Sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.)

sarsaparilla plant

Sarsaparilla Summary

Sarsaparilla is widespread across the tropics from China and parts of Southeast Asia, through the Carribean and West Indies, into South America and Mexico. In all areas where sarsaparilla grows, it is used for similar conditions. This mainly includes skin conditions, systemic infection, and arthritis.

More recent research on this plant have suggested its efficacy towards cancer therapy, and to aid the absorption of other medicinal species in formulation.


+ Indications

  • Acute bacillary dysentery
  • Athletic performance enhancement
  • Cancer
  • Chronic nephritis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Other venereal and skin diseases
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatism
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Syphilis
  • To aid other medicinal absorption in the intestines

+ Contraindications

  • Caution advised with hormonal dysfunctions

Herbal Actions:

  • Antinflammatory
  • Antinociceptive
  • Antineoplastic
  • Antioxidant
  • Alterative
  • Antiviral
  • Antifungal
  • Immunomodulator

What Is Sarsaparilla Used For?

Psoriasis, cancer, rheumatism to ammeliorate healing crisis with Candidiasis, Lyme disease, and malaria. Also used to increase the absorption of other herbs in a formula.


Traditional Uses of Sarsaparilla

+ Western Herbal Medicine

Sarsaparilla has been used as a blood cleanser, for abscesses, ulcers, syphilis, shingles, as applications for wounds, asthma, rheumatism, digestive weakness, gout, gonorrhea, arthritis, fever, cough, scrofula, hypertension, psoriasis, skin diseases, and cancer [9].

In Europe, sarsaparilla has been considered a tonic, blood purifier, diuretic, and diaphoretic. After its introduction to Europe in the 1500s, Smilax was a popular treatment for syphilis, which had reached epidemic proportions at this time. The standard treatment for syphilis during this time was mercury, which often caused insanity, blindness, loss of teeth, muscle atrophy, and death.

Smilax spp. was commonly used as a steroidal supplement for bodybuilders in the 1980s although there has not been any recent evidence to suggest this plant for this use.

It is mentioned in Monardes (1577), Gerard (1597), Hill (1751), Parke-Davis (1890), and various works of the eclectics, thus proving its long-term acceptance and use medicinally.

Sarsaparilla has been used to make root beer in the past, but contrary to popular belief, it was for used for its foaming properties rather than flavor. Sarsaparilla actually does not have much flavor to offer at all, but contains high amounts of saponins which act like detergent, and will cause water to foam [9].

+ Traditional Chinese Medicine

Smilax spp. is commonly used in soups, and herbal teas in China, and is used in Sri Lanka and Thailand for cancer and skin conditions [4].

Referred to as “Tu fu ling” in this medical system and is considered sweet, bland, and neutral in nature. Tu fu ling enters the liver and stomach meridians. It is used to clear damp heat poison, aid the skin, open the channels.

+ Traditional South American Medicine

In South America, Smilax has been used for centuries to treat sexual impotence, rheumatism, skin ailments, and as a general tonic for weakness. In Peru specifically, the root was used for headaches, joint pain, and against infections like the flu. Throughout the Amazon, shamans have used this herb to treat leprosy (transmitted from armadillos which was a food item), and other skin disorders such as psoriasis. [9].


Herb Details: Sarsaparilla

Weekly Dose

Part Used





South America

Southeast Asia


Constituents of Interest

  • Phenylpropanoid esters
  • Caffeic acid
  • Resveratrol
  • Steroidal saponins

Common Names

  • Tu fu ling
  • Jin gang ten
  • Khao yen
  • Zarzaparilla
  • Sarsaparilla
  • Smilax
  • Rabbit Foot
  • Shot Bush
  • Small Spikenard
  • Wild Licorice
  • Greenbrier
  • Ecuadorian
  • Salsaparilha
  • Salsapareille
  • Sarsa
  • Sarsaparillae radix
  • Saparna
  • Zarzaparilla
  • Jupicanga


  • Unknown


  • Unknown


  • Unknown


  • Unknown

Duration of Use

  • Long term use acceptable.

Products Containing Sarsaparilla

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Sarsaparilla Extract

Herb Pharm

Made from Smilax regeli and/or aristolochiifolia

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Mexican Sarsaparilla (Wildcrafted)

Starwest botanicals

Wildcrafted Smilax medica from mexico.

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Sarsaparilla Root Powder


Made from Smilax medica

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Botanical Information

Sarsaparilla is a large brambling vine preferring the dark, humid underbrush of a large rainforest.

The smilacaceae family is a monocot family of plants with an estimated 315 species between just 2 genera (Smilax and Heterosmilax).

Sarsaparilla is a brambling, woody vine that can grow up to 50m long, its tendrils allow it to grow high into the forest canopy. The flowers produce black, blue, or red fruits. many species of Smilax has thorns on its stems, which can be cultivated to form impenetrable barriers called “greenbriers”. The root, which is used medicinally, is tuberous, and can spread to 2.5 m [9]. The flavor of the root is subtle, and many consider it tasteless.

There are about 300-350 species of Smilax worldwide, which are native to countries such as Jamaica, South America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Honduras, the West indies, and China [9, 12, 13].

S. officinalis, S. japicanga, and S. febrifuga originate from South America, S. regelii, S. aristolochiaefolia, and S. ornata from Mexico and Central America, and S. glabra, and S. chinensis from China [9, 12].


Harvesting, Collection, Preparation

Most of the desired chemicals of Smilax spp. are water soluble, so an aqueous extract is best used for this botanical. If making tinctures, use a 75% water to 25% alcohol menstruum.


Pharmacology & Medical Research

+ Inflammation

In a study done investigating the anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive effects of Smilax china L. researchers found that an aqueous extract at a dose of 1000mg/kg had a similar anti-inflammatory effect to acetylsalicylic acid (200 mg/kg). This same study also showed that Smilax china L. clearly inhibited both COX-2 activity and COX expression [12]. COX is responsible for the biosynthesis of a prostaglandin called PGE2 which plays a role in the inflammatory process. COX-2 also plays an important role in the process of inflammation.

Smilax spp. also contains epicatechin, which has well documented systemic anti-inflammatory effects [4]. This constituent is contained in high amounts in tea (Camellia sinensis) and has been very well studied from that plant for its anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects.

+ Anti-Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is an increasing issue in the modern world, that is closely linked to high glycemic diets, sedentary lifestyle, and some genetic inheritance. All of these factors combine to create disorders such as hyperinsulinemia, hyperglycemia, hypertension, obesity, and insulin resistance [1, 8]. As a result of these various metabolic disorders, the likelihood of developing conditions such as kidney failure, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular diseases, among others, is drastically increased [1]. Cardiovascular disease, in fact, is currently the leading cause of death in America [1].

In morbidly obese conditions a state of low-grade inflammation is created, which differs from the states of chronic and acute inflammation, and alters the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines [1].

Smilax aristolochiifolia was shown to reduce many of the factors involved with metabolic syndromes including weight gain (reduced 30%), hypertriglyceridemia (reduced 60%), insulin resistance (reduced 40%), hypertension (reduced 31% systolic and 37% diastolic), and had immunomodulatory effects on the low grade inflammation associated with obesity in mice [1]. These results provide strong evidence to suggest Smilax aristolochiifolia (and likely other Smilax species), use as a treatment, and prevention of metabolic syndrome.

+ Anti-Microbial

There are at least 18 compounds contained in Smilax glabra (and likely other Smilax species) which have been found to provide antimicrobial effects on a variety of fungus, and bacteria [13]. The antimicrobial effects were found to be active against many gram-negative bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, S. aureus, Streptococcus sobrinus, Streptococcus mutans, Streptococcus sanguis, as well as the fungus Candida albicans, and gram-positive bacteria such as E. faecalis [13]. These effects were also noted to be through various mechanisms depending on the compound and the organism. The results suggest a broad antimicrobial action against a variety of microorganisms and suggest its use in antimicrobial herbal formulas.

+ Anti-Neoplastic

Smilax spp. has been reported to contain compounds with anti-cancer activities in various cancer cell lines. It has been reported to be active against cervical, lung, gastric, and breast cancers. These effects were reported to be due to components of Smilax spp, to reduce cancer cell viability, induce apoptosis through ERK signaling [14]. In ovarian cancer cell lines compounds in Smilax were found to be mediated through 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 [5].

In females, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths In North American Women [11]. A study identifying the effects of various compounds found in Smilax china, on breast cancer cell lines, found that many of the flavonoids and some of the stilbenoids found in Smilax china were phytoestrogens, which were found to bind to the estrogen receptors and possess antiestrogenic activities, and kill breast tumor cells in vitro [11].

+ Anti-Nociceptive

When tissues and cells are damaged or suffer from harmful stimulation, compounds such as H+ (acetic acid), PGE2, or 5-HT to cause pain in the region. Acetic acid itself may cause pain directly, and also stimulates surrounding tissue to produce PGE2, which causes further pain. As such, acetic acid is used as a valuable model for measuring pain by measuring abdominal writhing as a result. Smilax china L. was shown to reduce writhing in mice induced by acetic acid significantly, and therefore determined to produce strong antinociceptive effects. These effects were suggested to be from Smilax china L. ability to interact and inhibit various prostaglandins. [12].

+ Antioxidant

Smilax spp. contains high levels of phenolic compounds, which have well-studied antioxidant activities. Epicatechins and catechins (well-studied constituents also found in Camellia sinensis) have also been discovered in Smilax spp. and likely add to the net antioxidant value of the plant. [4].

In Smilax glabra, astilbin is considered the main component. This constituent has shown antioxidant potential. However, more research is needed to determine how effective its free radical scavenging activity is. [4].

+ Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a common skin disorder characterized by raised, red patches on the skin. It is a lifelong disorder which can have many remissions throughout life. During outbreaks, epidermal hyperproliferation, abnormal keratinocyte differentiation, angiogenesis with blood vessel dilatation can occur, causing the usual symptoms. Psoriasis is poorly understood, although genetic, immunological, and environmental factors are considered factors.

Current treatments involve prolonged use of pharmaceutical medications, with unknown long term health effects, and often come with adverse side effects as well.

Affordability and availability are also of concern to those taking these medications. Alternatively, the use of flavonoids and polyphenols are receiving attention for their effectiveness to solve this, as well as many other health conditions.

Flavonoids (phenolic compounds) have been found to possess immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory effects in a variety of skin conditions.

Quercetin, a flavonoid found in Smilax china, and other species, has been shown to produce significant orthokeratosis, anti-inflammatory and antiproliferative activity [10], which strongly support the effectiveness of Smilax spp. against psoriasis.

+ Gout

Gout is an inflammatory joint condition characterized by red, hot, and swollen joints. It is generally caused by a buildup of uric acid in the blood, which then goes on to crystallize in deposits within the joints or tendons and surrounding area. Uric acid is the end product of purine metabolism, which is catalyzed by xanthine oxidase in mammals. A buildup of uric acid can occur due to renal insufficiency (90% of cases), or overproduction (10%). This impaired excretion is likely due to a urate transporter abnormality in the proximal kidney tubule [7].

Smilax china L. extract was shown to inhibit xanthine oxidase, and enhance urate excretion through various chemicals contained within the botanical (9 different chemicals, each exerting effects a different way), and reduce hyperuricemia in potassium oxonate-induced hyperuricemia in mice [7]. This supports the use of Smilax as a treatment for gout.

+ Hepatoprotective And Liver Clearance

Smilax spp contains resveratrol, and oxyresveratrol, which have been shown to both reduce oxidative damage in the liver caused by mitochondrial dysfunction due to nicotine. It has also been found to enhance the rate of nicotine turnover within the body by enhancing CYP2A6-mediated metabolism for nicotine [6]. This evidence suggests sarsaparillas use as a detoxifying agent and as a possible hepatoprotective.



Various studies indicate that the major constituents of Smilax glabra are flavonoids and phenylpropanoid esters. Additionally, terpenoids, mannose-binding lectin, and glycoproteins have been reported (S. glabra) [4], as well as protocatechuic aldehyde, chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, 5-O-caffeoylshikimic acid, polydatin, resveratrol, neoastilbin, neoisoastilbin, astilbin, isoastilbin, rutin, oxyresveratrol, engetin, engeletin, and isoengeletin (Smilax china L.) (C. L. Lu et al., 2014; [7].

Smilax as a genus also contains an abundance of steroidal saponins. This class of compound has been shown in a variety of plants to produce a range of activities including cytotoxic, hemolytic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antibacterial effects [3].

Steroidal saponins and their aglycones have been confirmed in the species: S. aspera, S. lebrunii, S. exelsa, S. officinalis, S. medica (also known as S. aristolochiifolia), S. menispermoidea, S. riparia, and S. sieboldii [3].


Clinical Applications Of Sarsaparilla:

Sarsaparilla of various different species have been shown to provide antinflammatory and antimetabolic effects, making it highly useful for some of the most common chroninc conditions of the century; IBD, IBS, heart disease, diabetes, and precurser symptoms like hypertention and hypercholesterolemia/hypertriglyceridemia can all benefit from sarsaparilla.



Sarsaparilla has been falsely advertised to contain testosterone and other anabolic steroids.There has been no evidence to suggest this is true. Sarsaparilla does, in fact, contain plant sterols, which can be synthesized into testosterone and estrogen in a laboratory setting, however, this process simply does not occur inside the human body. It should be clearly stated that Smilax spp. does not contain testosterone, and has no proven anabolic effects, despite strong advertising in that direction [9].



Smilax spp. is reported to work better with sassafras and burdock (Arctium lappa) rather than alone.



Justin Cooke, BHSc

The Sunlight Experiment

(Updated November 2018)


Recent Blog Posts:


  1. Carol Arely Botello Amaro, Manasés González-Cortazar, Maribel Herrera-Ruiz, Rubén Román-Ramos, Lucia Aguilar-Santamaría, Jaime Tortoriello and

  2. Enrique Jiménez-Ferrer. (2014). Hypoglycemic and Hypotensive Activity of a Root Extract of Smilax aristolochiifolia, Standardized on N-trans-Feruloyl-Tyramine. Molecules. 19. 11366-11384; doi:10.3390/molecules190811366.

  3. Challinor V.L, Parsons P.G, Chap S, White E.F, Blanchfield J.T, Lehmann R.P, De Voss J.J. (2012). Steroidal Saponins from the Roots of Smilax sp.: Structure and Bioactivity. Steroids. 77. 504-511.

  4. Chuan-li Lu, Wei Zhu, Min Wang, Xiao-jie Xu, and Chuan-jian Lu. (2014). Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Activities of Phenolic-Enriched Extracts of Smilax glabra. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Article ID 910438.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. Stephen D. Anton, Ph.D., Corby K. Martin, Ph.D., Hongmei Han, M.S., Sandra Coulon, B.A., William T. Cefalu, M.D., Paula Geiselman, Ph.D., and Donald A. Williamson, Ph.D. (2010). Effects of Stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 55(1): 37–43. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2010.03.009.

  9. Taylor, L. (2005). The healing power of rainforest herbs: A guide to understanding and using herbal medicinals. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers.

  10. 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.

  11. Wu L.S, Wang X.J, Wang H, Yang H.W, Jia A.Q, Ding Q. (2010). Cytotoxic polyphenols against breast tumor cell in Smilax china L. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 130. 460-464. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2010.05.032

  12. 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.

  13. Xu S, Shang M.Y. Liu G.X, Xu F, Wang X, Shou C.C, Cai S.Q. (2013). Chemical Constituents from the Rhizomes of Smilax glabra and their Antimicrobial Activity. Molecules. 18. 5265-5287. doi:10.3390/molecules18055265

  14. 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