Medical Attributes of Sassafras albidum - Sassafras

By Tiffany Leptuck
Wilkes University
Wilkes-Barre, PA

July, 2003

Sassafras albidum (sassafras) is a member of the Lauraceae (Laurel family). The species was named by Monardes in the 16th century as a derivative of the Spanish word saxifrage. The species is native to the entire Eastern United States and Canada. as well as Mexico. It is commonly found in fields, open woods or along fences. Sassafras is a shrubby tree that can grow to a 20 to 40 feet tall. The stems bear alternate mitten shaped, fuzzy leaves three to six inches long. Small yellow/green flowers develop in March and April, producing succulent oval dark blue drupes supported by red peduncles in August (Seiler, et al., 2003; Grieve, 2003; Felter & Lloyd (c), 2003; Hague-Birmingham, et al, 2003).

S. albidum has three major root bark components: methyleugenol, safrole and camphor (Kamdem & Gage, 1995; Felter & Lloyd (c), 2003). Red sassafras oil yield is from 6 to 9 % from a large tree's bark, while only 0.9% of the colorless oil can be taken from the wood of the root. The oils of both become thicker and darker by exposure to air (Felter & Lloyd (e), 2003).

Sassafras leaves, roots and bark has been used medicinally for centuries, by the Native Americans and the British (Grieve, 1931). One of the first exports of the Jamestown Colony, sassafras was employed by the Native Americans in the 16th century to ward off evil spirits and illness (Bronaugh, 1994). Since then, the oil, roots and bark are reported to have medicinal value as antiseptics, and analgesics. Sassafras's chemical component, safrole (found in leaves, roots and bark), is touted to have a wide variety of medicinal uses including treatment for scurvy, skin sores, kidney problems, toothaches, rheumatism, swelling, menstrual disorders and sexually transmitted diseases, bronchitis, hypertension, and dysentery. It is also used as a fungicide, dentifrice, rubefacient, diaphoretic, perfume, carminative and sudorific (USDA, ARS & NGRL, 2003; Plants for a Future, 2000; Felter & Lloyd (a,b,c,d,e)). Two grams of mucilage derived from sassafras pith can be used to treat inflammation, conjunctivitis, and erythema. The mild aromatic safrole oil from the bark can be made into a tea, or 5 to 10 drops can be placed on a sugar cube to treat kidney diseases, gastrointestinal problems, colds, rheumatism and skin inflammation. Five to ten drops, three times a day are recommended to treat gonorrhea and cystirrhoea (Felter & Lloyd (a,b,c,d,e); Plants for a Future, 2000).

Other components of sassafras are used in food dishes. The leaves can be used in salads, ground into a powder, or used as a soup-thickening agent. Dried root bark can be made into a paste and then used as a condiment, while the young shoots can be used to make beer (Plants for a Future, 2000). It can also be mixed with milk and sugar to make an English morning favorite drink, saloop (Hague-Birmingham, et al., 2003). However, the FDA has banned safrole for use in American cuisine.

Despite its uses, safrole has mutagenic and carcinogenic activity. It is recognized as more hazardous than other chemicals in six out of seven ranking systems (Rhodium, 2003). Consequently, large doses can cause vomiting, dilated pupils, kidney and liver damage, as well as stupor and collapse (Plants for a Future, 2000; Heikes, 1994).

Although none of the mentioned treatments have been clinically proven to have positive medicinal value, ingestion of 5 mL of sassafras oil can cause anxiety, 'shakiness', tachycardia, vomiting, and raised blood pressure (NextGen, Inc. 2001; Haworth Herbal Press, 2003; Rhodium, 2003). Safrole is a precursor to the widely used designer drug MDMA (an amphetamine), and users reported it increased empathy, communicativeness, heightened alertness, self-awareness and a sense of euphoria. The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had reports of abuse and fatal toxicity, causing that agency to regulate safrole use (French, 1995)

A study was conducted on outbred NIH black rats in order to correlate esophageal carcinoma with consumption of sassafras extract. After 72 weekly injections of the plant extract, S. albidum was found to be tumorigenic in over 50% of the rats due to safrole (Kapadia, et al, 1978). Safrole, derived from chewing betel quid (Piper betel) led to oral squamous cell carcinoma as well as hepatocellular carcinoma. Betel quid contains high concentrations of safrole (15 mg/g) and the stable safrole-DNA adducts formed from this component were found in liver biopsy specimens as well as in oral tissue cells (Chen et al 1997; Liu &Chen, et al, 1999).

Safrole acts when a covalent DNA adduct is bound to one of the four bases (adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine), but primarily to guanine (Luo & Guenthner, 1996). The bioactivation pathway for safrole begins with a dealkylation of a methyenedioxy ring of safrole which forms a catechol, hydroxychavicol, followed by electron oxidation to the o-quinone and isomerization, which forms the more electrophilic p-quinone methide (Iverson et al, 1995). The effects of this bioactivation pathway may be reduced by N-acetylcysteine, the precursor of glutathione, thereby reducing oxidative damage. Glutathione is an antioxidant found in every cell, yet some research indicates that it may cause cancer (Kang, 1996.). Yet, buthionine sulfoximine, a cytotoxic synthetic compound used as a drug to promote the efficacy of anti-cancer drugs, enhances safrole-induced oxidative damage because it inhibits glutathione (Liu et al 2000). Despite the oxidative damage that is causes, safrole is still used in soaps and perfumes (Plants for a Future, 1999).

In conclusion, safrole has been used in folk medicine to treat a variety of illnesses, as well as flavoring for food dishes. However, Sassafras albidum has no proven clinical effects, and its adverse effects likely outweigh its benefits.



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This paper was developed as part of the BIO 368 - Medical Botany course offered at Wilkes University during the summer of 2003. Course instructor was Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D. ( The information contained herein is based on published sources, and is made available for academic purposes only. No warrantees, expressed or implied, are made about the medical usefulness or dangers associated with the plant species in question.

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