Salsapariglia: properties, uses and benefits

Salsapariglia: the healing herb with many uses, benefits and recipes

There is a herbal remedy that has been used by the indigenous peoples of Central and South America for thousands of years, which helps to alleviate a wide range of problems from dermatitis to cough. Beginning in the 1950s, European doctors considered the sarsaparilla root to be a “tonic, blood purifier, diuretic and a sweating drink” that could help treat serious life-threatening infections, such as leprosy or cancer.

Today sarsaparilla products go with different names depending on which roots or plants are used to produce the product, how they are prepared, and where in the world they come from. Other common names for sarsaparilla are Smilax, Honduran sarsaparilla, Jamaican salaparilla and zarzaparilla. While it is no longer used to treat skin infections from tropical insects, leprosy or syphilis, sarsaparilla can still be commonly found in herbal preparations to balance hormones, alleviate fluid retention and improve the immune system.

The nutritional properties of sarsaparilla

What exactly is sarsaparilla? The sarsaparilla (which has the species called Smilax Ornata, Smilax regelii or Smilax officinalis ) is practically a perennial vine that grows in warm temperatures like those of the southernmost states of the United States or in central and south America. The plant derives from the Liliaceae (lily) of the plant family called Smilacaceae, which includes over 300 different plant species. ( 1 )

The sarsaparilla vines can grow very long (sometimes up to eight feet), have starch, edible roots, and produce small berries that are edible for both humans and animals, especially birds. Although roots today are much more often used to make remedies than berries, berries and leaves can also be consumed due to their properties and delicate taste.

In fact, in the past, plants, roots, vines and sarsaparilla berries have been used in various ways to create beverages, fermented snacks and in other ways that have been appreciated in countries like India and Latin America. Salsapariglia is actually the name of a type of drink (similar to the carbonated drink based on root extracts) that is flavored with the root of the plant – although obviously the drink does not have the same advantages as teas and sarsaparilla tinctures.

In herbal medicine practices, the roots of sarsaparilla plants are reduced to dust and used to obtain natural remedies (tinctures, teas, supplements etc.) that help treat some of the following health problems:

  • Cancer and tumor growth
  • Coughs and colds
  • Rheumatoid arthritic pains , joint pain or rheumatism
  • Skin problems, including psoriasis, foot fungus , wounds, ulcers and ringworm
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pain or weakness
  • Low libido and impotence
  • Headache
  • Gout
  • Indigestion
  • Liver damage
  • Infections, such as sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea
  • Swelling and fluid retention
  • Overheating and fever

What is it that gives sarsaparilla its healing power? Researchers have identified numerous active chemical properties within sarsaparilla, including powerful antioxidants, along with anticancer and anti-inflammatory compounds. These include: ( 2 )

  • Saponins: anti-inflammatory chemical compounds that have a bitter taste and help eliminate fungi, bacteria, cancer cells and harmful microbes. Saponins also mimic the effects of some reproductive hormones associated with juvenile characteristics, including testosterone and estrogen. Sarsaparilla contains about 2 percent of steroidal saponins, including sarsaponin, smilasaponin (smilacin), sarsaparilloside, sarsasaponin parilina and smilagenin.
  • Plant sterols: found in many fiber-rich plant foods, they have been shown to have benefits on bowel health, heart health and digestion. Phytosterols in sarsaparilla include sitosterol, stigmasterol and pollinastano.
  • Flavonoid antioxidants: they are found in vegetables and colored fruit, such as wild berries, linked to longevity, healthy skin and eyes, reduce inflammation and improve immune function. One of the most important flavonoids present in sarsaparilla is called astilbine.
  • Other steroidal / anti-inflammatory phytochemicals: these contain diosgenin, tigogenin and asperagenine.
  • Starch: the root is about 50% starch and when taken it provides fiber and other nutrients.
  • Oils and volatile acids: including dactylifric acid (caffeic acid glycoside), shikimic acid (or scichimic acid), ferulic acid, sarsapic acid, kaempferol and quercetin .
  • Traces of minerals: including aluminum, chromium, iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium and zinc.

 1) Contains anti-tumor and carcinogenic properties

Some studies have found evidence of at least 24 extracts obtained inside the roots, stems, leaves and fruits of wild sarsaparilla plants that naturally help treat or prevent cancer . ( 3 ) Most of the pharmacological benefits are due to its concentration of natural steroids and saponins, which help the absorption of other drugs or herbs, reduce the inflammatory effects, and have other anti-aging properties.

According to research carried out at the University of Queensland in Australia, sarsaparilla contains at least five steroidal saponins, including two new discoveries furostanol saponins known as sarsaparilloside B and sarsaparilloside C. They found that these saponins have antiproliferative activities that help to kill cancer cells, especially those that affect the lining of the colon. ( 4 )

The sarsaparilla also contains dozens of other anti-inflammatories, antioxidant acids, oils and chemicals that lower oxidative stress and have anti-aging effects. Studies conducted at the Hospital and Cancer Institute of Peking University in China found that flavonoids, alkaloids and phenylpropanoids were some of the main bioactive components identified within the wild sarsaparilla that induce apoptosis and have growth inhibitory effects without damaging healthy cells. ( 5 )


2) It protects the liver and has diuretic and detoxifying properties

The sarsaparilla facilitates the production of urine and improves perspiration, it can be useful to relieve fluid retention, general swelling and stomach swelling . Traditionally, teas made with sarsaparilla root were also used to “cleanse the blood”, improve liver function and eliminate toxins from the body.

Research shows that sarsaparilla could help improve detoxification through binding to “endotoxins” within the GI tract, which are chemical compounds stored inside cells (especially bacterial cells) that are released into the bloodstream and contribute to problems such as liver trouble, psoriasis, fever and inflammatory processes. Studies have found that sarsaparilla has hepatoprotective effects (against liver damage and liver disease ) due to its antioxidants, acids and plant sterols. (6)

These compounds found within medicinal herbs can serve as important therapeutic agents to rid the body of endotoxins making them less absorbable within the intestine. This ultimately helps control tissue damage caused by free radicals and inflammatory responses. ( 7 ) Studies have shown that chemical compounds called astilbine (types of flavonoids) and smilagenin (types of saponins) help protect liver cells and are useful in preventing liver disease, tumor cell growth and other associated problems to toxicity. ( 8 )


3) Promotes hormonal balance

Smilax Ornata (sarsaparilla) is a common ingredient in supplements or tinctures of natural hormonal rebalancing due to its ability to improve libido and reduce impotence . Research suggests that saponins and plant steroids found in sarsaparilla could help mimic the effects of natural reproductive hormones and growth steroids, including estrogen and testosterone. The plant itself does not contain growth hormones, but it can help regulate hormone production by reducing inflammation and improving liver function.

Some even call it the “natural steroid” saponins because of their ability to alleviate the symptoms of menopause and aging. Other herbal remedies containing saponins, such as fenugreek , are commonly used to reduce the effects due to decreased reproductive hormones, such as weight gain, impotence, loss of muscle mass, bone fragility and other side effects. ( 9 )


4) Helps relieve cough, fever and colds

Tinctures, teas and sarsaparilla supplements are used to help treat coughs, colds and flu in a variety of ways, including preventing them from occurring primarily by increasing immune function and eliminating bacteria. They also treat the symptoms themselves through mucolytic effects and / or inhibitory effects on cough reflexes. While herbal treatments may not always help to solve serious problems, such as bronchitis or chronic respiratory infections, over the years they have often been helpful in reducing the frequency and / or intensity of the cough and also helps the elimination of mucus. ( 10 )

Because of the effects that the antioxidants and the anti-inflammatory properties of the sarsaparilla have on the bonds with the mucus, make it less sticky, more fluid, and the bacteria are able to be more easily eliminated by the body. In the case of fever or other viruses that cause stomach upset, sarsaparilla is sometimes useful to reduce the sense of nausea and help regulate bowel function. (11)

5) Cures skin problems naturally

Salsaparilla is considered an effective and safe folk remedy for skin conditions, such as fungi, eczema, itching, rashes and wounds. Because conditions such as rashes , bites and bacterial infections are common problems in developing tropical countries, natural herbal remedies are important treatments to prevent complications due to their antifungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.

The Clinic of Dermatology and Integrative Medicine of New York emphasizes that herbal remedies help treat skin problems differently than drugs that “strengthen the host instead of destroying the carrier or manifestation of the disease”. ( 12 ) Studies conducted over the past six decades have shown that sarsaparilla can help reduce skin swelling, itching, redness, cracking and staining. Some studies have identified the flavonoid astilbina taken from the root of the Smilax plants as the active ingredient responsible for the immunosuppressive activities and the inhibition against activated T lymphocytes that cause skin inflammation. ( 13 )

Early studies in the 1940s found that sarsaparilla used topically on the skin to treat psoriasis helped improve symptom severity in over 40% of patients. A study that investigates the effects of over 100 plants for the treatment of bacterial skin infections has found that sarsaparilla has been one of the most effective for fighting the symptoms of dermatophyte (fungus) infections, which are often suffered by the populations living in the third world countries, due to its fungicidal and fungistatic properties. ( 14 )

History and interesting facts about sarsaparilla

It is believed that many Native American populations have used sarsaparilla to treat problems such as coughs and colds.

According to the authors of “The Secrets of Native American Natural Remedies”, the Penobscot Indians were a tribe who frequently made tea with sarsaparilla roots, which they drank to relieve the throat and inflamed nasal tracts. Centuries ago, it was believed that they had medicinal properties that could also cure deadly diseases, such as leprosy, which affected people living in forests like the Amazon.

Other natives of the parts of Mexico, in the Caribbean and Central and South America used the sarsaparilla thousands of years before the colonizers brought its benefits to Europe around the year 1400. In Europe, especially during the “dark years” when the “purification “Was seen as an important practice, this herb was used primarily as a tonic, detoxifying agent and blood purifier. ( 15 )

Once European travelers had reintroduced sarsaparilla in colonies and elsewhere, it became a common medical therapy for infections, including syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, in the United States from about 1820 to 1910, it was registered in the United States Official Pharmacopoeia as an effective therapy for syphilis. ( 16 )

How to prepare and use the sarsaparilla

You will likely find sarsaparilla products in health food stores or online. Most products contain small (but very powerful) doses of the root or extract, usually less than a teaspoon. It would be ideal to find it pure, the dried roots, boil them in order to create a tonic rich in antioxidants that can be consumed when one feels ill or feel downy. In the case of tincture, half a teaspoon twice a day is a recommended dose, while the dosages of the powdered root vary from 0.3 to 2 grams a day.

  • Homemade sarsaparilla root tea : you can make fresh tea using the dried sarsaparilla root with boiling water and pouring about a teaspoon of the roots into a cup. Leave to infuse for about 30 minutes, then filter the liquid and drink several times a day. Sarsaparilla tea is great when you have a cold, a cough or a fever is coming and it helps to keep your symptoms from getting worse.
  • Sarsaparilla capsules or supplements : dosages vary according to brand and concentration. It is common to several herbs to be combined together to increase the benefits, so you can find a product made with sarsaparilla along with elderberry or other immune system enhancers . Carefully read the instructions on the bottle and start with a reduced dose to test for any side effects.

Possible side effects and warnings

Although it has been safely consumed by indigenous people for centuries, there are some potential side effects when using any herb. Only very rarely have side effects been reported, but it is possible to experience signs of allergic reaction or stomach upset. If you take any medicine or have sensitivity to other herbs, consult a doctor before using sarsaparilla. If you are pregnant, it is best to avoid sarsaparilla because there have not been many studies showing that it is safe to use during this period.

Final considerations

  • Sarsaparilla is a plant native to South and Central America. Used in folk medicine for thousands of years to reduce inflammation, increase immunity and promote longevity.
  • It has long been used in the treatment of liver problems, skin infections, coughs or colds, sexual dysfunction, and even the growth of cancerous tumors.
  • It can be consumed in the form of tea, tonic, tincture or in the form of capsules. Tea is the most common way to consume the many active ingredients found within the sarsaparilla roots.
by Abdullah Sam
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