Sarsaparilla is the root of several South and Central American and Caribbean species of Smilax, a genus in the lily family. They include Mexican sarsaparilla (S. medica, also known as S. aristolochiifolia), Honduran sarsaparilla (S. regehlii), Ecuadorean sarsaparilla (S. febrifuga), Jamaican sarsaparilla (S. ornata), and other species. Most of the commercial supply is harvested from the wild.
Mexican sarsaparilla was exported to Europe before 1530. In sixteenth-century Europe, sarsaparilla was used to treat syphilis and rheumatism. It was official treatment for syphilis in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia in 1850. Often an ingredient in patent medicines with extravagant claims in late nineteenth-century America, sarsaparilla products were promoted as blood purifiers, tonics, and diuretics, to induce sweating, and for a myriad of other questionable applications. In recent years sarsaparilla has been touted as a male sexual rejuvenator with claims implying it contains testosterone. It has also been used as an anabolic steroid replacement in natural body-building formulas.
Simply put, there is no credible recent research on the actions of sarsaparilla. A few studies in the 1930s and 1940s showed it to be diuretic, anti-inflammatory, and protective of the liver. Benefits were also claimed in cases of eczema and psoriasis. Sarsaparilla does contain plant steroids but nothing close to testosterone, as plant steroids cannot be converted in the body to anabolic steroids or human hormones. The collective scientific evidence, scarce as it is, shows that sarsaparilla is more likely to build profit margins than muscle tissue.
Sarsaparilla extract is approved as a food flavoring ingredient in the United States. In Germany, although it has been traditionally used to treat skin diseases including psoriasis, as well as rheumatism and kidney ailments, products may not carry therapeutic claims because their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. After 500 years of us( in the West, sarsaparilla still awaits carefully designed studies.
The dried root, powdered root, capsules, tablets, tinctures, and combination products are widely sold in herb markets.
According to German health authorities, sarsaparilla preparations have caused stomach irritation and temporary kidney problems. As it is known to increase the absorption of digitalis and hasten the elimination of other medications, thus changing their effective doses, sarsaparilla should not be taken by anyone on prescription medications.