Documented Properties & Actions
Alterative, analgesic, antiallergic, antiasthmatic, antibiotic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antirheumatic, antiseptic, aphrodisiac, carminative,
depurative, diaphoretic, diuretic, febrifuge, hepatoprotective, immunomodulatory, steroidal, stimulant, stomachic, tonic
Plant Chemicals Include
Acetyl-parigenin, astilbin, beta-sitosterol, caffeoyl-shikimic acids, dihydroquercetin, diosgenin, engeletin, essential oils, epsilon-sitosterol, eucryphin, eurryphin, ferulic acid, glucopyranosides, isoastilbin, isoengetitin, kaempferol, parigenin, parillin, pollinastanol, resveratrol, rhamnose, saponin, sarasaponin, sarsaparilloside, sarsaponin, sarsasapogenin, shikimic acid, sitosterol-d-glucoside, smilagenin, smilasaponin, smilax saponins A-C, smiglaside A-E, smitilbin, stigmasterol, taxifolin, titogenin
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. The stems of many Smilax species are covered with prickles and, sometimes, these vines are cultivated to form impenetrable thickets (which are called catbriers or greenbriers). The root, used for medicinal purposes, is long and tuberous‹spreading 68 feet‹and is odorless and fairly tasteless. Many species of Smilax around the world share the name sarsaparilla; these are very similar in appearance, uses, and even chemical structure. These include S. officinalis, S. japicanga, and S. febrifuga from South America (Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia); S. regelii, S. aristolochiaefolia, and S. ornata from Mexico and Latin America; and S. glabra from China. Sarsaparilla vine should not be confused with the large sasparilla and sassafras trees (the root and bark of which were once used to flavor root beer). Sarsaparilla has been used as an ingredient in root beer and other beverages for its foaming properties‹not for its flavoring properties.
Sarsaparilla root has been used for centuries by the indigenous peoples of Central and South America for sexual impotence, rheumatism, skin ailments, and as a general tonic for physical weakness. It has long been used by tribes in Peru and Honduras for headaches and joint pain, and against the common cold. Many shamans and medicine men in the Amazon use sarsaparilla root internally and externally for leprosy and other skin problems (such as psoriasis and dermatitis.) Leprosy can be common in areas where the disease is carried by armadillos (and particularly where armadillos are &Mac179;on the menu&Mac178; in indigenous diets). Sarsaparilla root also was used as a general tonic by indigenous tribes in South America, where New World traders found it and introduced it into European medicine in the 1400s.
European physicians considered sarsaparilla root an alterative, tonic, blood purifier, diuretic, and diaphoretic. A Smilax root from Mexico was introduced into European medicine in 1536, where it developed a strong following as a cure for syphilis and rheumatism. Since this time, the Smilax genus has had a long history of use for syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases throughout the world. With its reputation as a blood purifier, it was registered as an official herb in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a syphilis treatment from 1820 to 1910. From the 1500s to the present, sarsaparilla has been used as a blood purifier and general tonic and also has been used worldwide for gout, syphilis, gonorrhea, rheumatism, wounds, venereal disease, arthritis, fever, cough, scrofula, hypertension, digestive disorders, psoriasis, skin diseases, and cancer.
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 sarsaparilla¹s pharmacological properties and actions have been attributed to these steroids and saponins. The saponins have been reported to facilitate the body¹s absorption of other drugs and phytochemicals, which accounts for its history of use in herbal formulas as an agent for bioavailability and herbal enhancement. Saponins and plant steroids found in many species of plants (including sarsaparilla) can be synthesized into human steroids such as estrogen and testosterone. This synthesis has never been documented to occur in the human body‹only in the laboratory. Yet plant steroids and their actions in the human body have been a subject of much interest, sketchy research and, unfortunately, disinformation‹mainly for marketing purposes. Sarsaparilla has been marketed (fraudulently) to contain testosterone and/or other anecbolic steroids. While it is a rich source of steroids and saponins, it never has been proven to have any anecbolic effects, nor has testosterone been found in sarsaparilla or any other plant source thus far. No known toxicity or side-effects have been documented for sarsaparilla; however, ingestion of large dosages of saponins may cause gastrointestinal irritation.
Flavonoids in sarsaparilla have been documented to have immunomodulatory and hepatoprotective activity. A U.S. patent was awarded in 2003 describing these flavonoids to be effective in treating autoimmune diseases and inflammatory reactions through their immunomodulating effects. Sarsasapogenin and smilagenin were subjects of a 2001 U.S. patent which reported that these Smilax steroids had the ability to treat senile dementia, cognitive dysfunction, and Alzheimer¹s disease. In the patent¹s animal studies references, smilagenin reversed the decline of brain receptors in aged mice and restored the receptor levels to those observed in young animals, reversed the decline in cognitive function, and enhanced memory and learning. These studies, however, have not been published in any peer-reviewed journals‹only in the context of the patent, thus far.
Clinical research has validated the traditional use of sarsaparilla for skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, acne, and leprosy. In 1942, it was reported to improve the condition of psoriasis dramatically (in the New England Journal of Medicine). There the results of a clinical study with 92 patients were published; it improved psoriasis lesions in 62% of cases and completely cleared lesions in 18% of cases. Individuals with psoriasis have been found to have high levels of endotoxins circulating in the bloodstream (endotoxins are cell wall fragments of normal gut bacteria). Sarsaponin, one of sarsaparilla¹s main steriods, was found to bind to these endotoxins and remove them, thus improving psoriasis. This endotoxin-binding action is probably why the root has been used for centuries as a ³blood purifier .² Other health conditions associated with high endotoxin levels include eczema, arthritis, and ulcerative colitis. Sarsaparilla¹s effective use in the treatment of leprosy has been documented in a 1959 human trial. The effectiveness of sarsaparilla in the treatment of adolescent acne caused by excessive androgens has received some experimental support as well.
A recent (2001) U.S. patent was filed on sarsaparilla (Smilax china) for keratosis and respiratory diseases. This patent cited clinical observations and studies with children and human adults with Psoriasis vulgaris, pustular psoriasis, erythroderma psoriaticum lesions, and associated pruritis‹reporting marked clinical improvements with dosages of 36 g daily. It also reported that, upon discontinuation of sarsparilla after only two months of treatment, there was further gradual remission of lesions and no side effects. In addition, this patent indicated sarsaparilla was shown to be a prophylactic and therapeutic agent for respiratory and allergic diseases such as acute bronchitis, bronchial asthma, asthmatic bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, and bronchiectasis. Again, these studies and observations reported in the patent have yet to be published in any peer-reviewed journals.
Sarsaparilla has long been used in the treatment of syphilis. Clinical observations in China demonstrated that sarsaparilla was effective (according to blood tests) in about 90% of acute and 50% of chronic cases. In the 1950s the antibiotic properties of sarsaparilla were documented; other studies documented its antifungal and antimycobacterial activities. Its anti-inflammatory activity has been demonstrated in several in vitro and in vivo studies, using different laboratory-induced models of arthritis and inflammation. One of these studies attributes the beneficial effect for arthritis to sarsaparilla¹s immunomodulatory action. Sarsaparilla also has demonstrated hepatoprotective effects in rats, with researchers concluding that it is able to prevent immune-mediated liver injury. Improvement of appetite and digestion has been noted with sarsaparilla, as well as its diuretic actions in humans. The root has been reported to have stimulatory activity on the kidneys in humans and, in chronic nephritis, it was shown to increase the urinary excretion of uric acid.
Sarsaparilla is becoming more widely available in health food stores, with a variety of tablets, capsules, and tincture products sold today. In naturopathic and herbal medicine, it is used mostly in combination with other herbs for its depurative, tonic, detoxifying, blood purifying, and lymph-cleansing properties. It can be found as an ingredient in various herbal remedies made for skin disorders, libido enhancement, hormone balancing, and detoxification. It's also found in many popular herbal hair loss remedies. It¹s also used commonly in herbal preparations as a synergist or bioavailability aid‹as it is thought that the saponins in sarsaparilla root increase the absorption of other phytochemicals in the gut. Most of the sarsaparilla root in herbal commerce today comes from cultivation projects in Mexico and Latin America as well as China.
Sarsaparilla may increase the absorption of some drugs and compounds. Some report that it can increase the absorption of Digitalis glycosides while accelerating the
elimination of hypnotic drugs.