Sassafras

Share
Print
Share
Print
Sassafras

Common Names

  • Ague tree
  • Saxifrax
  • Cinnamonwood
  • Saloop
  • Smelling-stick

For Patients & Caregivers

How It Works

Safrole and oil of sassafras has been banned as a food additive by the FDA due to carcinogenic concerns, and should not be used to treat medical conditions.

Sassafras is a perennial tree native to Eastern United States. Native Americans used infusions made from the root bark as a remedy to treat fevers, diarrhea, and rheumatism. Sassafras was even used as a flavoring for root beer decades ago. However, sassafras contains safrole, a volatile oil, which has been classified as a likely carcinogen to humans, and banned as a food additive by the FDA. 

Purported Uses

There is no scientific evidence to support the claims below:

  • To detoxify
  • For general health maintenance
  • To reduce inflammation, including mucositis (sores in the mouth and throat)
  • To treat arthritis
  • To treat sprains
  • To treat syphilis
  • To treat urinary tract disorders
Patient Warnings
  • Sassafras is classified as a carcinogenic substance. It caused liver cancer in laboratory animals. The risk of developing cancer increases with the amount consumed and duration of consumption.
Do Not Take If
  • Safrole and oil of sassafras has been banned as a food additive by the FDA due to carcinogenic concerns, and should not be used to treat any medical conditions.
Side Effects
  • Hot flashes
  • Profuse perspiration
Special Point
  • Sassafras was once used as flavoring agent in root beer and candies, but the Food and Drug Administration has prohibited the use of sassafras as a food additive due to its carcinogenic effects.
Back to top

For Healthcare Professionals

Scientific Name
Sassafras albidum
Clinical Summary

Sassafras is a perennial tree native to Eastern United States. The Native Americans used infusions made from the root bark as a remedy to treat fevers, diarrhea, and rheumatism. It was also used to scent perfume and even as a flavoring for root beer decades ago.

Studies of sassafras are quite limited and have only been conducted in vitro or in animals. A few experiments suggested antidiabetic (12) and anticancer effects (7) (8) (9) (10) (11). However, safrole was shown to be a carcinogen (5) (13), causing it to be banned as a food additive since the 1960s  (5). Based on these data, the FDA continues to classify safrole as a Substance Generally Prohibited From Direct Addition or Use as Human Food (14).

Purported Uses
  • Detoxification
  • Inflammation
  • Arthritis
Mechanism of Action

Safrole, the main active constituent, shows cytotoxic effects in human tongue squamous carcinoma SCC-4 cells by apoptosis via the mitochondria- and caspase-dependent signal pathways (7); and through the endoplasmic reticulum stress and intrinsic signaling pathways in human leukemia HL-60 cells (9). It also suppressed myelomonocytic leukemia WEHI-3 cells in vivo, and stimulated macrophage phagocytosis and natural killer cell cytotoxicity in leukemic mice (8).

Toxic effects of safrole in Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells were shown to be via induction of an increase in cytosolic free Ca2+ by causing Ca2+ release from the endoplasmic reticulum in a phospholipase C- and protein kinase C-independent fashion, and by inducing Ca2+ influx (16).

However, despite potential apoptotic and cytotoxic effects, data indicates that safrole is “Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” (5).

Warnings

Sassafras contains safrole, which causes liver cancer in animal models and is classified as a carcinogenic substance. Risk increases with length of exposure and amount consumed. (5)

Adverse Reactions

Case Report

Hot flashes and diaphoresis: due to the ingestion of sassafras tea. (4)

Herb-Drug Interactions

Cytochrome P450 substrates: In vitro, safrole inhibited human CYP1A2, CYP2A6, and CYP2E1 (17).

References
  1. Newall C, et al. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals. London: Pharmaceutical Press; 1996.
  2. De Smet PA, et al. Adverse Effects of Herbal Drugs, Vol 3. New York: Springer; 1997.
  3. Brinker F, Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions, 2nd ed. Sandy (OR): Eclectic Medical Publications; 1998.
  4. Haines JD. Sassafras tea and diaphoresis. Postgrad Med 1991;90;75-6.
  5. National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services. Safrole. Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Edition. Accessed May 13, 2020.
  6. Foster S, et al. Tyler’s Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies. New York: Haworth Herbal Press; 1999.
  7. Yu FS, Huang AC, Yang JS, et al. Safrole induces cell death in human tongue squamous cancer SCC-4 cells through mitochondria-dependent caspase activation cascade apoptotic signaling pathways. Environ Toxicol. 2012 Jul;27(7):433-44.
  8. Yu FS, Yang JS, Yu CS, et al. Safrole suppresses murine myelomonocytic leukemia WEHI-3 cells in vivo, and stimulates macrophage phagocytosis and natural killer cell cytotoxicity in leukemic mice. Environ Toxicol. 2013 Nov;28(11):601-8.
  9. Yu CS, Huang AC, Yang JS, et al. Safrole induces G0/G1 phase arrest via inhibition of cyclin E and provokes apoptosis through endoplasmic reticulum stress and mitochondrion-dependent pathways in human leukemia HL-60 cells. Anticancer Res. 2012 May;32(5):1671-9.
  10. Yu FS, Yang JS, Yu CS, et al. Safrole induces apoptosis in human oral cancer HSC-3 cells. J Dent Res. 2011 Feb;90(2):168-74.
  11. Chang HC, Cheng HH, Huang CJ, Chet al. Safrole-induced Ca2+ mobilization and cytotoxicity in human PC3 prostate cancer cells. J Recept Signal Transduct Res. 2006;26(3):199-212.
  12. Rani S, Sharma S, Kumar S. To Investigate Antihyperglycemic and Antihyperlipidemic Potential of Safrole in Rodents by in-vivo and in-vitro Study. Drug Res (Stuttg). 2013 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of print]
  13. Vesselinovitch SD. Perinatal hepatocarcinogenesis. Biol Res Pregnancy Perinatol. 1983;4(1):22-5.
  14. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Safrole. http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=189.180. Accesssed May 13, 2020.
  15. Kamdem DP, Gage DA. Chemical composition of essential oil from the root bark of Sassafras albidum. Planta Med. 1995 Dec;61(6):574-5.
  16. Chen WC, Cheng HH, Huang CJ, et al. The carcinogen safrole increases intracellular free Ca2+ levels and causes death in MDCK cells. Chin J Physiol. 2007 Feb 28;50(1):34-40.
  17. Ueng YF, Hsieh CH, Don MJ. Inhibition of human cytochrome P450 enzymes by the natural hepatotoxin safrole. Food Chem Toxicol. 2005 May;43(5):707-12.
Back to top
Back to top
Email your questions and comments to aboutherbs@mskcc.org.

Last Updated