Many parts of the sarsaparilla plant are used as flavorings in foods and beverages. Interestingly, the drink named sarsaparilla (commonly associated with the Old West) didn’t actually contain any ingredients from the plant; it contained flavoring from the sassafras plant.
The sarsaparilla root has been used medicinally for centuries. It is sometimes used in alternative medicine today, and it has been studied to a degree by modern scientists. Some health claims may be accurate if preliminary studies are correct; however, some claims are false or have yet to be investigated.
In old folk medicine and alternative medicine, you run across often unsubstantiated claims that the sarsaparilla root is effective in a variety of ways, including:
- Preventing and treating cancer
- Lowering inflammation
- Increasing sex drive
- Boosting the immune system
- Improving weight loss
- Treating skin problems (such as dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis)
- Detoxifying the body
- Relieving digestive problems
- Improving kidney health
- Increasing muscle mass from working out
- Treating syphilis
None of these claims are considered proven by medical science, and sarsaparilla hasn’t been studied for all of them either. Some of these uses have limited support from preliminary studies that suggest sarsaparilla could show these effects, but it’s too early in the process to know for certain. Other claims have been disproven.
The medicinal uses that research has shown some support for include:
- Treating cancer
- Protecting the skin
- Lessening inflammation and pain
- Improving kidney function
Because it's a diuretic and increases urine output, it is best not to take sarsaparilla while you're dehydrated.
There is no data on sarsaparilla’s safety for pregnancy or breastfeeding, so the recommendation is usually to avoid it during these times.