Common Names

Botanical Name
Smilax officinalis

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What is it?

The root of the Sarsaparilla plant is the part used in herbal medicine. Sarsaparilla itself is a long lived climbing vine with prickly stems. Sarsaparilla is odourless but it has a distinct acridity and slightly bitter taste that is not unpleasant in itself. It is still used as a flavouring base for soft drinks in many parts of the world and Sarsaparilla drinks were once very popular in American culture in the form of root beers.




How has it been used?

Sarsaparilla’s most enduring recommendations have been for rheumatism and psoriasis. Given these are famously hard health problems to get better from it shows how high is the regard we hold for this herb that it is still widely used around the world for these problems to this very day.

The ancient Greeks and Romans linked European Sarsaparilla to the treatment of poisons but when the Spanish explorers discovered the Caribbean species (a prickly; zarza, vine; parra, that was little; illa) that it was called 'Sarsaparilla' and went on to become an extremely popular medicine for many centuries.

T. Bartram calls Sarsaparilla a powerful blood tonic, anti-inflammatory and anti-rheumatic and goes on to list its potential benefits for rheumatism, gout, chronic skin eruptions, psoriasis and eczema.

In 1494 an unusually violent epidemic of syphilis swept through Europe and for a long time Sarsaparilla was the main treatment used for this deadly disease. Nicholas Culpeper called Sarsaparilla the best treatment for the French disease (the English name for syphilis) and also recommended it for 'eye problems, head colds, gas pains, pimples and all manner of aches in the sinews or joints'.

Natives of the Amazon area have traditionally used Sarsaparilla to re-establish virility in men and to treat the symptoms of the menopause in women. These kinds of uses can be understood given the high level of steroidal saponins in the plant which will have at least some effects on human hormones.

North American Indians used Sarsaparilla to treat skin problems, urinary complaints and as a tonic. The Penobscot, Ojubwas and Kwakiutl Indians of North America used Sarsaparilla as a cough remedy and the smoke of Sarsaparilla was inhaled by asthmatic patients.

King's Dispensatory writes 'Sarsaparilla is generally considered as a blood cleansing alterative though stated by some to possess diuretic, diaphoretic, and emetic properties. Its mode of action, however, is not well understood as it effects normal changes in the system without any appreciable change in the operation of the various organs. No medicine has, probably, ever passed through so many changes of popularity having been at various times most highly lauded as an efficient alterative, and as often been pronounced inert. There is no doubt, however, that, when properly prepared, it exerts a favourable influence over the system. It has been used in several chronic diseases as of the skin, as herpes, rheumatic affections, passive general dropsy, gonorrhoeal rheumatism, and other conditions of the system where an alterative is required'

TJ Lyle writes that 'Sarsaparilla is a mild, pleasant, relaxing and stimulating alterative. It is a very mild agent and deserving praise chiefly when combined with other alterants. In this way it is of service in...' and he goes on to list some of the chronic conditions already mentioned.


Science on Sarsaparilla

~ Rudolph Weiss talks about the use of Sarsaparilla for psoriasis. He says there is reliable evidence that saponin-rich drugs have a beneficial effect on persistent psoriasis and that Sarsaparilla has the highest saponin concentration of all medicinal plants with the steroidal saponins sarsaparilloside, smilasaponin and pairllin believed to be primarily responsible for the medicinal action of Sarsaparilla root (Weiss R, Fintelmann V; Herbal Medicine, (2)300-301,1999)

~ Sarsaparilla has been popular among athletes and body-builders as a kind of natural anabolic steroid but studies reviewing all the clinical trials published showed that there was no evidence to show that the saponins that were used from the Sarsaparilla (diosgenin, smilagenin and hecogenin) increased growth hormone release in the body (Barron RL, Vanscoy GJ: Ann Pharmacother 27(5):607-615,1993)

~ Sarsaparilla was extensively studied as a treatment for psoriasis in the early 20th century prior to the development of many of the steroidal type drugs in common use today. The studies were not nearly as rigorously constructed as modern trials but they show some compelling evidence nevertheless -- which is especially persuasive given how difficult it is to successfully treat psoriasis. 2-3 months of treatment were commonly required but over 50% of the people suffering from psoriasis improved when given large daily doses of Sarsaparilla extracts, the patients who received the most benefit had chronic plaque psoriasis (Thurman FM: N Engl J Med 227:128-133,1942)

~ Sarsaparilla extracts have been observed to have anti-tubercle bacillus activity in culture studies and water extracts of Sarsaparilla have been shown to inhibit three common skin fungi (dermatophytes) called Epidermophyton floccusum, Microsporum canis and Trichophyton mentagrophytes (Caceres A et al: J Ethnopharmacol 31(3):263-276,1991)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of over 20 further studies and articles on Sarsparilla are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Sarsaparilla

Sarsaparilla is regarded as extremely safe even in high dose treatments for the young and old, during pregnancy or whilst breastfeeding. Note that there are cautions in the literature, based on its high level of steroidal saponins, that it may cause problems in the digestive tract or when taken with certain drugs but it must be clarified that these are theoretical concerns only, not based on experience or observation. Sarsaparilla has been such a widely used and popular herb that we can be confident that there has been ample opportunity to develop cautions in its use if they were necessary; they appear not to be.

General safety note on herbs

Therapeutic substances, and this certainly all includes all medicinal herbs, can do good and, therefore, also have the potential to do harm. The maxim that 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us and the ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. So, not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs but, equally, we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this old, proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities and medical publications that no so long ago decried herbal medicines as ineffectual have now taken up a different kind of adversarial position. That they are dangerous substances that should not be taken for a long list of reasons and really should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. It is absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver, and fear has also been long proven to be effective when used to manipulate and control others.

I realise that the reader who comes to a page like this is unlikely to be swayed by such misinformation, but I nevertheless want to remind you that the reason that herbs cannot be patented or owned by any individual or corporation is that they are the people's medicine. They belong to us all and it is my great hope that you will learn how to use them safely and wisely for yourself and the people you care for. Be safe but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

Sarsaparilla is an intriguing herb. Looking at what kinds of serious problems it has been traditionally used to help it sounds like it should be powerful, and therefore possibly a little dangerous, but in reality Sarsaparilla is a gentle and very safe medicine that can safely be taken over extended time periods by any age group.

If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or want to understand much more about this remedy for your own reasons then I warmly encourage you to get a hold of some Sarsaparilla root or ready-made tincture and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, take a dose of it to see how it makes you feel. You may or may not like the flavour but I can assure you that nothing bad will happen, rather I think there is an excellent chance that trying this old 'experiential' way of learning will give you a greater appreciation for the gentle strength of this herb than any amount of academic study of it.

Further to that, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

Sarsaparilla's nourishing properties give it the quality of being a cleansing tonic. and I have used a great deal of it in longer-term treatment programs when I want a cleansing herb that will not unbalance the constitution towards being too cool or depleted but rather will have an uplifting effect on general energy at the same time as encouraging the blood to flow clean and clear.

Dosage wise it may be necessary to use quite large amounts to shift a bad case of psoriasis or the 'rheumatics'. If this is what we are asking it to help with I suggest the use of a tea may be the best, safest and most economical way to harness its benefits. Amounts of 10 grams a day can be taken for at least a few weeks with confidence if needed. For longer term treatment I have found that a good 3-5 mls a day of a high quality tincture is enough to keep treating a long-standing problem so long as it has initially improved. The longer it is taken the better it works.

Sarsaparilla combines beautifully with Echinacea and Golden Seal (this particular combo was one of the old herbal physician’s classic treatment for particularly nasty infections). Sarsaparilla also combines potently with Dandelion root and Burdock root and I have personally seen many stuck and chronic conditions start to shift with these particular herbs in combination.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Sarsaparilla is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light, Sarsaparilla can particularly offer its benefits when a cleansing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd