Sarsaparilla refers to one of several plant species that belongs to the genus Smilax. The type of sarsaparilla most familiar to “old fashioned” style root beer drinkers is Smilax ornata. While popular as a spice in food and beverages, sarsaparilla has a much greater history as a medicinal herb. Sarsaparilla is still in use today and is most often found in herbal supplements.
Difference Between Sarsaparilla and Root Beer
Sarsaparilla, birch, and sassafras have all been used to give root beer its distinct flavor. Commercially available root beers may not contain any ‘root’ parts at all; instead opting for artificial ingredients to mimic a natural flavor. (1) The different types of roots used to make root beer or other soft drinks alters the flavor profile of the drink. Sarsaparilla is said to have that more distinct, if not entirely undesirable taste if consumed without a vanilla, cinnamon, molasses, nutmeg, and any other ingredient to help balance the flavor profile. These drinks will typically use the root of the plant, but the leaves are known to have a sweet desirable flavor.
What is Sarsaparilla?
Sarsaparilla is a type of vine that grows in tropical and subtropical regions. More than 300 species have been discovered, with around 20 located in North America. Each species contains natural chemical compounds that may provide medicinal benefit in humans. These compounds include triterpenes, sarsaparilloside, parillin, smitilbin, phenolic compounds, and others. (2)
Each species is differentiated in appearance of the small fruit they produce, the leaves, and the root system. In general, most sarsaparilla plants produce leaves that are shaped like an egg, sometimes with folds along the edges. The leaves also have a leathery texture.
Common Botanical Types of Sarsaparilla
Smilax ornata – Jamaican or Honduras Sarsaparilla
Smilax ornata, also known as Jamaican or Honduras sarsaparilla, is native to Mexico and Central America.(3) This species is most commonly used to make root beer. When comparing both Jamaican and Honduras sarsaparilla, botanists note some minute differentiations. Specifically, Honduras sarsaparilla grows taller with thicker stalks, and the roots have a larger diameter. Both varieties have a root structure that is brown or reddish in appearance and sprout fibrous rootlets. The taste may be somewhat different, with the Jamaican variety being more sweet and bitter and the Honduras variety being sticky and acrid.
Smilax aristolochiifolia – Mexican Sarsaparilla
Smilax aristolochiifolia, also known as Mexican or gray sarsaparilla, is native to Mexico and Central America.(4) This species is common in wooded areas and uses its tendrils to attach to the bark of trees. It prefers moist, warm areas at all elevations.
Smilax aspera, also known as common smilax, rough bindweed, sarsaparille, and Mediterranean smilax, grows in northern Africa, the Mediterranean region of Europe, and tropical areas of Asia. It can be found growing in wooded areas at altitudes up to 4,000 feet. It prefers to grow up evergreens and produces thorns along the stem. The leaves have a more defined heart shape. The berries grow and ripen in the Fall and are a common food source for birds.
Smilax glyciphylla – Sweet Sarsaparilla
Smilax glyciphylla, also known as sweet sarsaparilla, is native to eastern Australia and is commonly found in the rainforest and woodland areas. This species is unique in that its berries are larger, almost grape-like in appearance. The leaves have a sweet taste due to its glycoside glyciphylla content. The plant has been used medicinally for scurvy as far back as 1788 by English sailors that traveled the coastal regions of Australia.
Smilax glabra – Chinaroot
Smilax glabra, also known as Smilax china and Chinaroot, is native to China, the Himalayas, and Indochina.(5) Herbalists suggest that this species of sarsaparilla may help to clear heat and tonify the liver and kidneys.(6)
Other species of plants that also go by a variation of the name sarsaparilla include Alphitonia, Hardenbergia violacea, and Aralia nudicaulis. These plants do not belong to the same family as Smilax, although some have been said to share flavors or aromas.
Modern writings about sarsaparilla started sometime around the 1500s when the plant was introduced to Europe medicine by explorers returning from North and South America, and Mexico.(7) Early Asian cultures and some regions of North Africa and Southern Europe are said to have likely used the plant as they are common in those regions regions; however, its historical use isn’t well understood.
European physicians describe using its root as a blood purifier, diuretic, and diaphoretic (to induce sweating). The variety of sarsaparilla found in Mexico became a treatment for syphilis and rheumatism. From 1820 to 1910, the U.S. Pharmacopeia listed sarsaparilla as possessing medicinal actions that may be useful in the treatment of syphilis and rheumatism.(8) Other written texts about herbs and their uses also suggest that sarsaparilla has mechanisms that help to address syphilis, herpes, rheumatic affections, passive general dropsy, gonorrhoeal rheumatism, and for general use with other sexual diseases and joint related disorders. (9)
In American culture, sarsaparilla drinks are often presented as popular among ranchers and cowboys. The popularity of sarsaparilla in the early 19th century may be attributed to its use as a treatment of syphilis. While North American Indians used it as a tonic to help sustain youth and sexual prowess. Among doctors and medicine men, sarsaparilla was known as a general ‘cure-all’ that could be used to rejuvenate humans and livestock.(10)(11)
Research has investigated several claims about the benefits of sarsaparilla and results show that plant compounds do have the potential to provide some medicinal benefit. Researchers looked at various species of the plant to obtain these results. Individual health, the part of the plant used in the supplement, dosage, and other factors may affect individual results. Additional research may be necessary to validate these findings.
Researchers studied the effect of sarsaparilla extract from the rhizome of Smilax glabra on cancer cell growth to determine its potential use in medical treatments or alternative therapies.(12) Researchers note that the water soluble extract of sarsaparilla contains flavonoids, alkaloids, and phenylpropanoids as important bioactive compounds that may help “inhibit the growth of a broad spectrum of cancer cell lines in the in vitro and in vivo” lab tests. The mechanisms by which these extracts work is not understood. According to the research, the plant chemicals in the extract disrupt cancer cell mutation and cell division, and can even lead to the death of cancer cells. The study does not, however, indicate how this could be adapted to the treatment of the different types of cancer in humans; rather, researchers suggest that this study demonstrates a molecular basis for sarsaparilla as a potential cancer treatment.
Another study writes that the extract of the smilax glabra can “modulate immunity, protect against liver injury, lower blood glucose, and suppress cancer.” (13) Additionally, the study found that treatment with this extract helped to disrupt cell migration and invasion of cells linked to cancer and tumors. The study does not indicate the specific human benefit, meaning additional research may be necessary.
Oxidative stress that results from ultraviolet light has been found to affect skin aging and the development of new skin tissue.(14) In a study examining the effects of sarsaparilla root on antioxidant enzymes in human dermal fibroblasts (cells responsible for generating connective tissue), researchers found that sarsaparilla root had a protective effect on specific pathways that UV light can damage.
The antioxidant effects of the Australian variety of sarsaparilla known as Smilax glyciphylla may also extend to the gastrointestinal tract, according to research from the University of Western Sydney.(15) When taken as a tea, extracts from the plant, such as glycyphyllin, enter the gastrointestinal tract and provide “antioxidant protection in tissues affected by oxidative stress.” The research also notes that when metabolized in the gut, it is absorbed as phloretin, a compound associated with having properties that disrupt cancer. In conclusion, the research states that these findings “indicate that further studies of the chemopreventive properties of Smilax glyciphylla is warranted.”
The root structure of Smilax glabra contains a flavonoid compound known as astilbin.(16) Researchers found that this plant compound helps to regulate the inflammatory response in studies of animals with adjuvant arthritis (a type of induced arthritis used in lab studies). An oral administration of atiblin at 5.3 mg/kg of body weight reduces joint damage e in the hind paw of rats with adjuvant arthritis. Researchers found that astilbin works through the regulation of immune system expression, including the suppression of key molecules that contribute to the inflammatory response in arthritic joints. It is also noted that these effects mimic, partially, the common drugs prescribed for arthritis, leflunomide.
Much has been written about the treatment of syphilis with sarsaparilla, but there is currently no readily available research to support these claims.(17)(18)(19) Historical accounts of the use of sarsaparilla in the treatment of the disease write from a purely anecdotal position, but fail to backup these individual claims with supportive evidence. If using sarsaparilla in the treatment of syphilis or other related diseases, use extreme caution and consult a primary care physician about alternatives.
Sarsaparilla Dosage, Warnings, and Interactions
There is no established safe dosage of sarsaparilla. Supplements can contain dosage amounts ranging from under 100 mg to over 1,000 mg. Sarsaparilla can also be found in herbal blends that do not disclose the precise ratio of each herb. Supplements may contain whole parts of the root, leaves, or berries, and extracts from each of the plant parts.
Sarsaparilla is considered safe and well tolerated by most individuals. There is insufficient data about side effects and possible drug interactions. Sarsaparilla may interact with other drugs or therapies, so if changes to health occur immediately contact a primary care physician.
Sarsaparilla is available in capsules, tinctures, liquids, tablets, and herbal blends. Each supplement may contain one or more of the varieties of the Smilax species, which could affect the potential medicinal benefits an individual will experience. For best results, consult with a primary care physician before starting any supplement regimen, and follow the manufacturer dosing guidelines and warnings.
When shopping for supplements, always shop brands that you can trust. The NHC.com store carries a wide variety of brands that are known to follow Good Manufacturing Practices, use third party testing for quality and purity, or use ingredients made or grown in the USA. Shop for sarsaparilla today and see if it makes a difference in your life.