Botanical Description & Habitat
Indigenous tree flourishing in the light, sandy soil of North America.
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.
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
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.
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)
Benedetti, MS Toxicology, 1977, 7:69.
Preparation & Administration
Dried inner root bark
2-4 gram three times a day
1:1 in 25% alcohol, 2-4 ml three times a day
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.
Am Hospital Formulary Service. Am Soc of Hosp Pharm. Wash, D.C.
Beckman, H. 1967. Dilemmas in drug therapy. Saunders, Philadelphia.
Benedetti, M.S., Malnoe, A. & Broillet, L. Toxicology, 7, 69-83, 1977.
Bressler, R., M.D. Bogdonoff & G.J. Subak-Sharpe. 1981. The Physicians Drug Manual. Doubleday & Co, Inc. Garden City, NY. 1213 pp.
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.
D'Amico, M.L. Richere sulla presenza di sostanze ad azione antibiotica nelle piante superiori. Fitoterapia, 26(1), 77-79, 1950.
De Martinis, M., et.al. 1980. Milk thistle (silybum marianum) derivatives in the therapy of chronic hepatopathies. Clin. Ter., 94(3). pp. 283-315.
Drug package insert (FDA approved official brochure) and other labeling based on sponsored clinical investigations and New Drug Application data.
Facts and Comparisons. The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. Jun, 1997.
Goodman, L.S. & A. Gilman. 1975. Pharm Basis of Thera. Macmillan, NY.
Hansten, P.D. 1979. Drug Interactions, 4th ed. Lea & Febiger, Phila.
Hyde, F.F. British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. British Herbal Medicine Assoc: West Yorks, England, 1983
Iarc Monographs On The Evaluation Of The Carcinogenic Risk Of Chemicals To Man, 1, 169-174, 1972.
Jaffe, H., et.al. 1968. In vivo inhibition of mouse liver microsomal hydroxylating systems by methylenedioxyphenyl insecticide synergists and related compounds. Life Sciences, 7. pp. 1051-1052.
Kapadia, G.J., E.B. Chung, B. Ghosh, Y.N. Shukla, S.P. Basak, J.F. Morton & S.N. Pradham. J Of The Ntnl Cancer Ins, 60, 683-686, 1978.
Kastrup, E.K., ed. 1981. Drug Facts and Comparisons, 1982 edition. Facts and Comparisions Division, J.P. Lippincott Co, Phila(St. Louis).
List, P. & L. Hoerhammer. 1969-1976. Hagers Hanbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis, vols. 2-5. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
Martin, E. Drug Interactions Index, 1978/79. J.B. Lippincott Co, Phila.
Maruzzella, J.C. & N.A. Sircurella. Antibacterial activity of essential oil vapors. J Of The Am Pharm Assoc, 49(11), 692-694, 1960.
Maruzzela, J.C. & M.B. Lichtenstein. The in vitro antibacterial activity of oils. J. Of The Am. Pharm. Ass. 45(6), 378-381, 1956.
Melmon, K., H.F. Morelli, J.A. Oates, et. al. 1967. Drug interactions that can affect your patients. Pat Care, Nov. pp. 33-71.
Miller, R.D., et.al. 1976. Enhancement of d-tubocurarine neuromuscular blockage by diuretics in man. Anesth, 45. p.442.
Miller, L. & R. Lindeman. Red Blood Cell and Serum Selenium Concentration as Influenced by Age and Selected Diseases. Journal Of Am College Nutrition, 2. 1983.
Mowrey, Daniel B., Ph.D. Exper. Psych., Brigham Young University. Director of Nebo Institute of Herbal Sciences. Director of Behavior Change Agent Training Institute. Director of Research, Nova Corp.
Ngai, S.H., L.C. Mark & E.M. Papper. 1970. Pharmacologic and physiologic aspects of anesthesiology. N Eng J of Med, 282 pp. 479-491.
Scientific Committee, British Herbal Pharmocopaeia, British Herbal Med Assoc, Lane House, Cowling, Na Keighley, West Yorks, Bd Bd220lx, l983
Segelman, A.B., Segelman, F.P., Karliner, J. & Sofia, D. Journal Of The Am Medical Assoc, 236, 477, 1976.
Stuart, D.M. 1968. Drug metabolism Part 2. Drug interactions. PharmIndex. 10(10). pp. 4-16.
Vincent, D. & G. Segonzac. 1953. Comptes Rendus des Seances de la Societe de Biologie et de ses Filiales, 147. pp. 1776-1779.
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