Common name: Sarsaparilla
Other names: Honduras or brown sarsaparilla (S. regelii), Mexican or gray sarsaparilla (S. medica), Jamaican or red sarsaparilla (S. ornata), Ecuadorian sarsaparilla (S. febrifuga), Tu Fu Ling or Chinese sarsaparilla (S. glabra), Jing Gang Ten (S. china)
Latin name: Smilax officinalis
Affinities: Digestive system, immune system, reproductive system
Actions: Alterative, antirheumatic, diuretic, diaphoretic, aphrodisiac, hepatoprotective, immunomodulator, metabolic modulator
Specific indications: Dry scaly skin, fatigue, poor complexion with acne, hormonal imbalances, rheumatism, weak digestion, sexual debility
Diseases: Rheumatoid arthritis(2), psoriasis(2), eczema(3), gout(2), acne(3)
Parts used: Rhizomes and roots
Energetics: Neutral, moistening
Characteristics: Sarsaparilla is a woody trailing vine that grows up to 150 inches long (Kuhn and Winston, 2000). Numerous species of sarsaparilla are used for similar medicinal purposes which have similar appearances. Sarsaparilla is cultivated in Mexico, Jamaica, China, and Central and Southern America. Sarsaparilla name comes from Spanish as the word is comprised of three different Spanish words, prickly (zarsa), vine (parra), and small (illa).
History: The Romans and ancient Greeks considered European sarsaparilla as an antidote to poisons, however, the herb was only made popular in the Western world during the 16th century when Spanish explorers discovered the Caribbean species (Castleman, 2001). The Native Americans and Caribbean Indians used this herb to treat skin and urinary disorders. They also viewed sarsaparilla as a tonic for preserving youth and vigour. Mexican sarsaparilla was transported back to Spain around 1530 and by 1600 it was widely used in Europe as a treatment for syphilis and as a ‘strengthening tonic’. Nicholas Culpepper, a 17th century English herbalist wrote of sarsaparilla, ‘It is used in many kinds of diseases, particularly in cold fluxes from the head and brain, rheums, and catarchs, and cold griefs of the stomach, as it expels wins very powerfully. It helps not only the French disease but all manner of aches in the sinews or joints…’ (Culpeper, 1814). By ‘the French disease’ he is thought to have meant syphilis. However, sarsaparilla did not remain popular for syphilis, by 1800, many physicians decided sarsaparilla was completely ineffective for it.
The Eclectic physicians in 19th century America, had mixed opinions about sarsaparilla, although they clearly valued it, in the Eclectic text, ‘King’s American Dispensatory’, it is written, ’Sarsaparilla is generally considered as an alterative…No medicine has, probably, ever passed through so many changes of popularity… There is no doubt, however, that, when properly prepared, it exerts a favourable influence over the system. The diseases in which it has been more particularly recommended, are inveterate syphilis… herpes… rheumatic affections… passive general dropsy, gonorrhoeal rheumatism, and other depraved conditions of the system where an alterative is required… chronic hepatic disorders, with torpor (Felter and Lloyd, 1898).
Current applications: Approximately a century later than the Eclectic physicians, David Hoffman wrote that sarsaparilla is a widely applicable alterative. It may be used to aid proper functioning of the body as a whole (Hoffman, 1988). He recommends it more specifically for scaly skin conditions such as psoriasis, as part of a wider treatment for rheumatism, and especially for rheumatoid arthritis. Sarsaparilla may be combined with yellow dock, burdock, and cleavers for psoriasis. Matthew Wood mentions sarsaparilla is an adrenal and sexual system tonic, improving nutrition and strength (Wood, 2009). His specific indications include; fatigue with acne, boils, and dark rings under the eyes, weak digestion, sex hormone imbalances, low libido, rheumatism, dry skin, and psoriasis. Sarsaparilla may be combined with ashwagandha and gotu kola to treat inflammatory arthritis.
Science: The phytochemistry of the genus Smilax is characterized by an abundance of steroidal saponins (Challinor et al., 2012). Steroidal saponins display a range of bioactivities, including cytotoxic, hemolytic, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial properties. Classical studies isolated three distinct saponins from sarsaparilla: parillin, sarsasaponin, and smilasaponin (Thurmon et al., 1942). Sarsaparilla extracts display anti-inflammatory or immunomodulating activities in animal models of pelvic inflammatory disorder (Ma et al., 2013), metabolic syndrome (Amaro et al., 2014), and rheumatoid arthritis (Jiang et al., 2003). Sarsaparilla also clearly has a modulating effect on metabolism as in the study of mice with metabolic syndrome the extract was able to control weight gain and decrease hypertriglyceridemia by 60% (Amaro et al., 2014). Furthermore, in a study of obesity in rats, the authors found treatment with an extract of sarsaparilla (Smilax chinensis) significantly decreased body weight, food intake, and fat deposits (Balamurugan et al., 2015). They also found it reversed lipid metabolism to near normal and significantly decreased glucose, plasma insulin, and leptin levels. Evidence for further metabolic modulatory effects were found in a mouse model of gout as the authors found an extract of sarsaparilla was effective in enhancing urate excretion in the kidneys of hyperuricemic mice (Wu et al., 2014).
There are precious few human studies and these date back to the early 20th century where standards for clinical trials were less rigorous. Sarsasaponin, obtained from the Honduras sarsaparilla, was used in one key study that found a greater improvement with treatment in psoriasis patients opposed to those patients who received a placebo (Thurmon et al., 1942). This study was published in the New England Journal Of Medicine. However, this trial does not seem to have been blinded and no statistical analysis was conducted. Regardless, this human study shows promise for the use of sarsaparilla in the treatment of psoriasis.
Dosage: 10-60 drops of tincture may be used 2-3 times daily.
Research on models
Anti-inflammatory: In one study, it was found a high-dose ethyl acetate extract of sarsaparilla inhibited uterus inflammation in rats with chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, the authors also found strong anti-inflammatory effects against ear edema in mice and granuloma in rats (Ma et al., 2013).
Rheumatoid arthritis: In a study, the authors found that an aqueous extract of sarsaparilla (Smilax glabra) rhizosome improved experimental rheumatoid arthritis in rats through inhibiting over activated macrophages and upregulating dysfunctional T lymphocytes (Jiang et al., 2003). They concluded that the extract has potential for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Gout: In another study, the authors found an extract of sarsaparilla (Smilax riparia) used in TCM to treat gout in humans was effective in enhancing urate excretion in the kidneys of hyperuricemic mice, these results imply that sarsaparilla may be an effective anti-gout medicine (Wu et al., 2014).
Obesity: In another study, the authors found that treatment of diet induced obese rats with an extract of sarsaparilla (Smilax chinensis) significantly decreased body weight, food intake, and fat deposits (Balamurugan et al., 2015). It also reversed lipid metabolism to near normal and significantly decreased glucose, plasma insulin, and leptin levels. It also decreased insulin resistance.
Metabolic syndrome: Metabolic syndrome is a metabolic disorder that increases the risk of developing kidney failure, cardiovascular, vascular and cerebrovascular diseases (Amaro et al., 2014). In one study using a mouse model of metabolic syndrome, the authors found sarsaparilla root extract (Smilax aristolochiifolia) was able to control the weight gain and an isolated fraction of the extract was able to decrease the hypertriglyceridemia by 60%. The insulin resistance decreased by approximately 40%, the same happened with blood pressure as it fell to normal levels. The treatment had an immunomodulatory effect since it significantly decreased the relative production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Research on humans
Psoriasis: In a study (N=92, placebo controlled) used a compound isolated from sarsaparilla called sarsasaponin (parillin) isolated from Honduras sarsaparilla and administered it twice daily in a tablet to patients with psoriasis (Thurmon et al., 1942). Although statistical analysis does not seem to have been conducted in this study, 18% of those patients treated with the parillin compound experienced total remission, while 6% on the placebo. The overall trends were in preference to the parillin compound.
Amaro, Carol Arely Botello, et al. “Hypoglycemic and hypotensive activity of a root extract of Smilax aristolochiifolia, standardized on N-trans-feruloyl-tyramine.” Molecules 19.8 (2014): 11366-11384.
Balamurugan, Rangachari. “Smilax chinensis Linn.(Liliaceae) root attenuates insulin resistance and ameliorate obesity in high diet induced obese rat.” South Indian Journal of Biological Sciences 1.1 (2015): 47-51.
Challinor, Victoria L., et al. “Steroidal saponins from the roots of Smilax sp.: structure and bioactivity.” Steroids 77.5 (2012): 504-511.
Culpeper, Nicholas. “Culpeper’s complete herbal.” (1814).
Felter, Harvey and Lloyd, John. King’s American Dispensatory, 1898.
Hoffman, David. Holistic herbal. Element Books, 1988.
Jiang, Jieyun, and Qiang Xu. “Immunomodulatory activity of the aqueous extract from rhizome of Smilax glabra in the later phase of adjuvant-induced arthritis in rats.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 85.1 (2003): 53-59.
Kuhn, Merrily A., and David Winston. Herbal therapy and supplements: a scientific and traditional approach. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.
Ma, Y., et al. “Pharmaceutical screening of the effective fraction from Smilax for treatment of chronic pelvic inflammatory disease.” Nan fang yi ke da xue xue bao= Journal of Southern Medical University 33.1 (2013): 145-149.
Thurmon, Francis M. “The treatment of psoriasis with a sarsaparilla compound.” New England Journal of Medicine 227.4 (1942): 128-133.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, 2009.
Wu, Xiao-Hui, et al. “Smilax riparia reduces hyperuricemia in mice as a potential treatment of gout.” The American journal of Chinese medicine 42.01 (2014): 257-259.