What is sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla is a plant that belongs to the Smilax genus, which is native to Central and South America. The Latin name for sarsaparilla is Smilax officinalis. The plant has been traditionally used for its medicinal properties, and its roots are commonly used to make herbal remedies. The ancient Peruvians were the first people to recognise the medicinal properties of sarsaparilla and used it to relieve pain. Native tribes indigenous to Central and South America used sarsaparilla for various conditions and eventually, the knowledge of its properties reached the Wild West in the 1800s as the cowboys learned about it from the Native American people.
The plant is a perennial vine with a trailing habit, the stems are prickly and it can grow up to twenty feet long. It has bright red berries that can also be blue and black.
Sarsaparilla is known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties, and it has been used to treat a variety of health conditions, such as skin disorders, arthritis, digestive problems, and respiratory issues.
In addition to its medicinal properties, sarsaparilla has a distinctive flavor and aroma, which has led to its use in the production of soft drinks, such as root beer. The plant's root extract is also used in the manufacture of various cosmetic products, including soaps and shampoos. The high saponin content (saponins produce a soapy lather) makes sarsaparilla a useful cosmetic plant.
Health benefits of sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla has been traditionally used for a wide range of health conditions, and some of its potential health benefits include:
- Anti-inflammatory properties: Sarsaparilla contains natural anti-inflammatory compounds that may help reduce inflammation in the body, which can help alleviate symptoms of conditions such as arthritis, gout and skin disorders
- Antioxidant properties: Sarsaparilla is rich in antioxidants that may help protect the body against damage caused by free radicals, which are harmful molecules that can contribute to the development of chronic diseases
- Blood purifying properties: Sarsaparilla has been traditionally used as a blood purifier, and it may help remove toxins from the blood, which can help improve overall health
- Immune-boosting properties: Sarsaparilla may help enhance the immune system's function, which can help the body fight off infections and diseases
- Skin health: Sarsaparilla contains compounds that may help improve skin health, by reducing inflammation, fighting bacteria, and promoting healthy circulation. It has been used in the treatment of chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Sarsaparilla can be helpful with conditions that cause itchy skin as it has ‘anti itch’ properties
- Sarsaparilla has a diaphoretic action which means it encourages the elimination of toxins through the skin by sweating
- Another action this herb has on the body is to enhance urine output as it is considered a diuretic
- Antiseptic: This herb has antiseptic properties, helping to fight infection and skin diseases
- Metabolic stimulant: Sarsaparilla can stimulate metabolic processes in the body
Sarsaparilla has not been studied a great deal for its health benefits; most recently, Indian Sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus) has been reviewed as an important Ayurvedic herb.2
One study found that sarsaparilla had some ability to influence the activity of cancer cells and their ability to spread in the body.1
It is important to note that while sarsaparilla has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for various health conditions, more research is needed to fully understand its potential health benefits and to determine the optimal dosage and method of use. It is also important to consult with a healthcare provider before using sarsaparilla as a treatment for any health condition.
Sarsaparilla is a plant that is not typically consumed for its nutritional content, but rather for its potential health benefits. However, sarsaparilla root does contain some nutrients and compounds that may be beneficial to health.
Here are some nutritional facts about sarsaparilla:
- Sarsaparilla root is low in calories and fat and contains small amounts of carbohydrates, fiber, and protein
- Sarsaparilla contains several compounds that may have health benefits, such as saponins, flavonoids, and phenolic acids. The saponins found in sarsaparilla are bitter-tasting and likely to have a positive effect on the microbiome
- Sarsaparilla root contains small amounts of minerals such as iron, manganese, and copper
- Sarsaparilla root is also a source of antioxidants, which may help protect the body against damage from free radicals
A drink made from sarsaparilla was very popular from the late 19th century as ‘Temperance bars’ became popular, these were part of a movement that reacted against the problems caused by excessive alcohol intake earlier in the century. Sarsaparilla is still available today as a soft drink and still contains sarsaparilla extract.
It is important to note that sarsaparilla is typically consumed in small quantities, as a flavoring or as part of a herbal remedy, rather than as a significant source of nutrients. Additionally, nutritional content may vary depending on the specific species and preparation method of sarsaparilla.
Uses of sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla has been used for various purposes throughout history, and some of its most common uses include:
- Herbal remedies: Sarsaparilla has been used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of health conditions, including skin disorders, arthritis, digestive issues, and respiratory problems. Hormonal issues are often treated with sarsaparilla, these include pre-menstrual tension and sexual problems such as impotence
- Flavoring agent: Sarsaparilla has a distinctive flavor and aroma, which has led to its use as a flavoring agent in soft drinks, such as root beer, and in some foods and beverages
- Cosmetics: Sarsaparilla root extract is used in some cosmetic products, such as soaps and shampoos, due to its potential skin-soothing and antioxidant properties
- Alternative medicine: Sarsaparilla is sometimes used in alternative medicine practices, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, to treat a variety of health conditions
- Sport: Due to the steroid activity of sarsaparilla, this plant has a reputation for use in sports being used to build up the body and improve performance
It is also important to consult with a healthcare provider before using sarsaparilla as a treatment for any health condition.
Blood purification: Sarsaparilla has been traditionally used as a blood purifier, and it may help remove toxins from the blood, which can help improve overall health.
It is important to note that while sarsaparilla has been used for centuries for various purposes, more research is needed to fully understand its potential benefits and risks.
Side effects and other concerns
While sarsaparilla has been used for centuries in traditional medicine and is generally considered safe when consumed in small amounts, there are some potential side effects and other concerns to be aware of:
- Medications, such as diuretics, heart medications, and corticosteroids, could affect their effectiveness or lead to unwanted side effects
- Kidney damage: There have been some reports of sarsaparilla causing kidney damage, although these cases are rare and typically occur in people who consume large amounts of the plant over an extended period
- Allergic reactions: Some people may be allergic to sarsaparilla, which can cause symptoms such as itching, swelling, and difficulty breathing
- Hormonal effects: Sarsaparilla contains compounds that may have hormonal effects, which could be problematic for people with hormone-sensitive conditions, such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, or endometriosis
- Blood-thinning effects: Sarsaparilla may have blood-thinning effects, which could be a concern for people taking blood-thinning medications or those with bleeding disorders
- Interactions with medications: Sarsaparilla may interact with certain medicines sarsaparilla, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or are taking medications. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also avoid using sarsaparilla, as its effects on fetal and infant health are not well understood
Sarsaparilla is an interesting plant with a long history of usage as a medicine and beverage. This plant has many potential health benefits and some nutritional value as part of a healthy diet. As always with any medications or supplements, check that they are suitable for you and if in any doubt double check with a health professional.
- She, Tiantian, et al. “Sarsaparilla ( Smilax Glabra Rhizome) Extract Inhibits Cancer Cell Growth by S Phase Arrest, Apoptosis, and Autophagy via Redox-Dependent ERK1/2 Pathway.” Cancer Prevention Research, vol. 8, no. 5, May 2015, pp. 464–74. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-14-0372.
- Nandy, Samapika, et al. “Indian Sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus Indicus): Recent Progress in Research on Ethnobotany, Phytochemistry and Pharmacology.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 254, May 2020, p. 112609. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2020.112609.