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Background & General Info

Sarsaparilla pertains to the rhizomes of Smilax glabra, a deciduous species indigenous to the thickets, forests, and valleys of China, the Himalayas, and Indochina. It is commonly utilized as a natural dietary supplement because of its purported ability to detoxify, clear heat, and relieve dampness and is incorporated as a component in beverages and foods sold in Southeast Asia and Northern America. [1] The root of Smilax glabra Roxb., termed tu fu ling in Chinese medicine, is a cheap traditional herb commonly prescribed as treatment for liver diseases. [2]


Smilax glabra can be described as a climbing vine with branched, woody but smooth stems and elliptic- or ovate-lanceolate leaves. Its petiole is narrowly winged; the male flowers are greenish white, slightly angled, and scarcely open, with broadly obovate-orbicular outer tepals, whereas the female flowers have entire inner tepals at the margin. The plant’s berries appear blue-black. [3]

History & Traditional Use

The rhizomes of Smilax glabra are also popular in traditional Thai medicine as an herb to manage several infectious diseases and immunological disorders. [4] Smilax glabra is renowned in traditional Chinese medicine to be clinically used to prevent leptospirosis and treat syphilis and acute bacterial dysentery, among others. Its extracts showed anti-tumor and anti-atherosclerosis activity. [5]

General Herbal Uses

Sarsaparilla has been demonstrated in different studies to modulate immunity, protect against liver damage, decrease glucose in the blood, and inhibit cancer. [1] For several years, it has been integrated in herbal mixtures prescribed to patients suffering from dermatitis, syphilis, and gouty arthritis, and an increasing number of scientific evidences have been accumulated currently that confirm its therapeutic potential for the management of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation, liver injury, hyperinsulinemia, and cancer. In general, sarsaparilla functions mainly as an immunomodulatory, hepatoprotective, and anticancer agent. [1]

Constituents/Active Components

She et al. (2015) conducted liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry-ion trap-time-of-flight (LC/MS-IT-TOF) analysis on the water-soluble extract from sarsaparilla and identified flavonoids, alkaloids, and phenylpropanoids as its primary bioactive components. [6] Xu et al. (2013) isolated smiglabrone A, smiglabrone B, smilachromanone, smiglastilbene, smiglactone, and smiglabrol from the rhizomes of Smilax glabra, in addition to 57 phenolic compounds. [7]

Medicinal/Scientific Research


A number of studies have provided evidence on the capability of sarsaparilla to suppress the growth of many cancer cell lines in vitro and in vivo assays while being nontoxic to normal cells. A 2015 study published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research investigated the anticancer activity of supernatant of a water-soluble extract from sarsaparilla. The mechanism responsible for the extract’s growth-inhibitory and anticancer function appears to be related to S phase arrest, autophagy, and/or apoptosis, and microarray analysis and validation by quantitative RT-PCR also pointed out the role of oxidative stress and MAPK1 pathway in cells treated with sarsaparilla extract. It was also confirmed that the water-soluble extract from sarsaparilla destroyed the balance of intracellular reduced glutathione and oxidized glutathione, and supplement with N-acetylcysteine or glutathione notably antagonized the S phase arrest, apoptosis, and autophagy triggered by sarsaparilla extract. [6] Glycoproteins from sarsaparilla has been examined and proved to suppress the proliferation of MCF-7 breast cancer cells via induction of apoptosis during the sub-G(1) phase of the MCF-7 cell cycle, as analyzed through DNA flow cytometry. A 75.8% increase in the control level of apoptosis was found after incubation with SGPF1a subfraction. [8]

She et al. (2015) elucidated the anticancer activity of sarsaparilla and presented findings that revealed its antitumor function to counteract the invasive ability of cancer cells via suppression of TGF-β1 signaling. As found in the study, the supernatant of water-soluble extract obtained from Smilax glabra rhizome promotes adhesion but inhibits the migration and invasion of HepG2, MDA-MB-231, and T24 cells in vitro. It was also able to inhibit the metastasis of MDA-MB-231 cells in vivo. According to results of F-actin and vinculin dual staining, treated cells manifested improved focal adhesion, whereas microarray analysis pointed out an inhibition of TGF-β1 signaling by sarsaparilla treatment. The sarsaparilla treatment was observed to antagonize as well the cell migration stimulated by TGF-β1. [1]

A 2016 Chinese study explored the antitumor effect of Smilax glabra and its potential mechanisms on SGC7901 cells (i.e., human gastric cancer cells) and revealed the ability of Smilax glabra to suppress the proliferation of these cancer cells via inhibition of phosphorylation of Akt (Thr308). In addition, this study found that Smilax glabra could significantly stimulate apoptosis of SGC7901 cell lines by inhibiting Aktp-Thr308/Bad pathway and partly suppress the cancer cells’ migration and invasion by inhibiting Aktp-Thr308/MMPs pathway. [9]

A 2008 study demonstrated that the extract from raw Smilax glabra displays antiproliferative effect against human hepatoma cell lines, HepG2 and Hep3B, and that this extract inhibits the growth of HepG2 and Hep3B cells via cell cycle arrest at either S phase or S/G2 transition. Such apoptosis associated with raw Smilax glabra appears to result from alternation of the mitochondrial transmembrane depolarization, discharge of mitochondrial cytochrome c, activation of caspase-3, and cleavage of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase, and the mitochondrial caspase-dependent apoptotic pathway mediated by Smilax glabra was also triggered by the activation of p38, JNK, and ERK mitogen-activated protein kinase signaling. [2]


The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of phenolic-enriched extracts of Smilax glabra were strongly suggested by the findings of a 2014 study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. As revealed by the study, the phenolic-enriched extract of Smilax glabra displayed evident scavenging capacity for DPPH and ABTS radicals and significant reducing power for ferric ion. At a concentration of 12.5–50 μg/mL, the extract also demonstrated a significantly higher efficiency for scavenging ABTS than ascorbic acid. Moreover, it suppressed the production of proinflammatory mediators, such as nitric oxide, tumor necrosis factor, and interleukin-6, in lipopolysaccharide induced RAW264.7 cells. [10]

The aqueous extract from Rhizoma Smilacis Glabrae (the stem tuber of Smilax glabra) had been reported to outstandingly inhibit the primary inflammation in rats with adjuvant arthritis. The study results of Zhang et al. (2009) indicated improvement of adjuvant arthritis because of Smilax glabra stem tuber treatment, which appears to downregulate overactivated macrophages and upregulate defective T lymphocytes during the end stage of arthritis. Administered at doses of 400 and 800 mg/kg, Rhizoma Smilacis Glabrae was observed to significantly inhibit the swelling of adjuvant non-injected footpad of rats with arthritis during the later phase and to markedly encourage the recovery of decrease in weight gain of the experimental rats. Also, delayed-type hypersensitivity triggered by picryl chloride was significantly recovered by Rhizoma Smilacis Glabrae to almost normal levels from higher or lower levels elicited by a number of cyclophosphamide treatments, with a normalization of CD4/CD8 ratio. [11]


Itharat et al. (2015) explored the in vitro anti-allergic property of crude extracts acquired from the rhizomes of Smilax glabra, as well as its isolated flavonoid compounds. Their study findings led the authors to conclude that 95% and 50% ethanol extracts of Smilax glabra rhizomes display “remarkably high” anti-allergic activity, with an assortment of phytochemicals in the extracts having been hold accountable for such anti-allergic activity of sarsaparilla herbal preparations. It should be noted that both ethanol extracts manifested much higher anti-allergic activity than ketotifen, a first-generation antihistamine and asthma medication. [4]


Sarsaparilla has been demonstrated in the study of Ooi et al. (2008) to contain glycoproteins bearing antiviral and antiproliferative activities. The glycoprotein SGPF2 of sarsaparilla was shown to display antiviral activity against both respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and herpes simplex virus type 1. The median inhibitory concentration (IC50) values for the two are 62.5 µg/mL and 31.3 µg/mL, respectively. The antiviral potency of sarsaparilla’s glycoprotein seems to rely on the molecules’ binding affinity for fetuin. [8]


Xu et al. (2013) explored the antimicrobial activity of compounds from sarsaparilla against three Gram-negative bacteria, three Gram-positive bacteria, and one fungus and found 18 of these phenolic compounds to exert antimicrobial activity against the tested microorganisms, with a minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) of 0.0794–3.09 mM. In particular, smiglabrone A exhibited antimicrobial action against Candida albicans, with an MIC value of 0.146 mM, whereas smilachromanone and smiglastilbene inhibited Staphylococcus aureus, with MIC values of 0.303 and 0.205 mM, respectively. [7]


In 1997, researchers from Kobe Pharmaceutical University investigated the hypoglycemic effect of Smilax glabra rhizomes in normal and KK-Ay mice. Here, the KK-Ay mice served as the animal model of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus with hyperinsulinemia. The findings from this research indicated that methanol extract of Smilax glabra rhizomes, intraperitoneally provided at a dose of 100 mg/kg, lowered the glucose levels in the blood of normal mice after 4 h of administration, as well as KK-Ay mice. Furthermore, the Smilax glabra rhizome extract prevented epinephrine-induced hyperglycemia in mice, and data from insulin tolerance test pointed out a decrease in blood glucose among KK-Ay mice treated with the extract. It should be noted however that the administration of the extract did not produce any significant effect on the blood glucose of mice with diabetes induced by streptozotocin (animal models of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus with hypoinsulinemia). [12]

Contraindications, Interactions, And Safety

To date, there have been no major contraindications, warnings, or side effects that are documented by studies regarding the use of sarsaparilla. However, avoiding excessive ingestion is still suggested as the plant’s saponins, if consumed in unusually high doses, may be harmful and can cause gastrointestinal irritation. Research on its toxicology profile has also been scarce, providing little information, especially on the safety of its use during pregnancy and lactation.


[1] T. She, C. Zhao, J. Feng, L. Wang and e. al., "Sarsaparilla (Smilax glabra rhizome) extract inhibits migration and invasion of cancer cells by suppressing TGF-β1 pathway," PLoS One, vol. 10, no. 3, p. e0118287, 2015.

[2] F. Sa, J. Gao, K. Fung and e. al., "Anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic effect of Smilax glabra Roxb. extract on hepatoma cell lines," Chemico-Biological Interactions, vol. 171, no. 1, p. 1–14, 2008.

[3] "Smilax glabra," EOL: Encyclopedia of Life.

[4] A. Itharat, K. Srikwan, S. Ruangnoo and P. Thongdeeying, "Anti-allergic activities of Smilax glabra rhizome extracts and its isolated compounds," Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, vol. 98, no. Suppl 3, p. S66–S74, 2015.

[5] Y. Yi and e. al., "Studies on the chemical constituents of Smilax glabra," Yao Xue Xue Bao, vol. 33, no. 11, p. 873–875, 1998.

[6] T. She, L. Qu, L. Wang and e. al., "Sarsaparilla (Smilax glabra rhizome) extract inhibits cancer cell growth by S phase arrest, apoptosis, and autophagy via redox-dependent ERK1/2 pathway," Cancer Prevention Research, vol. 8, no. 5, p. 464–474, 2015.

[7] S. Xu, M. Shang, G. Liu, F. Xu and e. al., "Chemical constituents from the rhizomes of Smilax glabra and their antimicrobial activity," Molecules, vol. 18, no. 5, p. 5265–5287, 2013.

[8] L. Ooi, E. Wong, L. Chiu, S. Sun and V. Ooi, "Antiviral and anti-proliferative glycoproteins from the rhizome of Smilax glabra Roxb (Liliaceae)," The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, vol. 36, no. 1, p. 185–195, 2008.

[9] G. Hao, J. Zheng, R. Huo and e. al., "Smilax glabra Roxb targets Aktp-Thr308 and inhibits Akt-mediated signaling pathways in SGC7901 cells," Journal of Drug Targeting, vol. 24, no. 6, p. 557–565, 2016.

[10] C.-l. Lu, W. Zhu, M. Wang, X.-j. Xu and C.-j. Lu, "Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of phenolic-enriched extracts of Smilax glabra," Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2014, p. 8, 2014.

[11] J. Jiang and Q. Xu, "Immunomodulatory activity of the aqueous extract from rhizome of Smilax glabra in the later phase of adjuvant-induced arthritis in rats," Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 85, no. 1, p. 53–59, 2003.

[12] T. Fukunaga, T. Miura, K. Furuta and A. Kato, "Hypoglycemic effect of the rhizomes of Smilax glabra in normal and diabetic mice," Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, vol. 20, no. 1, p. 44–46, 1997.

Article researched and created by Dan Albir for © 2018

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