Alternative names: Sarsaparilla, Smilax, Smilace, Sarsa, Khao Yen
Sarsaparilla is the common name for Smilax ornata, which gives old-fashioned root beer its flavor and has been used historically to treat everything from chronic pain to toe fungus.
Sarsaparilla root has been used medicinally for hundreds of years in Central and South America who found that it relieved rheumatism, general physical weakness, sexual impotence, headaches, colds, joint pain and skin problems.
When it first came to Europe in the 1400s, it was used to encourage sweating and urination, as well as to purify the blood. Sarsaparilla root was registered in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1910 as a treatment for the STD syphilis, but no longer.
The supplement ingredient called sarsaparilla is usually the dried roots of various species of Smilax. Of these, Mexican sarsaparilla (S. medica), Honduran sarsaparillas (S. regelii and S. officinalis) are the most used.
Little is known about the effectiveness of extracting sarsaparilla roots, therefore, whole root preparations are usually used.
So-called Indian sarsaparilla is of a different genus (Hemidesmus) and is not a true Smilax, having none of the properties described here.
Sarsaparilla root is available at health food stores in capsule and tincture form, often combined with other herbs for a specific purpose. It is a common ingredient in natural hormone-balancing, skin care and libido-increasing products.
Smilax species contain various amounts of steroid components as well as saponins, resins, starch and a small amount of volatile oils.
The biological activity of sarsaparilla is not completely known but much of what is attributed to it is probably false. Advertisements have expounded the ability of Smilax to increase strength and energy due to its steroid components. However, testosterone is not found in sarsaparilla, despite the many claims of its presence. Historically, sarsaparilla was thought to purify the blood, helping to detoxify and rid the body of disease (especially syphilis). This activity is not confirmed by research.
Sarsaparilla root contains saponins, which likely work by disabling bacterial components called endotoxins.
Sarsaparilla has been shown to increase the absorption of various drugs, especially the drug digitalis. Other activities associated with sarsaparilla are hepatoprotection, diuretic, and antiinflammatory activities.
Since it was first introduced to the West, sarsaparilla has been used to treat gout, gonorrhea, open wounds, rheumatoid arthritis, cough, fever, hypertension, pain, lack of libido, psoriasis, indigestion, and even leprosy and certain types of cancer.
Typical doses of sarsaparilla for a variety of uses range from 0.3 to 2gm/day of the powdered root. To enjoy its taste, boil and simmer 1-2 teaspoons of the chopped, dried root for each cup of water.
Sarsaparilla root has no known side-effects.