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Sassafras

Sassafras

Botanical Description & Habitat

Sassafras albidum

Family
Lauraceae

Common names
Ague tree
Cinnamon tree
Saxifrax

Habitat
Indigenous tree flourishing in the light, sandy soil of North America.

Description
Has a bright orange-brown, irregular root producing deeply furrowed branches with a rough, gray bark. The leaves are petiolate, glabrous, and grow alternately along the stem. The flowers are green-yellow and grow in racemes along the branches below the leaves. The fruit is a deep-blue, oval drupe.

Medicinal parts
Bark (root and root-pith), fresh or dried, collected in autumn

Historical Properties & Uses

Sassafras tea has been a popular tonic in America for hundreds of years. It is also used as a diaphoretic, diuretic, alterative, stimulant, anodyne, and antiseptic. The herb is employed to treat rheumatism, gout, arthritis, venereal disease, and to purify the blood.

Sassafras contains up to 9% volatile oil, which probably contributes significantly to its popularity. Eighty percent of that oil is safrole. For years, safrole had been extracted from sassafras and used to flavor root beer. Its use as a food additive and flavoring agent was banned by the FDA in the 1960's, when research indicated safrole was carcinogenic to small lab animals. That ruling had little impact then on use of the herb as a tonic beverage, or for other purposes.

The FDA conducted further hearings on sassafras in the 1970's. While no cases of human toxicity from the herb had ever been recorded, the FDA nevertheless ruled regular consumption of less than 50 mg of safrole would be dangerous to human health. One cup of sassafras tea could contain up to 200 mg of safrole, clearly a dangerous level. In a move without precedent, the FDA banned use of sassafras tea, but not the use of any other form of the herb.

Several years later, a study was published indicating safrole-free sassafras also produced tumors in about two-thirds of subject animals. Investigators concluded there must be other agents in sassafras, besides safrole, that are carcinogenic. Since there is no evidence to indicate whole sassafras is carcinogenic, even to small lab animals, there may be principles present in the whole herb neutralizing the toxicity of some of its other elements. This question is central to many disputes between holistic health practitioners and the medical establishment regarding the herb. However, there is little experimental data available to support either side of the issue.

One study done in Switzerland indicated safrole may have carcinogenic properties not affecting humans. Safrole administered orally to human volunteers was not subjected to the same metabolic fate as safrole administered to rats and mice. Specifically, it did not evolve into 1-hydroxysafrole, the carcinogenic form of the substance. Critics of this study are quick to point out the dosage level was very low (1.655 mg), which could account for lack of carcinogenicity.

Beyond strong antibiotic actions against several strains of gram-positive and gram-negative pathogens, there is not much research available on the herb's therapeutic properties. Until the question of sassafras' toxicity is finally resolved, the most significant questions a user should ask are: what benefits will I derive from its use, and can I get the same value from other, perhaps safer herbs? In none of its traditional folk uses is sassafras unique or truly specific; its effects may be duplicated by several other well-known herbs.

Method of Action

There is presently insufficient data on this subject.

Drug Interactions & Precautions

Known Interactions
Diuretics such as sassafras may potentiate the action of antihypertensive, ganglionic or peripheral adrenergic blocking drugs, tubocurarine and, to a lesser degree, norepinephrine.

Safrole is a potent inhibitor of microsomal hydroxylating systems and could result in toxicity from drugs which are normally metabolized by these systems.

Possible Interactions
The known hepatotoxicity of safrole isolated from sassafras may increase the hepatotoxic effects of the antirheumatic agent, hydroxychloroquine sulfate.

Safrole may also increase the hepatotoxic effects of several other drugs, including antibiotics, antifungal, and antituberculous drugs.

The tannin in this herb may potentiate the antibiotic activity of echinacea. The tannin in a tea made from this herb may be inactivated by the addition of milk or cream.

Sassafras's analgesic effects may be additive with other analgesics and anesthetics. Conversely, the herb may be inhibited by barbiturates, despite any CNS-depressant effects which may occur. The analgesic property of the herb may be reversed or even eliminated by P-chlorophenylalanine, cyproheptadine HCl, and phenobarbital.

The CNS-depressant tendency of this analgesic may be potentiated by chlorprothixene HCl, haloperidol, and tranquilizers.

Safety Factors & Toxicity

Sassafras oil and safrole have been banned for use as flavors and food additives by the FDA because of their carcinogenic potential.

0.66 mg safrole per kg bodyweight is considered hazardous for humans.

Even safrole-free extracts have been cytotoxic. (Benedetti, 1977)

References:

Benedetti, MS Toxicology, 1977, 7:69.

Preparation & Administration

Dried inner root bark
2-4 gram three times a day

Fluid extract
1:1 in 25% alcohol, 2-4 ml three times a day

Oil
use externally only

Note: This Herbal Preparation information is a summary of data from books and articles by various authors. It is not intended to replace the advice or attention of health care professionals.

References

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Clark, T.H., A.H. Conney & B.P. Harpole, et.al. 1967. Drug interactions that can affect your patients. Patient Care, 1(11). pp. 33-71.

Committee on Pharmocopaeia of the Am Institute of Homeopathy, The Homeopathic Pharmacopaeia of the United States. 8th ed., Vol 1. Otis Clapp and Son, Agents, Boston, l981.

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Facts and Comparisons. The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. Jun, 1997.

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