encyclopedia

Sassafras

Scientific Names:
Sassafras albidum (NUTT.) NEES (syn. S. officinalis T. NEES et C.H. EBERM. [Fam. Lauraceae]

Forms:
Cut and dried root of sassafras for infusions; root-bark teas.

Traditional Usage:
– Arthritic Pain Relief

– Blood Purifier (Spring Cleanse)

– Bone and Joint Conditions

– Fever (through increased perspiration)

– Poultice

– Rheumatism

– Skin Problems

– Stomachaches

Overview:
Sassafras, Sassafras albidum (NUTT.) NEES (syn. S. officinalis) [Fam. Lauraceae], is a tree native to North America, growing mainly in poor soils throughout the United States and in parts of Ontario, Canada. Sassafras wood, root and bark can all be used for making tea. The Ojibwa and Iroquois of Ontario and the adjacent United States and the Micmac First Nation’s people used the root-bark and leaves of sassafras for making beverage teas and to season cooking meat and other foods. Traditionally, sassafras root-bark tea was popularly used as a spring blood tonic and blood purifier, and also to treat rheumatism and arthritic pain. There are also anecdotal reports of cures of crippling joint pain with sassafras root tea. Colonial treatments called for sassafras poultices for treating sores and abnormal growths. Sassafras was once extremely popular in Europe. In the 17th century, large quantities of sassafras were exported to England to be used in medicine as a blood purifier. Sassafras was also a component of the original old-fashioned root beer. However, due to the presence of a toxic compound in the essential oil of sassafras, called safrole, the use of sassafras in beverages was banned by the FDA. Sassafras root contains between 1-2% essential oil and approximately 80% of that is safrole, a compound with demonstrated carcinogenic activity in animal models. However, Turner and Kuhnlein report that humans may not be similarly affected, although caution is still advised. Dr. James Duke and Steven Foster report that the safrole in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer. However, recent studies suggest that there is a significant risk of liver toxicity from safrole in high doses through the formation of toxic quinoids that cause dangerous DNA adducts within the body.

Active Ingredients:
Sassafras root contains: 1-2% essential oil, with up to 80% safrole along with other mono and sesquiterpenes and phenylpropanes (up to 19 components have been identified). Small amounts of lignans, including sesamin, have been detected. The root also contains tannins, sitosterol and other sterols. A recent study reported similar results from the root bark of Sassafras albidum (Nuttall) Nees (Lauraceae) extracted at room temperature with hexane and chloroform as solvents. The isolated essential oils were analyzed with GC and GC/MS. The major compounds were safrole (85%), camphor (3.25%), and methyleugenol (1.10%). Thirty compounds were identified, nine of which had not been previously reported from this species. Six alkaloids have also been identified from the root bark of sassafras including: aporphine and benzylisoquinoline derivatives.

Suggested Amount:
The tea should not be used for a prolonged time. To prepare the tea: Pour boiling water over 2.5 grams of finely chopped sassafras root or root-bark. Steep 10 minutes then strain. Drink one cup two or three times a day but not for a prolonged period. External: Use as a poultice or compress with a 1:10 decoction. 1 teaspoon = ca. 3 grams.

Warning:

Use sparingly. Do not use for longer than 4 to 6 weeks in a year.

Drug Interactions:
None known.

Contraindications:
Do not use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Side Effects:
A patient whose main symptom is sweating can present a diagnostic challenge. Dr Haines describes a case in which diaphoresis was caused not by a conventional medication or illness but rather by a life-style change in which the patient began consuming sassafras tea. Prolonged internal use not recommended. Overdose of drug can damage the liver.

Safrole has carcinogenic properties; avoid over-use. [Haines JD Jr. 1991. Sassafras tea and diaphoresis. Postgrad Med. 1991 Sep 15; 90(4): 75-6]. Recent studies found that extracts of Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees (sassafras), Symphytum officinale L. (comfrey), and Rosmarinus officinalis L. (rosemary), all of which are known to contain compounds that are either carcinogenic or toxic to mammals, produced DNA adducts during a screening assay. Sassafras root contains between 1-2% essential oil and approximately 80% of that is safrole, a compound with demonstrated carcinogenic activity in animal models. However, Turner and Khunlein report that humans may not be similarly affected, although caution is still advised. Herb researchers Dr. James Duke and Steven Foster report that the safrole in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer.

References:

Duke JA. 1985. Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees (Lauraceae) – Sassafras. In Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, p. 430-431.

Foster S, and Duke JA. 1990. Sassafras in Eastern and Central Medicinal Plants – The Peterson’s Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, NY, Pp. 278-279.

Johnson BM, Bolton JL, van Breemen RB. 2001. Screening botanical extracts for quinoid metabolites. Chem Res Toxicol. 2001 Nov; 14(11): 1546-51.

Turner N, and Kuhnlein H. 1991. Traditional plant foods of Canadian indigenous peoples. Nutrition, botany and use. In Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology Vol. 8. Gordon & Breach Science Publishers, Philadelphia, PA, p. 213.

Wichtl M and NG Bisset (eds). 1994. Sassafras lignum – Sassafras root. In Herbal Drugs and Phyto-pharmaceuticals. (English translation by Norman Grainger Bisset). CRC Press, Stuttgart. Pp. 455-456.