What Is Sarsaparilla Root?


What Is Sarsaparilla Root?

(Pronunciation: SARS-PUH-RILLA)

In South America, deep within the Amazon rainforest the sarsaparilla species Smilax officinalis climbs its way up the canopy of giant mahogany and kapok trees.

Meanwhile, spreading throughout the forests of Southeast Asia, the species Smilax chinensis brambles along the ground floor of the forests, catching any of the light the trees above managed to miss.

No matter where it’s found in the world, it’s always had a preference for deep, dark, and humid forests.

It’s developed traits that make it highly suitable in these environments.

Dark, highly photoreceptive leaf surfaces, creeping tendrils allowing it to grab hold of surrounding trees and foliage while it travels along, and thorny stems allowing it to form thick, impenetrable greenbriers.

The growth patterns of this plant is interesting, but cannot compare to the medicinal value it offers.

Uses range from arthritis to cancer, and nearly everything in between.

In this article we will only discuss some of the more common uses of this plant medicinally.

what is sarsaparilla root


Medicinal Uses Of Sarsaparilla:

This medicinal plant species has a long list of alleged uses, many of which are backed up by quality scientific research.

The traditional usage is interesting, because despite growing on nearly all continents (except Antarctica), the traditional uses among the locals remains nearly the same across the board.

Sarsaparilla Root In Chinese Medicine:

In Chinese medicine, sarsaparilla is more commonly referred to as “Tu Fu Ling”. In this form of medicine, the energetic qualities of plants are used to describe its actions.

This can include qualities of hot (stimulating), cold (inhibiting), moist, dry, etc. Sarsaparilla, or Tu Fu Ling, is used to clear damp heat, aids the skin, and opens the channels.

What this means to a western practitioner is that sarsaparilla acts as an anti inflammatory, expectorant, diaphoretic, and diuretic.

The conditions sarsaparilla is used to treat in Chinese medicine are the same conditions used in western medical herbalism, only with different names.

Sarsaparilla is used for:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Fevers

  • Productive cough

  • Ulcers

  • Abscesses

  • Gout

  • Digestive weakness

  • Psoriasis

  • Arthritis

  • Cancer

  • Various skin conditions

In Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, sarsaparilla is also used as an ingredient in soups.

This is likely due to a combination of its medicinal benefit, and for the foaming action sarsaparilla provides in water due to its high saponin component. This has also lead to it’s popular inclusion for root beer as a way to make it foam easily.


Sarsaparilla Root In The Americas:

In South America, the uses are very similar to that of China and the rest of Southeast Asia, which includes rheumatism, cancer, psoriasis, and joint pain among others.

One use that is different however, is as a treatment for sexual impotence.

Shamans in the Amazon were fond of this plant for its ability to treat leprosy, which is particularly hard to treat, but was common due to one of their common food sources, the armadillo, being notorious for containing the responsible bacteria.

Sarsaparilla likes dark, humid forests like this

Sarsaparilla likes dark, humid forests like this


The Origin Of Root Beer:

Many people associate sarsaparilla with its traditional use in the creation of root beer.

The foaming actions of the saponins contained in sarsaparilla made it perfect for the foamy, carbonated beverage. It was flavoured with a different species, sassafrass, which has a characteristic sweet flavour.

Today, very few root beer manufacturers actually use either of these roots during production, favouring “sassafrass flavour” and different chemical foaming agents.

The Chemistry Of Sarsaparilla Root:

There are more than 300 species in the genus Smilax, each one with slightly different chemical makeup and found in different areas of the world.

The main species are Smilax officinalis, Smilax chinensis, Smilax ornata, and Smilax glabra.

These species especially are high in saponins.

Saponins are well known for being a key ingredient in adaptogenic herbs, and are the component responsible for the foaming action sarsaparilla is famous for.

In particular, the saponins contained in sarsaparilla are mainly steroidal, meaning they have an influence on various chemical messenger pathways inside the human body.

They have been found to possess an incredibly wide range of actions in the body. This is part of the reason why so many adaptogenic plant species are in fact high in saponins. It is debatable as to whether sarsaparilla in particular can be considered an adaptogen.

Sarsaparilla also contains various flavonoids, which are the main components responsible for its antineoplastic, antioxidant, and anti psoriasis actions.

sarsaparilla plant

Scientific Evidence For Sarsaparilla Root:

Sarsaparilla And Inflammation

Sarsaparilla was found to have a similar antioxidant profile to salicylic acid, acting on both COX-1 and COX-2 pathways [5].

Sarsaparilla And Cancer

Cancer is both complex and highly variable Nevertheless, the process of tumor growth is similar in many different cancer cell lines. Sarsaparilla has been foundto provide benefits for cell lines including cervical, lung, gastric, ovarian, and breast cancers. It was shown to reduce cancer cell viability through enhanced ERK signalling [6], activation of caspase-3, PARP and Bax, blocking AKT activation, inhibition of NF-κB activation, and regulating cIAP-1, XIAP, Bcl-XL and Bcl-2 expression [7].

Sarsaparilla And Gout

Sarsaparilla has been shown to inhibit xanthine oxidase through a combination of 9 different constituents [1]. This has backed up and explained much of the ability for sarsaparilla to treat gout.

Sarsaparilal And Psoriasis

Flavonoids such as quercetin significant orthokeratosis, anti-inflammatory and antiproliferative activity [2], which supports the use of sarsaparilla in the treatment of psoriasis.

Sarsaparilla And Detoxification

Although the word “detox” is obscure and non-specific, it is often used to describe the ability to remove metabolites, and unwanted chemicals from the body. Sarsaparilla is a common addition for “detox” purposes. This has been backed up with research involving the pharmacokinetics of nicotine. Sarsaparilla (namely the component oxyresveratrol) was shown to increase the detoxification and elimination of this chemical through enhancing CYP2A6-mediated metabolism [3]. This gene is a part of the larger cytochrome P450 hemoproteins which are responsible for roughly 75% of metabolism and have been found in nearly all forms of life on earth [4].

Sarsaparilal And Pain

In mice studies, sarsaparilla was shown to reduce the sensation of pain through prostaglandin interaction and inhibition [5].


Justin Cooke

The Sunlight Experiment

(Updated October 2018)

Recent Blog Posts:


  1. Lvyi Chen, Huafeng Yin, Zhou Lan, Shuwei Ma, Chunfeng Zhang, Zhonglin Yang, Ping Li, Baoqin Lin. (2011). Anti-hyperuricemic and nephroprotective effects of Smilax china L. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 135. 399-405.

  2. Vijayalakshmi A, Ravichandiran V, Malarkodi Velraj, Nirmala S, Jayakumari S. (2012). Screening of flavonoid “quercetin” from the rhizome of Smilax china Linn. for anti-psoriatic activity. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine. 2(4). 269-275.

  3. Kim K.M, Suh J.W, Yang S.H, Kim B.R, Park T.S, Shim S.M. (2014). Smilax china Root Extract Detoxifies Nicotine by Reducing Reactive Oxygen Species and Inducing CYP2A6. Journal of Food Science. 79. 10. doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.12595

  4. Guengerich FP (January 2008). "Cytochrome p450 and chemical toxicology". Chemical Research in Toxicology. 21 (1): 70–83. doi:10.1021/tx700079z. PMID 18052394. (Metabolism in this context is the chemical modification or degradation of drugs.)

  5. Xiao-Shun Shu, Zhong-Hong Gao, Xiang-Liang Yang. (2006). Anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive activities of Smilax china L. aqueous extract. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 103. 327-332.

  6. Yu H.J, Shin J.A, Lee S.C, Kwon K.H, Sung-Dae C. (2014). Extracellular signal regulated kinase inhibition is required for methanol extract of Smilax china L. induced apoptosis through death receptor 5 in human oral mucoepidermoid carcinoma cells. Molecular medicine reports. 9. 663-668. DOI: 10.3892/mmr.2013.1826

  7. Hu L.L, Chen D.S, Wang Y.Y, Qin Y, Huang P, Yu L.X, Liao J, Hua X.L. (2010). Smilax China L. Rhizome Extract Inhibits Nuclear Factor-κB and Induces Apoptosis in Ovarian Cancer Cells. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine.