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Sarsaparilla as a Treatment for Psoriasis

Kenney James

Feb 11, 2008

 

Background and History of Sarsaparilla

 

            Sarsaparilla, its scientific term being smilax officinalis, is a plant vine that can be found in Jamaica, among other countries in North and South America. Its natural habitat would be of a tropical climate; it produces small flowers and yields berries which are normally food for birds and other small creatures (http://www.rain-tree.com/sarsaparilla.htm). The Jamaican culture values this special vine for its medicinal properties found in its roots. It is traditionally used to treat syphilis, rheumatism, and is also used as a tonic, diuretic, and diaphoretic (http://www.rain-tree.com/sarsaparilla-traditional-uses.pdf). However, since there are about 350 species of the vine, its uses vary from place to place. According to Dweck (1997), the Jamaican species of the root was apparently used in America by natives because they valued its power to relieve the devastating effects of psoriasis. They held it as beneficial to the blood and found that it also alleviated inflammation and itching, common complaints of psoriasis and other skin disorders (p. 48).

            The modern medical field was introduced to sarsaparilla as a medicament first in 1603. Thurmon (1942) recalls the story of a man named Martin Pring and describes him sailing the New England shores in search of “forests of sassafras” (p. 128). While the history of this root reveals many uses for it, we will focus mainly on its uses as a blood purifier, anti-inflammatory, and anti-pruritic agent.

 

The Science behind Sarsaparilla

 

Claims Made About Sarsaparilla

            According to many websites of companies who sell sarsaparilla, it is said to be useful as a blood purifier. Specifically, it is said to “attack and neutralize toxins in the blood” (http://www.herbalextractsplus.com/sarsaparilla.cfm). Also, in relation to toxins it is said to promote sweating and urination which are natural ways that the body eliminates toxins. Furthermore, claims have been made for its topical use in treating skin disorders, such as psoriasis.

 

Psoriasis

            Psoriasis is a disorder of the skin in which an individual experiences inflammation, and reoccurring skin outbreaks where the skin becomes scaly and itchy (https://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/332/9/581). Although it is not usually fatal, it is chronic and can severely affect an individual’s quality of life through lowered self-esteem, disfigurement, and pain experienced by the individual. Patients with psoriasis have been found to have endotoxins in their blood which are fragments of stomach bacteria that flow through the bloodstream. (http://www.rain-tree.com/sarsaparilla.htm)

 

Chemical Components of Sarsaparilla

            The science behind using sarsaparilla as a treatment for psoriasis comes in when its chemical components are considered. Sarsaparilla has many key chemicals but the most important would be saponins. More specifically, it was the saponin, sarsasaponin, that was valued as the key ingredient in tablets used in scientific studies (p. 128) by Thurmon (1942). Dweck (1997) reports that some other chemicals found in sarsaparilla are “parallin, sapogenins, sarsapogenin, smilogenin, and plant sterols such as sitosterol and stigmasterol” (p. 48). These chemicals have the power to alleviate the symptoms associated with psoriasis and remove toxins from the blood.

 

Scientific Studies Done

            Although there aren’t many recent documented peer-reviewed scientific studies done on the Jamaican species of Sarsaparilla, there are a few solid studies that provide the necessary information on the medicinal effectiveness of the general use of the root. One such study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1942. Doctor Francis M. Thurmon did not test the effectiveness of the Jamaican species; rather of the Honduran Species. Among conducting his own study on sarsaparilla, he also reviewed other studies done in the treatment of psoriasis. In one such study he concluded that a low fat diet was clearly beneficial in the treatment of psoriasis. As a result, he incorporated this study into his own by requiring his subjects to maintain a low-fat diet for the duration of the study. This clinical study spanned a two-year period in order to account for any reoccurring outbreaks of lesions that may flare up. This two-year span also was useful in studying the effects of sarsaparilla on seasonal flares of psoriasis. Thurmon (1942) studied 92 subjects with 75 people being given sarsasaponin tablets and 17 patients being deemed as controls. The patients were widely diverse in age, severity of outbreaks, and genetic as well as ethnic background. Overall, the patients represented a diverse population of those afflicted with psoriasis. After formulating a strict regimen for consistent intake of sarsaparilla, Thurmon paired it with the low-fat diet that he had researched previously. His results after two years showed that there was some type of improvement (ranging from slight improvement to complete clearance) in 78 percent of cases, whereas there was only a 42 percent improvement in the control group who only followed the low-fat diet. It was discovered that the sarsaparilla did not prevent the seasonal outbreaks of psoriasis but it did lessen the intensity and improve comfort levels by relieving the itching. Fourteen patients experienced a full recovery. No explanation was proposed as to why 22 percent of patients showed no improvement or an accentuation of lesions (p. 128-133).

 

Analysis of the Study

            Although this study is unquestionably scholarly and legitimate, there are some dangers to analyzing it in a general sense. Firstly, this study was done with one particular species of sarsaparilla, the Honduran species. This experiment may or may not have had different results had a different species been tested. Secondly, the patients tested had a specific type of psoriasis, known as psoriasis vulgaris. The other type, psoriasis pustulosa, was not present in any of the subjects. Another factor to notice is that the study strictly used sarsaparilla tablets (Sas-Par) that were made by a company called the Ernst Bischoff Company. Other companies may manufacture sarsaparilla in different ways which may alter the potency and/or purity of the sarsaparilla in the tablet. There was no use of topical sarsaparilla in this study; however, Thurmon (1942) noticed that the oral intake of sarsaparilla “enhance[d] the effectiveness of treatment locally” (p. 131). Yet another aspect to realize is that certain parts of this study are subjective and could possibly be biased. An effective and objective method for measuring the improvement of symptoms such as itching and pain does not exist. Consequently, the patients’ reports of improvement were the only source of information. Despite all of these previous factors, the most important in analyzing this study is the fact that there is no indication of whether it was a double-blind study. Thurmon (1942) never recognizes it as double-blind, nor does he refute it, so it is up to the reader to realize that if the study was not double-blind, the subjects as well as the experimenter could possibly have experienced some bias in the clinical study. In light of these certain limitations, this study still provides a thorough exploration into the effectiveness of sarsaparilla as a treatment for psoriasis.

 

Incorporating Sarsaparilla into a Healthy Diet

 

Existing Medical Conditions

            While Sarsaparilla has positive effects on psoriasis, it may not be wise to take it if you are experiencing kidney disease. This is because one of sarsaparilla’s main chemicals mentioned earlier, saponins, are not easily digested in humans. Although the effect of sarsaparilla on individuals with kidney disease has not been confirmed, it is better to take precaution and refrain from its use. Nevertheless, it was noted in Thurmon’s (1942) study that there was no negative effects found on the kidneys of any of the subjects (p.130). Kidney disease is not a side-effect of sarsaparilla (http://www.drugdigest.org/DD/PrintablePages/herbMonograph/0,11475,4129,00.html).

 

Side-Effects

            This brings us to possible side-effects. Although there hasn’t been any news of serious side-effects from taking the recommended dosage, if sarsaparilla is consumed repeatedly and in large amounts, you could get a stomachache or irritation in the stomach. Another noticed reaction is among individuals who are constantly in contact with the dust that results from sarsaparilla’s commercial production. These individuals may develop asthma. However, these side-effects have not been confirmed through scholarly clinical research (http://www.drugdigest.org/DD/PrintablePages/herbMonograph/0,11475,4129,00.html).

 

Methods of Intake

            Sarsaparilla can be taken orally or used as a topical agent on the skin. It should never be injected into the bloodstream directly because it has a tendency to dissolve red blood cells which could have extremely detrimental effects which include death (http://www.drugdigest.org/DD/PrintablePages/herbMonograph/0,11475,4129,00.html).

 

Interactions with Prescription Drugs and Other Herbs

            Sarsaparilla is said to affect the absorption and elimination of other medications and herbs. This means it could potentially heighten their effects or diminish them. This could have detrimental results in certain medications such as heart medications or insomnia medications. Therefore, a doctor should always be consulted before adding sarsaparilla into your diet (http://www.drugdigest.org/DD/PrintablePages/herbMonograph/0,11475,4129,00.html).

 

Preparation of Sarsaparilla

            Sarsaparilla has been shown to lose its medicinal value from excessive boiling. Doctor John Hancock (1829) wrote in his observations of sarsaparilla that, “the powers of sarsaparilla, are, like those of ipecacuhana, quite destroyed by long boiling” (p.146). It may be prepared in a tea form or as an extract or pill. It can also be made into an ointment which is applied topically (http://www.drugdigest.org/DD/PrintablePages/herbMonograph/0,11475,4129,00.html).

 

Dosages

            Dosage amounts will vary tremendously depending on the method of intake, the specific product, and the individual. Individuals should consult the package label for dosage information or ask their physician (http://www.drugdigest.org/DD/PrintablePages/herbMonograph/0,11475,4129,00.html).

 

Conclusion

 

            In conclusion, it has come to my attention that there is a sufficient amount of not only scientific data, but scholarly data that supports sarsaparilla’s use in treating psoriasis. There seems to be a logical scientific explanation behind the concept and there is medical research backing up the claims. Nowhere does it state that sarsaparilla is a cure for psoriasis, but it is definitely a respected treatment, and probably should be tried by individuals who suffer from psoriasis. This disease is much more than a physiological debilitating disorder. It has significant effects on the mental stability of the patient, as do many diseases, if not all. Of the 92 patients in Thurmon’s (1942) study there was, “one suicide, one attempt at suicide, two adolescents with mental reactions of inferiority that led to strange and perverted behavior, several cases of refusal to marry, and numerous patients with neuroses because of their disfigured appearance” (p. 133). The disastrous results of psoriasis are for now incurable, but the use of sarsaparilla and research of other drugs are bringing us closer to the answer.

 

 

 

References

 

Dweck, A C (Oct 1997). Skin treatment with plants of the Americas. Cosmetics and Toiletries, 112, n10. p.47(13).

 

Hancock, J (Oct 1829). Observations on Sarsaparilla and Certain Other Remedial Agents in     Chronical Disorders. The Lancet, 13, n321. p.145(4).

 

Thurmon F M (Jul 1942). The Treatment of Psoriasis with a Sarsaparilla Compound. The New England Journal of Medicine, 227. p.128(6).

 

 

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