Sassafras is a small tree, Sassafras albidum, belonging to the laurel family native to eastern North America. Sassafras grows in woodlands in rich sandy well-drained soil from Maine to Florida, reaching a height of about 75 ft (25 m). The tree has also been imported to Europe, probably by the Spaniards who discovered it in Florida.
All parts of the sassafras tree are aromatic with a pleasant odor and a slightly sweet but astringent taste. The root and root bark were formerly used medicinally. The root is thick and woody. When alive, it is whitish but rapidly turns cinnamon-brown on exposure to air. Other names for sassafras are ague tree, cinnamon wood, saxifrax, saxafrax, and saloop. There are other plants that have the word sassafras in their name that are completely unrelated to Sassafras albidum. These include black sassafras (Oliveri cortex); swamp sassafras (Magnolia glauca); Australian sassafras (Antherosperma moschatum); sassafras goesianum (Massoja aromatica,); and California sassafras (Umbellularia californica).
Sassafras should not be taken internally or used for healing except for topical applications. In the 1960s scientists determined that the volatile oil derived from sassafras root contains safrole as its chief component. Safrole is a known carcinogen in animal studies. Safrole in concentrations of 80–90%, similar to its concentration in the volatile oil, produced tumors in the livers of laboratory animals. In 1960 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned sassafras volatile oil as a food and flavoring additive. In 1976 it prohibited the interstate shipment of sassafras bark for making tea. A safrole-free sassafras extract is now available; however, there are questions about its potentially cancer-causing properties.
Prior to the discovery that sassafras contains a carcinogen, it had a long and widespread history of use as a folk medicine. Native Americans used sassafras to cure many different conditions, but especially as a spring blood tonic. Before long, Native Americans introduced the European settlers to sassafras. It became a sought-after herb in Europe. Sassafras root bark was imported from the United States, and sassafras trees were also planted in Europe. Sassafras tea, sold under the name saloop, was a popular beverage in London.
Before sassafras was discovered to be a carcinogen, it was used as a diuretic as well as to treat urinary tract disorders and kidney problems. It was also used as an ineffective treatment for syphilis. Other herbal practitioners used sassafras to treat rheumatism and arthritis. It was given to women to ease painful menstruation and help their recovery from childbirth. Other conditions treated with sassafras include high blood pressure, colds, flu, and bronchitis. The volatile oil was used in dentistry in combination with cloves and other herbs to relieve toothache. By far the most common use of sassafras, however, was to flavor root beer.
Externally, sassafras washes were used to soothe the eyes. The volatile oil was used as a liniment and to treat bruises and swellings. The volatile oil was also used to control head and body lice. The risks in applying sassafras oil externally are still unclear.
Despite the fact that sassafras contains a proven carcinogen, it is still used today in many parts of the Appalachian Mountains, where the root is locally gathered. In 1994, there was evidence that teas containing sassafras were still being sold in some health food stores. Even the health community has not fully grasped the harmful effects of sassafras. A 1993 article in Midwifery Today and Childbirth Education recommended sassafras as a cure for breast inflammation after childbirth. Many reputable studies, however, indicate that there is a definite health hazard in using even small amounts of sassafras either as oil or tea.
Sassafras should not be used. In times past, before its potentially harmful effects were recognized, it was available as a volatile oil, as bark that could be brewed into tea, and as a component of tonic formulas and tonic teas. Since use of sassafras is not recommended, there is no recommended dosage.
Sassafras should not be used.
It has been reported that as little as one teaspoon of pure sassafras oil can kill an adult, and only a few drops can kill a toddler. The signs of sassafras poisoning include nausea, vomiting, confusion, and paralysis. The potentially hazardous dose of safrole has been determined to be 0.66 mg/kg of a person's body weight. This amount is less than the dose often found in sassafras tea.
Sassafras should not be used. Since it is toxic, drug interactions have not been investigated.
Lawless, Julia. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Rockport, MA: Element, 1995.
PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, New Jersey: Medical Economics Company, 1998.
Peirce, Andrea. The American Pharmaceutical Association Practical Guide to Natural Medicines. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999.
Plants for the Future: Sassafras albidum. http://www.metalab.unc.edu.
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