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Sassafras

Botanical name: Sassafras albidum

Sassafras.jpg

© Martin Wall

Parts used and where grown

Sassafras is native to eastern North America. It is a tree that can grow up to 90 feet tall, and it has distinctive three-fingered mitten-shaped leaves, as well as other leaf shapes. The inner bark of the root is used medicinally and in the preparation of beverages.

Sassafras has been used in connection with the following conditions (refer to the individual health concern for complete information):

Science Ratings Health Concerns
1Star

Fever

Lice (topical oil)

Rheumatism

Urinary tract infection (as irrigation therapy)

3Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2Stars Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

Historical or traditional use (may or may not be supported by scientific studies)

Sassafras was used by Native Americans for many purposes, primarily for infections and gastrointestinal problems.1 Sassafras was one of the first and largest exports from the New World back to Europe as a beverage and medicine.2 Commercially, the pleasant tasting volatile oil was valued as a flavoring agent in root beer and similar beverages. Eclectic physicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries considered sassafras a useful diaphoretic (a substance that causes sweating) and diuretic plant, primarily for relieving rheumatism and fevers, and as part of the treatment of urinary tract infections.3

Active constituents

The volatile oil of sassafras is believed to be the major active constituent of the plant. This oil contains up to 85% of the terpenoid known as safrole.4 Safrole causes liver cancer when given to laboratory animals in high doses for long periods of time.5 Sassafras bark, sassafras oil, and safrole are currently prohibited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from use as flavorings or food additives. Human studies are lacking to verify the efficacy of sassafras for any condition. However, one case study has been published showing that sassafras acted as a diaphoretic in an otherwise healthy woman.6 While the amount of sassafras that could potentially cause cancer in humans remains unknown, one cup of strong sassafras tea is reported to contain as much as 200 mg of safrole, an amount that is four times higher than the amount considered potentially hazardous to humans if consumed regularly.7

How much is usually taken?

The safety of long-term internal use of sassafras has not been proven. Only guaranteed safrole-free products should be consumed. Note that safrole-containing food products are illegal in the United States and Canada.8 Some sources suggest a dilute tincture can be used in the amount of 1 to 2 ml three times per day.9 Volatile oil of sassafras can be applied topically three times per day for lice, but should never be taken internally.10

Are there any side effects or interactions?

Safrole causes liver cancer if given to laboratory animals “in high doses and for extended periods of time.”11 This requires metabolism of safrole by the liver into other toxic compounds, though the liver also removes some of these compounds for excretion through the urine.12 13 The overall risk of sassafras causing cancer in humans is thought to be low because it is only weakly active and the amounts normally consumed are low.14 To eliminate the risk, sassafras products that contain safrole should not be consumed.

Safrole and its toxic metabolites do cross the placenta and enter breast milk in laboratory animals, and thus sassafras should be avoided by women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.15

At the time of writing, there were no well-known drug interactions with sassafras.

References:

1. Vogel VJ. American Indian Medicine. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970:361–5.

2. Vogel VJ. American Indian Medicine. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970:361–5.

3. Felter HW, Lloyd JU. King’s American Dispensatory, 18th ed, 2 vols. Portland OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1898, 1983:1730–1.

4. Kamdem DP, Gage DA. Chemical composition of essential oil from the root bark of Sassafras albidum. Planta Med 1995;61:574–5.

5. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A, eds. American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997:152–4.

6. Haines JD Jr. Sassafras tea and diaphoresis. Postgrad Med 1991;90:75–6.

7. Foster S, Tyler VE. Tyler’s Honest Herbal. New York: Haworth Press, 1999; 337–9.

8. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A, eds. American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997:103–4.

9. Hoffmann D. The New Holistic Herbal, 3rd ed. Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1990:230.

10. Hoffmann D. The New Holistic Herbal, 3rd ed. Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1990:230.

11. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A, eds. American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997:152–4.

12. Luo G, Guenthner TM. Metabolisms of alklylbensene 2’,3’-oxide and estragole 2’,3’-oxide in the isolated perfused rat liver. J Pharm Exp Ther 1995;272:588–96.

13. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A, eds. American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997:152–4.

14. Enomoto M. Naturally occurring carcinogens of plant origin: Safrole. Bioactive Mol 1987;2:139–59.

15. Vesselinovitch SD, Rao KV, Mihailovich N. Transplacental and lactational carcinogenesis by safrole. Cancer Res 1979;39:4378–80.

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