Sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.)

While some complementary and alternative techniques have been studied scientifically, high-quality data regarding safety, effectiveness, and mechanism of action are limited or controversial for most therapies. Whenever possible, it is recommended that practitioners be licensed by a recognized professional organization that adheres to clearly published standards. In addition, before starting a new technique or engaging a practitioner, it is recommended that patients speak with their primary healthcare provider(s). Potential benefits, risks (including financial costs), and alternatives should be carefully considered. The below monograph is designed to provide historical background and an overview of clinically-oriented research, and neither advocates for or against the use of a particular therapy.

Related Terms

  • 3′-O-methylastilbin, Aralia nudicaulis, astilbin, disporoside A, helonioside B, nannaari, phenylpropanoid glycosides, rhizoma Smilacis glabrae, sapogenins, smilaside E, smilasides, Smilax aristolochiaefoli, Smilax aspera, Smilax china, Smilax china tubers, Smilax febrifuga, Smilax glabra, Smilax medica, Smilax officinalis, Smilax regelii, steroidal saponins, sugandhi-pala, tu fu ling, wild sarsaparilla rhizome extract.

Background

  • Sarsaparilla (Smilax species) is a vine with prickly stems, shiny leaves, and numerous reddish-brown roots. Among several recognized sarsaparilla species, Jamaican Smilax regelii (also known as Smilax officinalis) is the most commonly cultivated for commercial and medicinal use.

  • Sarsaparilla is used as a flavoring for beverages and as a homeopathic medicine. It is also used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases. Compounds extracted from the rhizomes, or horizontal underground stems, and fruit are being explored as potential treatments for cancer, arthritis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and various inflammatory conditions. A combination of Nigella sativa seeds, Hemidesmus indicus root, and Smilax glabra rhizome is used by traditional medical practitioners in Sri Lanka to treat cancer.

Scientific Evidence

Uses

These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.

No available studies qualify for inclusion in the evidence table.

*Key to grades:

Tradition

The below uses are based on tradition or scientific theories. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious and should be evaluated by a qualified health care professional.

  • Anti-aging, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, arthritis, bodybuilding, cancer, diabetes, gastrointestinal conditions, hepatitis B, HIV, immune system function, inflammatory skin conditions, leukemia, liver protection, weight loss, wound healing.

Dosing

The below doses are based on scientific research, publications, traditional use, or expert opinion. Many herbs and supplements have not been thoroughly tested, and safety and effectiveness may not be proven. Brands may be made differently, with variable ingredients, even within the same brand. The below doses may not apply to all products. You should read product labels, and discuss doses with a qualified healthcare provider before starting therapy.

Adults (18 years and older)

  • There is no proven safe or effective dose for sarsaparilla in adults.

Children (under 18 years old)

  • There is no proven safe or effective dose for sarsaparilla in children.

Safety

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. There is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety of products, and effects may vary. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy. Consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience side effects.

Allergies

  • Avoid with known allergy or hypersensitivity to sarsaparilla, its constituents, or members of the Smilax genus. Occupational asthma caused by sarsaparilla root dust has been reported.

Side Effects and Warnings

  • Sarsaparilla is likely safe when used by nonsensitive individuals in amounts commonly found in food.

  • Occupational asthma caused by sarsaparilla root dust has been reported.

  • Although this effect has not been well studied in humans, sarsaparilla extracts may have effects that are toxic to cells.

  • Use cautiously in patients with altered immune function, as extracts of sarsaparilla rhizome may affect functions of immune cells such as lymphocyte and macrophages, as well as bone marrow cells.

  • Avoid in pregnant or breastfeeding women, due to a lack of available scientific evidence.

  • Avoid with known allergy or hypersensitivity to sarsaparilla, its constituents, or members of the Smilax genus.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

  • Avoid in pregnant or breastfeeding women, due to a lack of available scientific evidence.

Interactions

Most herbs and supplements have not been thoroughly tested for interactions with other herbs, supplements, drugs, or foods. The interactions listed below are based on reports in scientific publications, laboratory experiments, or traditional use. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy.

Interactions with Drugs

  • Sarsaparilla may interact with anticancer drugs, antifungals, antivirals, drugs that may damage the liver, or drugs that may affect the immune system.

Interactions with Herbs and Dietary Supplements

  • Sarsaparilla may interact with anticancer herbs and supplements, antifungals, antivirals, herbs and supplements that may damage the liver, or herbs and supplements that may affect the immune system.

Author Information

  • This information is based on a systematic review of scientific literature edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com).

References

Natural Standard developed the above evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to www.naturalstandard.com. Selected references are listed below.

  1. Bucci LR. Selected herbals and human exercise performance. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;72(2 Suppl):624S-636S. View Abstract
  2. Caceres A, Lopez BR, Giron MA, et al. Plants used in Guatemala for the treatment of dermatophytic infections. 1. Screening for antimycotic activity of 44 plant extracts. J Ethnopharmacol 1991;31(3):263-276. View Abstract
  3. Cai Y, Chen T, Xu Q. Astilbin suppresses collagen-induced arthritis via the dysfunction of lymphocytes. Inflamm Res 2003;52(8):334-340. View Abstract
  4. Chu KT, Ng TB. Smilaxin, a novel protein with immunostimulatory, antiproliferative, and HIV-1-reverse transcriptase inhibitory activities from fresh Smilax glabra rhizomes. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 2006;340(1):118-124. View Abstract
  5. Grunewald KK, Bailey RS. Commercially marketed supplements for bodybuilding athletes. Sports Med 1993;15(2):90-103. View Abstract
  6. Guo J, Qian F, Li J, et al. Identification of a new metabolite of astilbin, 3′-O-methylastilbin, and its immunosuppressive activity against contact dermatitis. Clin Chem 2007;53(3):465-471. View Abstract
  7. Hsu S. Green tea and the skin. J Am Acad Dermatol 2005;52(6):1049-1059. View Abstract
  8. Huang YG, Li QZ, Ivanochko G, et al. Novel selective cytotoxicity of wild sarsaparilla rhizome extract. J Pharm Pharmacol 2006;58(10):1399-1403. View Abstract
  9. Ji W, Zhu XX, Tan WF, et al. Effects of Rebixiao granules on blood uric acid in patients with repeatedly attacking acute gouty arthritis. Chin J Integr Med 2005;11(1):15-21. View Abstract
  10. Liu XR, Han WQ, Sun DR. [Treatment of intestinal metaplasia and atypical hyperplasia of gastric mucosa with xiao wei yan powder]. Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi 1992;12(10):602-3, 580. View Abstract
  11. Navarro MC, Montilla MP, Cabo MM, et al. Antibacterial, antiprotozoal and antioxidant activity of five plants used in Izabal for infectious diseases. Phytother Res 2003;17(4):325-329. View Abstract
  12. Sautour M, Miyamoto T, Lacaille-Dubois MA. Steroidal saponins from Smilax medica and their antifungal activity. J Nat Prod 2005;68(10):1489-1493. View Abstract
  13. Thabrew MI, Mitry RR, Morsy MA, et al. Cytotoxic effects of a decoction of Nigella sativa, Hemidesmus indicus and Smilax glabra on human hepatoma HepG2 cells. Life Sci 2005;77(12):1319-1330. View Abstract
  14. Wang J, Li Q, Ivanochko G, et al. Anticancer effect of extracts from a North American medicinal plant–wild sarsaparilla. Anticancer Res 2006;26(3A):2157-2164. View Abstract
  15. Yip EC, Liu AM, Wong JT, et al. An aqueous extract of the popular Chinese nutraceutical Kwei Ling Ko (Tortoise shell-Rhizome jelly) activates the PPARgamma pathway and down-regulates the NFkappaB activity. Phytomedicine 2005;12(10):748-759. View Abstract

The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.