Sarsaparilla: Benefits, Nutrition, and Risks

Sarsaparilla: Benefits, Nutrition, and Risks

Sarsaparilla is a plant that grows in temperate climates worldwide, from South America to Mexico to the West Indies. It’s a member of the plant genus Smilax, with more than 300 species. Common species are Smilax glabra and Smilax regalia. Indian sarsaparilla, Hemidesmus indicus, is from an entirely different plant family. It’s often used in Ayurveda.

Sarsaparilla has been used medicinally for thousands of years in traditional forms of medicine to treat colds, skin conditions, and even syphilis. The roots are most often used to make an extract. Interestingly, sarsaparilla can even be used to make root beer, although most root beers now use artificial flavoring rather than sarsaparilla. 

In recent years, researchers have started exploring the health benefits of sarsaparilla. Notably, it contains antioxidants that researchers believe have anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.

Sarsaparilla has been used in traditional forms of medicine to treat inflammatory disorders like psoriasis and eczema, skin conditions that cause inflamed skin patches. The plant likely contains active ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties, but their actual benefits on humans have not been sufficiently studied.

Animal studies reveal that sarsaparilla chemicals called saponins have anti-inflammatory effects similar to aspirin. Other studies have shown that sarsaparilla extract reduces paw swelling and arthritis symptoms in rats.

Some researchers believe these anti-inflammatory effects are related to polysaccharides, carbohydrates in the rhizomes of the sarsaparilla plant that suppress the release of inflammatory compounds like nitric oxide, tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), and interleukin-6 (IL-6).

More research studies are needed to confirm whether sarsaparilla reduces inflammation in humans.

Related to sarsaparilla’s anti-inflammatory effects are its possible antioxidant effects, which may support skin health. One study found that the antioxidants in sarsaparilla root prevent oxidative stress and skin aging from ultraviolet (UV) rays. Oxidative stress is triggered when compounds called free radicals damage healthy cells.

An in vitro study (conducted on cells in a lab) found that an antioxidant flavonoid called astilbin, found in sarsaparilla rhizomes, prevents the growth of keratinocytes. Keratinocytes are in the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin). Therefore, astilbin may support the treatment of psoriasis because psoriasis involves an overproduction of keratinocytes.

Another potential antioxidant-related benefit of sarsaparilla is that it may have anticancer effects. The antioxidants in sarsaparilla may help neutralize harmful free radicals linked with chronic diseases like cancer. Various studies have found sarsaparilla to have potential anticancer effects, but they’ve been conducted on animals or test tubes. It’s unclear whether the results translate to humans.

Some studies have found that sarsaparilla extract inhibits the growth of cancer cells in vitro and in vivo (in animals), and others have examined why this is the case.

For example, high levels of transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-β1) can suppress the immune system. One study found that sarsaparilla reduced TGF-β1 signaling, which resulted in less cell migration (cell movement that can lead to cancer growth). This indicates that sarsaparilla may help prevent tumor development and growth.

Another study found that sarsaparilla extract combined with Phellinus linteus—a type of medicinal mushroom—reduced the activity of genes involved in breast cancer growth. 

In the United States, sarsaparilla is most commonly sold as a dietary supplement in powder, capsule, or liquid form. It’s often used in alternative medicine or by people who want a more natural approach to managing their health. However, it’s important to remember that research on its safety and efficacy is limited. 

You may hear claims that sarsaparilla helps detox or cleanse the kidneys and liver. However, unless you have severe kidney or liver disease, your body doesn’t need further detoxifying. Plus, studies on sarsaparilla’s effects on kidney function have been conducted on mice, so its effect on humans is unclear.

Generally, concentrated forms of plants (e.g., supplements) are more likely to cause adverse effects than small amounts consumed as food. It’s important to be careful about high-dose supplements. That being said, there are no specific dosage recommendations for sarsaparilla supplements. 

It’s always best to speak with a trusted healthcare provider and follow the manufacturer’s directions before trying a new supplement.

There aren’t well-documented risks of sarsaparilla, but the risks are likely to increase if you take concentrated, high doses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements for safety and efficacy, so always consult a trusted healthcare provider before starting a new supplement.

There are no studies on sarsaparilla intake during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, so it’s best to avoid more concentrated forms of sarsaparilla during these times.

There is also not enough research to determine whether sarsaparilla interacts with medications or other supplements. If you have any concerns, speak with your healthcare provider. 

Sarsaparilla used to be used in soda, but now it’s most often used in concentrated forms. Uses include the following:

  • Drink sarsaparilla tea
  • Use sarsaparilla to make homemade root beer
  • Take sarsaparilla supplements with guidance from a healthcare provider
  • Use sarsaparilla syrup to sweeten coffee or tea
  • Add a few drops of sarsaparilla tincture to water or juice

Although sarsaparilla has been used in traditional forms of medicine for many years, high-quality research on its benefits is limited. Most existing studies have not been conducted in humans. Rather, they’ve been conducted in test tubes or on animals. While there’s potential for sarsaparilla to reduce inflammation, support skin health, and exert anticancer effects, we need more human studies to evaluate these potential benefits further. 

Although we aren’t aware of any serious side effects from taking sarsaparilla, remember that this could be because research is limited. It’s always best to speak with a healthcare provider before adding a new supplement to your diet.

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