Sarsaparilla Root Side Effects

Sarsaparilla is a climbing, evergreen vine found in Australia, Southeast Asia, Jamaica and the rain forests of South and Central America. If you’ve ever sampled old-fashioned root beer, then you’re familiar with the unique aroma and flavor of the plant’s root. The root has also been used for centuries as an aphrodisiac and blood toner, and to treat skin disorders, inflammatory diseases and syphilis. As with all medicines, sarsaparilla root may also produce side effects.

Allergic Reactions

Some people may have an allergic reaction to sarsaparilla root preparations, such as hives or skin rash. Inhalation of sarsaparilla root may trigger an asthma attack, according to a paper published in the June 1996 issue of Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. If you experience chest pain, swelling of the tongue or shortness of breath, seek immediate medical attention.

Gastrointestinal Effects

According to the “Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines,” sarsaparilla root contains the steroid saponins, which can irritate the lining of the stomach. However, since this herb is generally well tolerated by most people, this effect appears to be facilitated by consuming large amounts of products flavored or formulated with sarsaparilla root extracts.

Kidney Irritation

The Desk Reference also notes that sarsaparilla root saponins are responsible for producing diuretic effects, meaning they increase the production of urine. This could potentially irritate the kidneys. In addition, you should avoid sarsaparilla root if you have a history of kidney disease.

Hormonal Effects

One of the steroid saponins found in sarsaparilla root is diosgenin, the same compound found in Mexican yam. Diosgenin is a building block essential for the production of steroid hormones, namely estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. The University of Maryland Medical Center explains that this conversion doesn’t take place in the body, though, and that the only way to get these hormones from diosgenin is by chemical synthesis in a lab. While many proponents of sarsaparilla root insist that the aphrodisiac properties of the herb are due to the presence of progesterone in the root itself, this isn’t the case.

Likewise, some body builders claim that sarsaparilla root increases muscle mass due to being a rich source of testosterone, while others contend that menopausal symptoms in women are reduced due to estrogenic activity. Michael T. Murray, N.D., author of “The Healing Power of Herbs,” puts the argument to rest by clarifying that sarsaparilla root does not contain testosterone or estrogen.

However, the medical center staff points out that since diosgenin is the same substance used to produce the first birth control pills of the1960s, it may produce estrogen-like effects in the body. This is because diosgenin interacts with estradiol, a natural hormone produced by the body that is also found in certain medications. Therefore, if you are taking oral birth control medications or undergoing hormone replacement therapy or treatment for a hormone-driven cancer, you should avoid sarsaparilla root.

About this Author

Karyn Maier has been a freelance writer since 1992. She specializes in health and wellness, particularly botanical therapies, and has written feature articles and columns for many national magazines, including The Herb Quarterly, Mother Earth News, Delicious!, Better Nutrition, Natural Pharmacy, and Energy Times. She is also the author of four natural health-related books.