Sarsaparilla: The Healing Herb with Many Uses

August 25, 2016

There’s an herbal remedy that’s been used by native populations in Central and South America for thousands for years, shown to help relieve a wide range of problems from skin dermatitis to coughs. Starting in around the 1950s, European physicians considered sarsaparilla root a “tonic, blood purifier, diuretic and sweat promoter” that could help treat serious, even life-threatening infections, such as leprosy or cancer.

Today, sarsaparilla products go by many different names depending on exactly which roots or plants are used to make the product, how they’re prepared, and what part of the world they come from. Other common names for sarsaparilla include Smilax, Honduran sarsaparilla, Jamaican sarsaparilla and zarzaparilla. While it’s no longer used to treat skin infections from tropical bugs, leprosy or syphilis, sarsaparilla can commonly still be found in herbal preparations for balancing hormones, lowering fluid retention and improving overall immune function.

Sarsaparilla Nutrition Facts

What is sarsaparilla exactly? Sarsaparilla (which has the species names Smilax Ornata, Smilax regelii or Smilax officinalis) is technically a perennial vine that grows in warm temperatures, such as those in the southern most states of the U.S. or Central and South America. The plant is a member of the Liliaceae (lily) group of vines in the plant family called Smilacaceae, which includes over 300 different plant species.

Sarsaparilla vines can grow very long (sometimes up to eight feet), have starchy, edible roots, and produce small berries that are edible for both humans and animals, especially birds. Although the roots are much more often used to make remedies today than the berries are, the berries and leaves can also be consumed for their benefits, effects and mild taste.

In fact, in the the past, sarsaparilla plants, roots, vines and berries were all used in various ways to create beverages, fermented snacks and other treats that were enjoyed in places like India and Latin America. Sarsaparilla is actually the name for a type of soft drink (similar to root beer) that’s flavored with the root of the plant — although the soft drink doesn’t have the same benefits as real sarsaparilla teas or tinctures do, of course.

In herbal medicine practices, sarsaparilla plant roots are ground up and used to make natural remedies (tinctures, teas, supplements, etc.) that help treat some of the following health problems:

Cancer and tumor growth

Coughs and colds

Rheumatoid arthritis pains, joint pain or rheumatism

Skin problems, including psoriasis, toe fungus, wounds, ulcers and ringworm

Fatigue

Muscle pains or weakness

Low libido and sexual impotence

Headaches

Gout

Indigestion

Liver damage

Infections, such as sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea

Bloating/fluid retention

Overheating and fevers

What gives sarsaparilla its healing abilities? Researchers have identified numerous active chemical properties within sarsaparilla, including strong antioxidants, along with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory compounds. These include:

Saponins: Anti-inflammatory chemical compounds that taste bitter and help kill fungus, bacteria, cancer cells and harmful microbes. Saponins also naturally mimic effects of certain reproductive hormones associated with youthful characteristics, including testosterone and estrogen. Sarsaparilla contains approximately 2 percent steroidal saponins, including sarsaponin, smilasaponin (smilacin), sarsaparilloside, sarsasaponin parillin and smilagenin.

Plant sterols: Found in many high-fiber plant foods and shown to benefit gut health, heart health and digestive health. Phytosterols within sarsaparilla include sitosterol, stigmasterol and pollinastano.

Flavonoid antioxidants: Found in brightly colored fruits and veggies, such as berries, and linked to longevity, reduced inflammation, skin health, eye health and improved immune function. One of the most important flavonoids found within sarsaparilla is called astilbin.

Other steroidal/anti-inflammatory phytochemicals: These include diosgenin, tigogenin and asperagenin.

Starch: The root is about 50 percent starch and when eaten provides fiber and other nutrients.

Volatile oils and acids: Including caffeoylshikimic acid, shikimic acid, ferulic acid, sarsapic acid, kaempferol and quercetin.

Trace minerals: Including aluminum, chromium, iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium and zinc.

Benefits of Sarsaparilla

1. Contains Anti-Tumor and Cancer-Preventative Properties

Certain studies have found evidence of at least 24 extracts obtained within the roots, stems, leaves and fruits of wild sarsaparilla plants that help naturally treat or prevent cancer. The majority of the pharmacological benefits are attributed to its concentration of natural steroids and saponins, which help with the absorption of other drugs or herbs, reduce inflammatory effects, and have other anti-aging properties.

According to research done at the University of Queensland in Australia, sarsaparilla contains at least five steroidal saponins, including two newly discovered furostanol saponins known as sarsaparilloside B and sarsaparilloside C. These saponins have been found to have antiproliferative activities that help to kill cancer cells, especially those that affect the lining of the colon.

Sarsaparilla also contains dozens of other anti-inflammatory, antioxidant acids, oils and chemicals that lower oxidative stress and have anti-aging effects. Studies conducted at Peking University Cancer Hospital and Institute in China found that flavonoids, alkaloids and phenylpropanoids were some of the major bioactive components identified within wild sarsaparilla that induce apoptosis and have growth-inhibitory effects without damaging healthy cells. (5)

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