in South America and brought back via boat. Europeans used the root to encourage sweating and urination as well as to purify blood, a common practice during the Dark Ages.

During the 1800s, sarsaparilla was on the books in both Europe and the young United States for its blood purifying properties and recommended as a treatment for the sexually transmitted condition syphilis. Today, it is still a popular supplement ingredient and medicinal treatment for a wide variety of internal and external health conditions.

Description of the Sarsaparilla Plant

This prickly vine is native to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. It climbs well and can grow to be over 50 yards long. The berries of sarsaparilla come in lustrous black, purple-blue and a red so rosy it could almost be called fuchsia. This beautiful fruit is popular among wild birds as well as humans.

Sarsaparilla is a member of the Liliaceae (Lily) family and includes over 300 unique species. Certain varieties of sarsaparilla can also be found in India and China. The common name is derived from the Spanish zarzaparrilla which means “bramble” (from Basque sartzia “bramble”), and parrilla, meaning “little grape vine”, a relatively accurate description of the outward appearance of the plant.

Key Facts About Sarsaparilla

Key points about sarsaparilla include:

Traditional Use: Sarsaparilla has a long history of traditional use in various cultures, particularly among indigenous peoples in Central and South America. It has been used as a folk remedy for a wide range of health conditions, including skin disorders, joint pain, digestive issues, and hormonal imbalances.

Medicinal Properties: Sarsaparilla contains various bioactive compounds, including saponins, flavonoids, and plant sterols, which are believed to contribute to its medicinal properties. It has been traditionally used as a blood purifier, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, and tonic. Sarsaparilla has also been used to support hormonal balance and promote overall health and well-being.

Flavoring Agent: Sarsaparilla is known for its distinctive flavor, which is often described as sweet, slightly bitter, and reminiscent of root beer. Sarsaparilla extract or root has been used as a flavoring agent in traditional herbal remedies, soft drinks, syrups, and candies.

Commercial Products: Sarsaparilla extract or root is commonly used as an ingredient in commercial beverages, including traditional sarsaparilla soft drinks and root beer. Sarsaparilla supplements, teas, tinctures, and extracts are also available for medicinal purposes.

Safety and Precautions: While sarsaparilla is generally considered safe for most people when consumed in moderation, excessive or prolonged use may lead to potential side effects, including gastrointestinal disturbances, allergic reactions, hormonal effects, kidney damage, and drug interactions. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid sarsaparilla supplements due to limited safety data.

Sarsaparilla is valued for its potential medicinal properties, flavor and cultural significance. However, it’s essential to use sarsaparilla products cautiously and under the guidance of a healthcare professional to avoid potential adverse effects and interactions with medications.

Health Benefits of Sarsaparilla

Sarsaparilla root is globally recognised for medicinal properties. A sarsaparilla root typically measures between 6 – 8 feet in length. It is tuberous in shape and has no particular smell or taste. It has been used medicinally for hundreds of years by the people native to Central and South America who found that it relieved rheumatism, general physical weakness, sexual impotence, headaches, colds, joint pain and skin problems.

Since it was first introduced to the Western world, sarsaparilla has been used to treat; gout, gonorrhoea, open wounds, arthritis, cough, skin conditions, joint pain, hormonal imbalances, fever, hypertension, chronic pain, a lack of sexual desire, toe fungus, indigestion, and even certain forms of cancer.

More serious conditions have also been treated with sarsaparilla root. In the Amazon, some tribes used it as a treatment for leprosy by ingesting it as well as using it externally.

Below we will explore in more detail some potential health benefits associated with sarsaparilla:

Anti-inflammatory Properties: Sarsaparilla contains compounds with anti-inflammatory properties, such as saponins and flavonoids. These compounds may help reduce inflammation in the body, making sarsaparilla potentially beneficial for conditions characterized by inflammation, such as arthritis, joint pain, and skin disorders like psoriasis and eczema.

Antioxidant Activity: Sarsaparilla is rich in antioxidants, which help neutralize harmful free radicals and reduce oxidative stress in the body. Antioxidants play a key role in protecting cells from damage caused by oxidative stress, which is associated with various chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders.

Hormonal Balance: Sarsaparilla has been traditionally used to support hormonal balance, particularly in men and women experiencing hormonal imbalances or reproductive health issues. Some compounds found in sarsaparilla may have hormone-like effects in the body, potentially contributing to its traditional use for hormonal support.

Detoxification: Sarsaparilla has been used as a traditional remedy for detoxifying the body and purifying the blood. It is believed to support the liver and kidneys in eliminating toxins and waste products from the body, promoting overall detoxification and cleansing.

Immune Support: Sarsaparilla may help support the immune system due to its potential anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. By reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, sarsaparilla may help enhance immune function and protect against infections and illnesses.

Digestive Health: Sarsaparilla has been used traditionally to support digestive health and alleviate gastrointestinal symptoms such as indigestion, bloating, and gas. It may have mild diuretic and laxative effects, promoting urination and bowel movements, which may help improve digestive function and relieve discomfort.

Skin Health: Due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, sarsaparilla may be beneficial for promoting skin health and treating skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Some traditional remedies use sarsaparilla topically as a skin wash or poultice to soothe irritated skin and reduce inflammation.

Sarsaparilla as a Drink

Sarsaparilla is also consumed for pleasure in drink and pickled form. Stores in some parts of Oceania stock a popular drink named simply Sarsaparilla that uses the plant to increase foaminess. In the past, it was also popular in the United States as part of a drink made with sassafras. In India, too, sarsaparilla is eaten for more than medicinal purposes. As well as soft drinks, southern Indians enjoy pickled sarsaparilla with curd rice.

Sarsaparilla Active Ingredients

The studies that have been done on sarsaparilla as a medicinal herb suggest that some of the health benefits come from antioxidant properties and plant sterols beneficial to human health. Sarsaparilla also contains flavonoids, a pigmentation chemical that gives many plants their leaf, stem, flower and even root color. In the past decade, flavonoids have garnered more widespread recognition for their use in treating autoimmune conditions and inflammation.

One of the most fascinating ingredients in sarsaparilla root are saponins, a chemical compound. Saponins, usually bitter to the taste, are named after soap because of the foam-like reaction they have when placed in water. In the plants where they originate, saponin chemical compounds help deter fungi and insects from eating their leaves. This could be one of the possible reasons that sarsaparilla has anti-fungal properties.

How to Take Sarsaparilla

As well as the various drinks available around the World that contain sarsaparilla, sarsaparilla root is available most readily in health food stores. The capsules, tinctures and supplements of sarsaparilla usually include other herbs for a specific result.

Sarsaparilla is a common ingredient in hormone balancing, skin care and sex drive increasing natural products. These modern sarsaparilla products are primarily produced from plants grown in Latin America and China.

The best way to prepare raw or dried sarsaparilla root is to boil it into an infusion and take a cup of it several times a day. With capsules and supplements, read the instructions on the bottle. Usually, it takes less than half a teaspoon of ground root powder to have the desired effect. In the case of tincture, half a teaspoon twice daily is a recommended dose.

Always take care when taking herbs and Read Our Disclaimer.

Sarsaparilla Herb Notes / Side Effects

Latin Names

Smilax ornata, Smilax regelii

Common Names

Sarsaparilla, Honduran sarsaparilla, Jamaican sarsaparilla

Potential Side Effects of Sarsaparilla

Whilst sarsaparilla has a long history of traditional use and is considered safe for most people when consumed in moderation, individual responses to sarsaparilla may vary, and some individuals may be more susceptible to side effects than others. While sarsaparilla is generally considered safe when consumed in moderate amounts, excessive or prolonged use may lead to potential side effects in some individuals.

Here are some possible side effects associated with sarsaparilla consumption:

Gastrointestinal Disturbances: Some individuals may experience digestive side effects such as stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal discomfort after consuming sarsaparilla. These gastrointestinal symptoms may occur as a result of sarsaparilla’s potential irritant effect on the digestive tract.

Allergic Reactions: Allergic reactions to sarsaparilla are rare but possible. Individuals who are sensitive to plants in the Smilax genus or other members of the Liliaceae family may be at higher risk of allergic reactions to sarsaparilla. Symptoms of allergic reactions may include itching, rash, hives, swelling, or difficulty breathing.

Hormonal Effects: Sarsaparilla contains compounds known as saponins, which may have hormone-like effects in the body. While these effects are generally mild and may contribute to sarsaparilla’s traditional use for hormonal balance, excessive consumption of sarsaparilla or saponin-rich extracts may disrupt hormonal levels and lead to adverse effects such as menstrual irregularities or changes in libido.

Kidney Damage: In rare cases, excessive consumption of sarsaparilla or sarsaparilla-containing products may lead to kidney damage or renal toxicity. This is more likely to occur with prolonged use of high doses of sarsaparilla or when sarsaparilla supplements are contaminated with toxic substances.

Drug Interactions: Sarsaparilla may interact with certain medications or supplements, including blood thinners, diuretics, corticosteroids, and medications metabolized by the liver. Sarsaparilla may affect the absorption, metabolism, or excretion of these medications, potentially altering their efficacy or increasing the risk of adverse effects. Individuals taking medications should consult with a healthcare professional before using sarsaparilla supplements to avoid potential drug interactions.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: The safety of sarsaparilla during pregnancy and breastfeeding has not been well studied. Due to limited safety data, pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid sarsaparilla supplements unless under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

If you experience any adverse reactions or concerns after consuming sarsaparilla, discontinue use and consult with a healthcare professional for further guidance.

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