Sarsaparilla (Smilax officinalis) is a large, brambling woody vine growing In the Amazon rainforest.
Similar species like Smilax chinensis however can be found the world over and have been used for the same or similar uses depending on the medical traditions of the region.
The root of sarsaparilla is commonly used to make a soda suitably named "Sarsaparilla". It used to be made into root beer as well, and contrary to popular belief, it was added for its ability to act as a foaming agent rather than for its flavour.
Sarsaparilla contains a class of chemicals called saponins, which act similar to soap (but taste better), and allows water to foam when shaken. These saponins are also one of the main medicinal components of the herb.
Saponins have a wide range of effects and benefits within the body from binding and neutralizing toxic wastes generated from bacteria and fungi, to providing anti-cancer benefits. They basically act in a similar way to soap within our bodies, rushing through our veins and arteries, cleaning out all of the accumulated toxins from the bloodstream.
The benefits of sarsaparilla includes: Antioxidant, anti psoriasis, increases the absorption rate of other medicinals and nutrients, supports kidney disease, reduces inflammation, tones the blood and offers general tonic action, foaming agent, protects the liver, anti cancer, detoxifies various organs and tissues, antiviral, and offers athletic performance improvement.
The list for this herb goes on and on.
- Smilax chinensis
- Smilax officinalis
- Smilax aristolochiifolia
- Smilax glabra
- Smilax febrifuga
- Smilax ornata
- Smilax regelii
- Smilax japicanga
- Foaming agent
2-4 g/day Dried Herb Equivelent
- Other venereal and skin diseases
- Multiple sclerosis
- Athletic performance enhancement
- To aid other medicinal absorption in the intestines
- Acute bacillary dysentery
- Chronic nephritis
The essential oil aids absorption of other herbs through the gut lining (needs more research).
Smilax spp. has endotoxin binding properties, that may help reduce liver stress, gout, arthritis, candida infections, blood contamination, and psoriasis (Needs more research).
- Rabbit foot
- Shot bush
- Small spikenard
- Wild licorice
- Sarsaparillae radix
- Tu fu ling
- Jin gang ten
- Khao yen
Smilax spp. has been used for medicinal purposes all over the world. It has been reportedly used throughout Asia, various Arab countries, Europe, South America, and North America [4, 9].
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 .
This botanical 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 .
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. .
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 body builders 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 .
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 . 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].
Habitat, Ecology, Distribution:
The habitat of this brambling vine has a very wide range of habitats but prefers dark, dense forests, with high humidity.
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.
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) , 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; .
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 .
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 .
Pharmacology And Medical Research
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 . 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 antiinflammatory effects . 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.
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 . Cardiovascular disease in fact, is currently the leading cause of death in America .
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 .
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%), hypertention (reduced 31% systolic and 37% diastolic), and had immunomodulatory effects on the low grade inflammation associated with obesity in mice . These results provide strong evidence to suggest Smilax aristolochiifolia (and likely other Smilax species), use as a treatment, and prevention of metabolic syndrome.
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 . 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 . 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 suggests its use in antimicrobial herbal formulas.
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 signalling . 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 .
In females, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths In North American Women . 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 .
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 significantly reduce writhing in mice induced by acetic acid, 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. .
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. .
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. .
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 negative 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 antiinflammatory 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 , which strongly support the effectiveness of Smilax spp. against psoriasis.
Still compiling research.
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 go 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. 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 .
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 . This supports the use of Smilax as a treatment for gout.
Hepatoprotective And Liver Detoification
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 . This evidence suggests sarsaparillas use as a detoxifying agent and as a possible hepatoprotective.
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 .
Traditional Chinese Medicine:
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.
Smilax spp. is reported to work better with sassafras and burdock (Arctium lappa) rather than alone.
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Updated: May 2017
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