Sarsaparilla, also known by its Latin name, Smilax, is a tropical plant that grows in Mexico, South America and the Caribbean. A member of the lily family, its roots and rhizome are utilized for medicinal purposes. Traditional use for sarsaparilla is as a general health tonic and to treat a variety of ailments, including syphilis, skin diseases and women's health concerns. Sarsaparilla also lends flavor to certain beverages, such as root beer. Before taking sarsaparilla medicinally, consult a qualified, botanically trained health-care professional for dosage and safety considerations.
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Sarsaparilla's medicinal history dates back to the 16th century. Both the Europeans and the Chinese employed it to treat syphilis, as an alternative remedy to the then-conventional use of mercury. Success rates for sarsaparilla were relatively high, and there were fewer side effects than with mercury. Historically, sarsaparilla was also a treatment for leprosy, gonorrhea and fever. This plant seems to have antimicrobial effects, meaning it counters infectious microbes, like bacteria and viruses. According to Drs. Joseph Pizzorno and Michael Murray, naturopathic physicians and authors of the "Textbook of Natural Medicine," sarsaparilla's antimicrobial effects may be attributed to its ability to bind endotoxins -- constituents in bacteria that can be absorbed into the body through the gastrointestinal tract, and can cause fever. Sarsaparilla seems to limit the amount of endotoxins that enter the body and thereby the harm they may cause.
Sarsaparilla's endotoxin-binding capabilities contribute to it anti-inflammatory effects. Pizzorno and Murray explain that it is normal for endotoxins to enter the body, and typically the liver filters them before they can reach general circulation and cause illness. However, if the amount of endotoxins absorbed through the gut is excessive, or if the liver is not functioning optimally, the detoxification process can become overwhelmed, and endotoxins enter the bloodstream. This activates the immune system to generate an inflammatory response, which itself can cause the cell damage that occurs in certain health conditions, including gout, arthritis and psoriasis. Also, according to Bastyr University Department of Botanical Medicine, sarsaparilla is an alterative -- a type of herb commonly used in naturopathic medicine to heal chronic scaling skin diseases, such as psoriasis.
Pizzorno and Murray point out sarsaparilla's historic use as a tonic and a blood purifier. A tonic is thought to tone the whole system, and a blood purifier cleanses it. Pizzorno and Murray report that sarsaparilla is hepatoprotective, meaning it protects the liver cells. Optimal liver function is imperative for overall wellness because of that organ's essential roles of filtering toxins, storing nutrients and producing hormones and digestive substances. The main, active constituents of the sarsaparilla plant are its saponins, which help to decrease the body's toxic load. Sarsaparilla's ability to reduce toxins while increasing the liver's ability to process them can play a significant role in diminishing disease and enhancing overall wellness.