Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Margaret
Posted on: July 28, 1998

Can you tell me everything about sarsaparilla? My son is taking it to help him grow. He is 16 and only 110 pounds and about 5 feet tall.

There are several very different plants that are known as "sarsaparilla". The wild sarsaparilla of the northeast U.S and southern Canadian hardwood forests is Aralia nudicalis which is what we sell. This is a herbaceous perennial that looks very much like ginseng and is in fact related. The root is as a substitute for the smilax sarsaparilla (see below) for pulmonary problems and as an external wash for hard-to-heal ulcers and shingles. According to John Lust in his book "The Herb Book" (available from Richters), it also used to make cough medicine and to treat kidney and bladder ailments.

Your son is likely to be taking a different plant, one of the members of the Smilax genus. There are quite of few species that have been used medicinally, including the hondurian (Smilax regelii), the mexican sarsaparilla (S. aristochiifolia), the caracao sarsaparilla (S. papyracea), ecudorean sarsaparilla (S. febrifuga) and jamaican sarsaparilla (S. ornata). According to James Duke in his book, "Handbook of Medicinal Plants", the mexican variety (and probably others) were once used in root beer, and today are still used as a flavouring in beverages, candies and frozen dairy desserts.

The Smilax sarsaparillas were once used for the treatment of syphilis, rheumatism and skin diseases. They contain a number of steroids and their glycosides (saponins) that may have important medicinal effects. There has been some suggestion that the saponins help the body to absorb other drugs.

What the rationale is for your son’s ingestion of sarsaparilla probably has something to do with the steroidal content. Whether there is any real anabolic or growth stimulator effect is unlikely, but in our opinion there is not enough known about the pharmacology of this plant to be sure exactly what sarsaparilla does. There does not appear to be any serious side effects or contraindications, but, as a precaution, you son is advised to consult a qualified helath care provider.

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