Sassafras root beer cancer


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What is Sassafras?

Sassafras is the name applied to 3 species of trees, 2 native to eastern Asia and 1 native to eastern North America. Fossils show that sassafras once was widespread in Europe, North America, and Greenland. All parts of the tree are strongly aromatic. The drug is from the peeled root of the plant (root bark). Synonyms are S. officinale and S. variifolium.

Scientific Name(s)

Sassafras albidum

Common Name(s)

Sassafras also is known as saxifras, ague tree, cinnamon wood, and saloop.

What is it used for?

Traditional/Ethnobotanical uses

Native Americans have used sassafras for centuries and told early settlers that it would cure a variety of illnesses. The settlers then exported it to Europe, where it was found ineffective. A report on experiences of explorers and doctors finding, identifying, and describing sassafras bark and other drugs during the late 16th century is available.

Over the years, the oil obtained from the roots and wood has been used as a scent in perfumes and soaps. Medicinally, sassafras has been applied to insect bites and stings to relieve symptoms. The leaves and pith, when dried and powdered, have been used as a thickener in soups. The roots often are dried and steeped for tea, and sassafras formerly was used as a flavoring in root beer. The pleasant-tasting oil of sassafras comes from the roots and the root bark. The main constituent of the oil is safrole. Sassafras oil and safrole have been banned for use as a drug and as flavors and food additives by the FDA because of their carcinogenic potential. However, their use and sale persist throughout the US.

What is the recommended dosage?

Sassafras root bark has been used as an aromatic and carminative at doses of 10 g; however, the carcinogenicity of its constituent safrole has limited its use.


No longer considered safe.


Documented emmenagogue, abortifacient effects. Avoid use.


None well documented.

Side Effects

Besides being a cancer-causing agent, sassafras can induce vomiting, stupor, and hallucinations. It also can cause abortion, diaphoresis, and dermatitis.


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

1. Sassafras. Review of Natural Products. factsandcomparisons4.0 . 2005. Available from Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. Accessed April 23, 2007.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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What Is Sassafras?

Most everyone has heard of the hallucinogenic club drug MDMA, which is also known as ecstasy or Molly. However, there is a similar version of hallucinogen – called sassafras, sass, Sally, or MDA – that, while less well-known, has been around longer.

Described as a sweet-smelling, milder, slower version of ecstasy, sassafras has become popular for use again because it is considered relatively gentle. However, a smooth high does not mean that a drug is any safer for the person who uses it. In fact, MDA has been implicated in recent overdose deaths and can be dangerous. In addition, the drug can lead to dependence and addiction.

The drug known as sassafras is essentially methylenedioxyamphetamine – or MDA, a stimulant and hallucinogenic substance that has been used to create what is described as a smooth or gentle high. The origin of this substance is sassafras oil, which can be extracted from the sassafras plant and contains the active ingredient safrole, which can be used to make either MDA or MDMA.

The US Department of Agriculture defines sassafras as a flowering tree native to the eastern US. Throughout the history of this continent, it was used by Native American tribes in the area for a variety of medicinal uses, as a:

  • Fever treatment
  • Cough medicine
  • Dewormer
  • Treatment for diarrhea and other digestive upset

The leaves, bark, and roots have also been used for flavoring foods, such as in gumbo filé, a powder made from the roots or leaves that is used in making gumbo. Up until 1960, it was also used to make a beverage similar to root beer; however, as explained by, use of the sassafras plant in food and beverages is now illegal in the US due to its carcinogenic effects. Nevertheless, people are known to use sassafras directly through making tea or using the ground root, leaves, or bark as a flavoring for food. In addition, components of the plant can be used to create powder or pills that can be applied in illicit, recreational drug use.

Safrole and Sassafras Oil

Sassafras oil is produced as a component of fragrances and even as a component of insecticides; however, the oil is also the part of the sassafras plant that contains its psychoactive substance, safrole, which can be extracted through distilling the oil. This, in turn, can be used in illicit production of MDA or MDMA, as described by an article from Chemistry Today. Safrole can be extracted from other, similar types of trees, two of which are native to Cambodia.

Because of its use in creating MDMA, which is a Schedule I controlled substance in the US, there are strict restrictions on use of the oil, as well as US Drug Enforcement Agencyregulation of the substance.

Effects of Sassafras

MDA, like MDMA, affects the brain’s serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine systems, causing the brain to release these chemicals while at the same time decreasing reuptake of these neurochemicals. The result of this action is to cause a euphoric, stimulating, and hallucinogenic response in the brain. To describe it differently, sassafras has both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects and increases feelings of pleasure and wellbeing that create the “high” experienced by those who use it.

As explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse(NIDA), the serotonin system in the brain affects mood, sleep, and memory functions for the individual. The hallucinogenic properties of sassafras occur through these functions. In addition, by stimulating dopamine response, sassafras can create a sense of euphoria or extreme pleasure. Finally, the norepinephrine stimulation makes a person feel energetic, powerful, and focused, creating a strong sense of confidence, motivation, and wellbeing.

Additional short-term effects of sassafras include:

  • Increased heart rate and respiration
  • Sleep disruption
  • Digestive issues
  • Reduced appetite
  • Loss of inhibition

Risks of Use

Also as a result of the drug’s action in the brain, the individual who uses sassafras, particularly sassafras oil or safrole, may experience the following side effects, according to WebMD:

  • Hallucinations
  • High blood pressure
  • Hot flashes and sweating
  • Vomiting and digestive discomfort
  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Cancer
  • Liver damage

In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse demonstrates that abuse of sassafras can result in destruction of serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain. This can result in a condition called anhedonia, where an individual loses the ability to feel pleasure. Even after stopping use of sassafras, it can be difficult to return to normal neurotransmitter function because of this destruction to neurotransmitter binding sites; the NIDA article demonstrates that it can take up to a year to regain neurochemical function in these areas.

Treating Sassafras Abuse

As with other hallucinogens and stimulants like MDMA, abuse of or addiction to MDA can be treated. Through experienced addiction treatment professionals and programs, those who are struggling with dependence on sassafras, MDA, or MDMA can learn to manage the symptoms of abuse or addiction and become able to function without the drug.

As described by NIDA, there are many risks to taking MDA or MDMA that can result in physical or mental damage for the individual. Getting treatment to manage MDA or sassafras abuse can enable an individual to learn how to avoid cravings for the drug and stay abstinent. In turn, this promotes a more productive future in recovery.

10 Surprising Benefits of Sassafras

Sassafras has many important health benefits, including its ability to cleanse the body, eliminate colds, boost kidney health, relieve pain, boost the immune system, soothe inflammation, reduce menstruation pain, increase energy, and protect dental health.

Sassafras trees, scientifically placed in their own genus of Sassafras, come in three different extant species, which are native to Eastern North America and parts of Asia. These trees are deciduous and can grow more than 100 feet in height, and possess unusual yellow or orange bark, making them easy to identify.

In the past, Native American cultures and others around the world where the trees had been exported, used nearly every part of these trees, including the bark, stems, leaves, branches, roots, fruit, and flowers, for a range of medicinal, culinary, and cultural needs. This tree is packed with impressive nutrients, which is partly why it remained such an important resource.

Modern research has corroborated many of those traditional beliefs and supported the use of this plant in these ways, which is why the tree continues to be popular. Sassafras has a uniquely pleasant taste, which is why it is most commonly used to flavor other medicines, but that is not to take away from its individual potency. This tree and its composite parts have been used in foods ranging from root beer and salads to sassafras root tea and flavoring agents in Creole cuisine. Medicinally, it can be consumed directly, or topically applied. The concentrated essential oil of sassafras is very powerful, and should only be used with extreme caution, in small amounts, and with the direct oversight of a medical professional.

Health Benefits of Sassafras

Let’s take a closer look at the many impressive health benefits of sassafras.

Skin Care

Traditionally, sassafras has been used for many topical issues and skin health is no exception. If you suffer from boils, sores, rashes, or excessive marks on the skin, applying a poultice of sassafras leaves to the affected areas can quickly reduce the inflammation or discoloration of the skin. The presence of tannic acid and a unique compound called Sassafrid is believed to provide these benefits and protective measures to the skin.

Alleviates Inflammation

One of the most popular uses of sassafras is for rheumatism and gout, and this has been a trusted remedy for thousands of years in various parts of the world. Inflammation affects the body in many ways, which means that this impressive plant can also help improve gastrointestinal processes and the symptoms of arthritis, as well as headaches in some cases. Using this plant as a fever reducer is one of the oldest applications of this versatile plant!

Boosts Immunity

Modern research has determined that sassafras not only has analgesic properties, but also antiseptic ones, and these natural anti-microbial properties are ideal for boosting the immune system. By protecting the body against foreign agents and pathogens, both internally and externally, this remedy can be a sweet-smelling shield for your overall health. It can also help keep the stomach and respiratory system free from infections, which is why this plant was traditionally recommended to fend off colds at their onset.

Dental Care

For centuries, sassafras twigs were the early forms of toothbrushes, because of the pleasant flavor (reminiscent of root beer) and the natural antiseptic properties. Using it in this way as a dental disinfectant is still a viable means of getting this benefit, and if you really want to try the traditional approach, grab a twig and give your teeth a scrub. Your gums might just thank you!

Anticancer Potential

Although safrole, an ingredient present in sassafras, has been the attention of controversy for some reasons, it has also been of interest for its anticancer potential. A 2015 study which focused on the viability of safrole as a carcinogen in case of gastric cancer, found it to induce apoptosis. Another research in the International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Pathology studied its anti-hepatoma effects. It suggests that safrole may have potential to fight against hepatocellular carcinoma.

There are various studies (including animal studies) that suggest antitumor effects and chemopreventive effects of safrole against cancers such as gastric cancer, blood cancer, tongue cancer, oral cancer, prostate cancer, bone cancer, and lung cancer.

Exploring the appropriate potential and development of sassafras as well as safrole as an anticancer agent needs to be supported by further research and clinical studies.

Relieves Pain

The analgesic properties of sassafras are well known, and the leaves of this tree were often wrapped around wounds for their anti-inflammatory and analgesic nature. Sassafras tea is still used for pain-relieving purposes, and topical applications for aches and pains are popular in some natural healing communities.

Heals Wounds

The pain relief side of wound healing is one thing, but actually speeding up the healing process is quite another. The stimulant nature of this remedy induces freshly oxygenated blood to the sight of the wound, which speeds up the body’s natural healing process and increases the rate of metabolic processes throughout the body.

Increases Energy

The stimulant nature of this plant is also great for an energy boost if you’re feeling a bit sluggish. Chewing on the leaves or drinking a cup of sassafras tea is an ideal way to rev up your internal engines and overcome excess fatigue or weakness.

Soothes Menstrual Pain

For women suffering from the painful symptoms of menstruation, such as bloating, cramping, and heavy bleeding, the analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of sassafras are a boon. For thousands of years, this natural remedy has lessened the discomfort of menstruation for women and remains a popular recommendation from herbalists for women who suffer unusually painful periods.

Detoxifies the Body

The leaves of sassafras are a well-known diuretic, which increases your urination, thus eliminating excess toxins, salts, and fats from the body. If you want to improve the health and functioning of your kidneys, the best way is to flush your system with a diuretic, and sassafras tea is a great way to do that.

Word of Caution: The volatile oil of sassafras, which is known as safrole, is extremely powerful. While very small amounts can be safe, as little as a teaspoon can cause violent reactions of vomiting and nausea, while higher amounts can even be fatal. Always speak with a trained professional when adding a new herbal remedy to your health regimen, particularly one as powerful as sassafras!

I’m not ashamed to say that I like root beer. There’s something about the herbal and woodsy flavors that I enjoy. It’s refreshing, but also a time machine. A sip of root beer brings me back to my childhood and makes me feel like a little kid again. More so than any other drink, it is classic Americana. And if I ever have the option of drinking root beer, I’ll choose it over any another soda. But as much as I love root beer, there’s one thing that really grinds my gears, gets my goat, and burns my bacon: A scientist stole my root beer.

Root beers by Justin Brower

Root beer has, in some way, shape, or form, been around for centuries. People undoubtedly mixed roots, berries, and herbs together in water to create teas and elixirs, either to make polluted water more palatable or as some sort of remedy. Throw in some sugar to make it go down easier and a little local yeast from, well, everywhere, and voila, you’ve got fermentation and beer. These types of drinks were popular in colonial America, and called “small beers” because of their low alcohol content, around 2%.

But the man that gets the glory for “inventing” root beer is Charles Hires, a pharmacist with an entrepreneurial spirit. Legend has it he was on his honeymoon and came across a tea that he particularly liked. Upon his return home he replicated the recipe and sold it as a “cure-all” elixir, which were all the rage at the time. His concoction was originally called root tea, but he renamed it root beer shortly before he displayed it at the 1876 Centennial Exposition*, supposedly to make it more appealing to the working class. Hey, it works for me. His genius came in not just selling root beer, but marketing it, and selling kits so that people could brew their own at home. Then in 1884 he made a liquid concentrate, a.k.a. syrup, so that people could skip the brewing process and “just add water.” This is still how we deliver and sell root beer and other sodas today.

* The 1876 Centennial Exposition is also famous for giving us Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Remington’s typewriter, Heinz ketchup, and Kudzu, the invasive vine and scourge of the South.

So what’s the “root” in root beer? That would be the roots, and bark, of the Sassafras tree, and used in making America’s iconic root beer all the way up to 1960. Native to the Eastern United States, Sassafras albidum is a deciduous tree of medium height (~30 feet) that is often grown for its ornamental appearance and fragrance. In the fall the leaves turn spectacular shades of red and orange. In the woodsy wild, Sassafras trees are easy to identify because the leaves are shaped like mittens. Seriously. You’ve got a left and right handed mitten, and a double mitten, like for people with two thumbs on each hand. Just look at the photo, it’s easier that way.

Sassafras albidum leaves by Justin Brower

The fragrance of Sassafras comes from essential oils present in the roots and bark of the tree. Notable chemicals include aromatic compounds like α-pinene (pine scented, duh) and camphor (Vicks VapoRub) as well as possible hallucinogens thujone and myristicin – which you’ve read about here, of course. But the chemical getting all the glory, or the blame, is safrole – and if you remember your myristicin, you’d see that they look a lot alike.

Safrole is the primary constituent of Sassafras oil, but when reading about safrole and why it was originally banned from use in root beer, I see a lot of bad math, which I think propagates itself into other write-ups – without references of course. But here’s what I came up with, which is the absolute best case scenario for determining safrole concentration in Sassafras root, but also not an indicator of what you’d find in a steeped tea. I’ll explain.


From 150 grams of ground Sassafras root a total of 0.68 grams (680 milligrams) of safrole was extracted using 3 liters of “petrol”, a low boiling mixture of hydrocarbons that dissolves non-polar (read: greasy) things, like safrole, giving a total percent yield of 0.4% safrole (1). And that’s coming from two sets of extracts: one that yields 0.44 grams of oil that is 90% safrole and one which is 4.87 grams of oil but only 6% safrole. What I often read is along the lines of: Sassafras contains ~3% essential oil of which 90% is safrole. It’s true that there is ~3% essential oil, but only one extract in this case is 90% safrole. If you do the math, you’d calculate that safrole makes up 2.8% of the total extracted oil. So right off the bat, people estimate safrole almost 10-times too high.

Enough math. The point I really want to make is that this is a best case scenario and not representative of a real world scenario. First, the above experiment is using ground Sassafras. And when I say ground I mean like coffee grounds. Second, they are extracting out safrole (and other oils) using a non-polar solvent. They have to, because safrole is insoluble in water. It is literally like oil in water. I don’t know how you make your Sassafras tea, but most people don’t have the ability to grind wood into a powder and they sure as hell aren’t mixing it with gasoline. So the amount of safrole extracted from small chunks of root in hot water? I don’t know, but I can guarantee you it’s much, much less than 0.4%, and likely more along the lines of 0.04%.

I’m actually getting a bit worked up. Can you tell? So why my fixation on safrole? Because some jackass thought it would be a good idea to feed it to rats and see what happens. And if your agenda is to show that safrole is toxic, feed them huge amounts. Like 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight every day for 2 months (2). To obtain this much safrole naturally, the rat would have to eat it’s body weight in sassafras root every day. What happened? They established an LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of the population) in rats of 1950 mg/kg. They also saw liver damage and tumor formation, at high doses, due to safrole-DNA adducts attributed to a metabolite found in rats, 1′-hydroxysafrole (3).

Sassafras albidum leaf by Justin Brower

Liver damage and cancer is bad. Period. But obviously I’ve got some issues, at least that’s what everyone tells me. I hate the “scale-up game” between rats and humans. It just doesn’t work. Rats and humans aren’t the same, and we don’t metabolize things the same. With that said, to just give you an idea of the magnitude we’re talking about, if I wanted to consume 0.5 grams/kg of safrole, and assuming I can extract out 0.04% safrole from Sassafras root chunks in water, I’d need to boil up 170 pounds of sassafras root…in about 400 gallons of water. If I had to dig up 170 pounds of Sassafras root every day for 2 months I’d die from exhaustion long before the cancer got me. Now obviously you don’t want liver damage. Or cancer. I don’t even want an LD1, let alone an LD50. But hopefully you can see how ridiculous this is. But the best part is that hepatocarcinogenic metabolite, 1′-hydroxysafrole. Remember that one, the one that messes with the DNA? Well, it’s not even found in humans (4). Really? Seriously.

So we’re left with a chemical that’s insoluble in water, in already low concentrations, causes damage in rats at obscenely high amounts via a metabolite not even found in man. What’s the U.S. government to do? Ban it of course. In 1960 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the addition of safrole in foods. Never mind that safrole is present in every day foods like cinnamon and basil. This bone-headed decision forced root beer brewers to abandon Sassafras roots and extracted oils, and instead turn toward other additives to make up for the flavor loss.

I know this is getting long, but there are two conspiracy theories out there regarding why the FDA banned safrole, and you know I love me some conspiracy theories:

  1. Cola companies, particularly Coca-Cola, was concerned that root beer was cutting into their sales and profit margins, and coerced the FDA into banning safrole to put the hurt on the brewers. This I could buy into, because Coca-Cola has butted heads with the FDA before. Around 1910 the FDA wanted Coca-Cola to stop adding caffeine to their products, and even sued them. Coca-Cola said “no”, flipped them the bird, and went about their merry way. So there is some history of big business having power over government.
  2. Safrole is a building block in the synthesis of MDMA, also known world wide as Ecstasy. In two easy steps (or less if you’re clever), you can synthesize a whole range of MDMA and related designer stimulant drugs. This has the negative effect of massive deforestation in Asian countries of safrole containing trees, with a large portion of it being funneled towards illegal MDMA manufacturing in China and the U.S. The problem with this theory though is that although MDMA has been known since the early 1900’s, and tested in humans in the 50’s, it wasn’t used as a recreational drug until the late Alexander Shulgin’s lab synthesized and tried it out in the early 80’s. Then in 1985 the DEA scheduled MDMA as a schedule-I drug. So the timing is a bit off for the FDA to become involved in the MDMA scene.

Throw in the fact that I can’t find any cases of people becoming ill, let alone developing cancer from drinking root beer or tea made from Sassafras root, despite being used for centuries, makes me think there were either some shenanigans going on at the FDA or some really bad science. I vote for bad science . . . with a dash of conspiracy.

So what does “real” root beer taste like? I have no idea…some scientist stole it from me.

Abita root beer by Justin Brower

Unlike the Urban Dictionary listing states, sassafras does not refer to dripping sarcasm. It’s actually a type of tree that grows in North America and East Asia, providing a pleasant aroma — and a great deal of folk medicine remedies.

Over 38 years ago, however, sassafras in its pure form was outlawed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from foods, beverages and other products due to the health risks associated with one of the three main compounds found in it, called safrole. (1)

Today, sassafras trees grow freely and are still used in many homes to make sassafras tea or homemade sassafras root beer. More concerning is the practice many now have of creating essential oil from the bark of this tree for the purposes of creating dangerous sassafras drugs, MDA (street name “sassafras”) and MDMA (commonly known as “ecstasy”).

Even though these facts might be discouraging, you may be surprised to know that regular research is conducted on the benefits of sassafras to the human body. There are reports of some incredible prospects for the use of this folk remedy. (2)

Let’s look at the research behind the good, the bad and everything in between to unearth what sassafras can truly do.

What’s in Sassafras?

The name sassafras is actually a genus of tree encompassing three living and one extinct species of tree. Generally, when you hear people refer to it, they are most likely referring to sassafras albidum, grown widely in North America.

Functioning more like an herb, sassafras does not contain notable calories or vitamins. The bark contains three major compounds: methyleugenol, safrole and camphor. (3)

Fascinatingly, all three of these compounds are considered carcinogens in some respects. On the other hand, all three of them can positively impact the human body in some ways.

The only one of these three that is not permitted for use within the U.S. (and several other countries) is safrole. Safrole does occur naturally in a variety of food products, such as cinnamon and nutmeg, but the amounts found are so negligible that these products are still considered safe for FDA standards. (4)

Camphor was taken off the market during the 1980s due to these same safety concerns but reintroduced in the early 1990s as an approved ingredient.

Although it’s not commercially produced in the U.S., sassafras tea and sassafras root beer are still homegrown favorites in many areas where the trees are found.

The Benefits of Sassafras

1. May Be an Effective Treatment for Certain Cancers

The compounds in sassafras, though considered carcinogens in some ways, have been the subject of anticancer research for some time.

Most notable of these is safrole. Safrole has been found to have potentially destructive effects against the following types of cancer:

Meanwhile, the camphor may potentially protect against the spread of colon cancer. (15)

The methods by which cancer cells are killed are complex, but it seems that one reason compounds like safrole cause cell death in some cancers might be the way they target the “endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition,” shortened as EndoMT. (16)

EndoMT is a complicated biological process that has only recently been studied for the way it may impact the spread of fibrotic disorders like cancer. (17) Safrole induces the EndoMT process and might be a new way to help treat cancer.

Although this research does not definitively prove that these compounds “cure” any cancer, the results are significant in the fight to develop natural cancer treatments.

2. Treats Parasitic Disease

Sassafras could potentially be a treatment for leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease in tropical and subtropical climates as well as southern Europe. When an extract from sassafras albidum bark is used on leishmaniasis parasites, it seems to be able to kill the parasites without negatively affecting the nearby cells. (18)

3. Might Help Manage Diabetes

On a diabetic diet plan, I have seen people successfully reverse this chronic condition just by adjusting what they eat and drink.

At least one study on rats, conducted at Guru Jambheshwar University of Science and Technology in India, suggests safrole from sassafras bark might be as effective as current drug therapies for managing diabetes, as it improves the blood sugar levels and insulin resistance characterized by diabetes. (19)

4. May Interact Positively with Some Pharmaceuticals

Although I generally recommend avoiding conventional medicine for many conditions that can be controlled through dietary means, there are situations in which you may choose to use them for a particular reason.

If this happens, there are some “convoy” substances suggested in traditional Persian medicine that can cause your body to more efficiently metabolize drugs or foods. It seems that sassafras albidum can help increase the absorption of certain medications or food items. (20)

Inversely, one of the chemicals in sassafras, methyleugenol, may interact positively in the body to decrease the effectiveness of certain poisons, according to research published in Archives of Toxicology. (21)

5. Natural AChE Inhibitor

Two newly discovered compounds in sassafras function as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChE inhibitors), as noted in research from Yulin Normal University in China. (22) While some of these chemicals can cause serious damage, the class sassafras falls into is known as “reversible,” which means it can have some therapeutic benefits.

One of the most common medical uses of AChE inhibitors includes Alzheimer’s treatments. They are also used in some cases to treat glaucoma, poisoning and schizophrenia. (23)

6. Promising Topic in the Treatment of Epilepsy

Since anti-seizure medications often have problematic side effects, scientists are working to develop different treatment methods, including some using natural compounds that might have seizure-stopping potential.

Safrole seems to inhibit lactate dehydrogenase, which is one of the mechanisms doctors try to prevent seizures in epilepsy. (24)

7. Could Improve Circulation

Camphor, also found in sassafras, seems to have the ability to improve blood circulation and allow more cold and warm feeling sensations to return. Researchers at the School of Nursing at Asahikawa Medical University applied petroleum jelly containing 5 percent, 10 percent and 20 percent camphor or 2 percent menthol separately to nine adult participants. The researchers concluded, “The present results indicate that camphor induces both cold and warm sensations and improves blood circulation.” (25)

Potential Dangers of Sassafras

1. May Cause Liver Cancer

Over and above any other potential problem with sassafras, research has focused on the potential carcinogenic capacity of the compounds in it.

It’s a controversial topic. When studying rat and mice models, researchers have found that both safrole and methyleugenol cause malignant liver tumors. (26, 27) Pure safrole injection seems to be the most potent cancer-causing method.

That’s the main reason why the FDA outlawed safrole from food, beverage and cosmetic products in 1979. However, the story doesn’t truly end there, and many believe the reports on safrole toxicity to be quite exaggerated. The reasoning they offer comes from various sources.

For one, a study all the way back in 1977 showed that the metabolites found in rats after developing these cancerous liver tumors aren’t found in humans given the approximate dose. (This, of course, occurred before safrole usage was forbidden.) (28)

Second, there’s a difference in injecting a pure extract of a chemical compound into a body and consuming much smaller amounts of that compound through the diet. (29)

Proponents of sassafras usage have stated that this ban is not consistent with other legal substances. In one report, the claim was made that one can of old-fashioned root beer, made with pure sassafras, would be considered 1/14th as carcinogenic as a can of regular beer due to alcohol content. (30)

Rat and mouse models aren’t always the best predictors of disease, since not everything that causes diseases like cancer in them will have the same impact on humans. It’s just a starting point scientists use for research.

Since the research is so inconsistent (remember above where I referenced the studies where sassafras compounds actually may help prevent certain cancers?), others have compared the differences in dosage that are considered “carcinogenic” in animals.

For example, for mice, it takes only about 51 mg/kg/day to induce cancer. This means that a mouse weighing somewhere around 25 grams would need to be consume or be injected with about 1.3 milligrams of safrole to reach a point where cancer occurs 50 percent of the time. However, the amount to induce cancer in rats is almost nine times higher.

Even using the most conservative estimates (from the mouse model), assuming the numbers compared exactly the same from mice to humans, an average-sized male would have to consume over 4500 milligrams of safrole every day to reach the “carcinogenic” threshold. (31) For comparison, a cup of homemade sassafras tea contains around 200 milligrams of safrole.

Some reports are even more extreme in what they find causes cancer, claiming it takes up to 1,000 mg/kg/day in rats to induce cancer. (32) The amount of safrole that equates to in a human body would be astronomical and virtually impossible to take in on a regular basis.

Still, the FDA found it prudent to ban safrole from products in relatively small amounts.

There are those who claim this was because of the “two birds with one stone approach” — as the government focuses efforts in fighting the war on drugs, eliminating commercial sources of safrole makes it that much harder for people to illegally produce MDMA (ecstasy) or its similar counterpart, MDA (sassafras drug). By getting rid of a potential carcinogen, the FDA also removed a possible illegal drug source.

2. Could Negatively Influence Heart Conditions

There’s a chance sassafras could be dangerous for those suffering from heart disease. At least one report out of China shows that sassafras oil containing safrole could increase “plaque vulnerability,” meaning the potential of plaque stores in the arteries or veins to rupture. (33)

If this were to happen, the presence of safrole could cause an interruption in plaque within the body and possibly contribute to cardiac events like heart attack or stroke.

3. Unsafe for Pregnant Mothers

Multiple sources, including WebMD, claim sassafras has caused spontaneous abortion in some pregnant mothers. Therefore, it is never recommended to consume sassafras while pregnant. (34)

4. May Negatively Interact with Sedatives

While some medications can benefit from sassafras supplementation, taking it is doubly unsafe when consumed with sedatives.

5. Other potential risks

Sassafras has also been reported to cause other side effects, including: (35)

  • Vomiting
  • Stupor
  • Hallucinations
  • Diaphoresis (excessive sweating, usually in connection with drugs)
  • Dermatitis (when used topically)

It’s interesting to note that these are similar side effects to those associated with MDA and MDMA, the two illegal drugs made from sassafras essential oil containing safrole.

History and Interesting Facts

Sassafras has been used for centuries to treat multiple conditions ranging from blood purifications to stomach complaints, particularly by various Native American tribes. Some folk medicine techniques involved creating sassafras tea to treat liver, kidney and chest problems.

Others suggest using the essential oil from the bark as an antiseptic, lice treatment and insect bite remedy. (36)

In the United States, sassafras trees have been grown since 1630 for the medicinal benefits of its leaves, bark and wood. The soft but durable nature of the bark makes it a good candidate for boat construction, according to the USDA. (37)

As I pointed out, the sassafras tree has been used to create both the sassafras drug and ecstasy for illegal drug use. (38) The DEA has made it illegal for anyone to possess or distribute safrole if there is any indication it may be used illegally.

The sassafras drug (as well as ecstasy or “Molly”) has been implicated in various overdose deaths and is considered a very addictive substance. (39)

Final Thoughts on Sassafras

  • The sassafras tree has been grown for centuries in North America and parts of Asia, revered for its claims for health.
  • In 1979, the FDA outlawed safrole, one of the three major compounds in sassafras, because of the potential carcinogenic properties it could have.
  • Now, it can still be used to flavor things such as sassafras root beer as long as the safrole has first been extracted.
  • Many people still create homemade sassafras tea or root beer from nearby trees but aren’t legally allowed to sell or distribute it in any way.
  • Pure sassafras has some significantly powerful health benefits associated with it in research, including cancer treatment, diabetes management, parasite-fighting capability and more.
  • Sassafras is also linked with some serious health risks, such as liver cancer and damage, cardiovascular risks, risks in pregnancy, and others.
  • The safrole found in sassafras is used to create sassafras essential oil that criminals use to create two dangerous hallucinogenic drugs, MDA (sassafras drug) and MDMA (ecstasy).

Read Next: The Opioid Epidemic: the No. 1 Cause of Death for Americans Under Age 50

The sassafras tree, a native of North America, has a long history of use both as flavoring and medicine. The oil extracted from its root was one of the original constituents of herbal root beer. As medicine, it was used to treat influenza and other fever-producing infections, as well as arthritis, urinary tract infections, and digestive disorders. It was also commonly used as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifier.”

However, in the 1960s, it was discovered that sassafras oil contains high levels of a liver toxin named safrole.1-5 When given to animals, safrole causes liver cancer, and even a single cup of sassafras tea contains dangerous levels of the substance.

Because of this, sassafras has been banned for human consumption. Only safrole-free products can be sold; however, there may be other carcinogens in sassafras besides safrole.6

Sassafras oil is also immediately toxic; a few drops can kill an infant, and a teaspoon can cause death in an adult.7

For all these reasons, we strongly recommend against the use of sassafras for any purpose.

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Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) grows throughout the eastern United States and as far west as Texas. Native Americans and early European explorers of North America used the extracts of root and root bark to treat skin diseases, rheumatism, diarrhea and fevers. Over the decades, it has been promoted for treatment of a wide array of conditions, including urinary tract disorders, inflammation, syphilis, bronchitis, high blood pressure, sprains, gout, arthritis, even cancer. However, there is little evidence that sassafras helps treat or cure any of these conditions or affords any health benefits.

Controversy about sassafras has to do the high content of safrole, a compound that accounts for 80 percent of the volatile oil in the root bark and much of its agreeable fragrance and flavor. Safrole causes liver cancer in lab rats when it is injected into them in high doses or with long-term exposure. Based on that finding, the FDA banned food additives containing safrole in 1960 The biggest effect of the ban has been the elimination of whole sassafras root from root beer. Today, sassafras can be used as an ingredient in root beer only if the safrole has been removed through a laboratory extraction process.

We have no evidence that safrole or sassafras cause cancer in humans, although people who chew betel nut, which contains safrole, have an increased incidence of oral, esophageal and liver cancer. Chemically pure safrole is a “watched” substance, because it is the main starting material used to synthesize the illegal drug MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly).

Small amounts of safrole also occur naturally in black pepper, star anise, nutmeg, witch hazel, and basil, all of which are safe in the amounts usually consumed. Dried sassafras leaves are ground into file, a fine powder used in Creole cooking to thicken gumbo when okra is not in season.

A personal note: Years ago, when I lived in northern Virginia, I was intrigued when locals told me about sassafras. Because this shrub or small tree is the first plant to come to life in the spring, they would drink tea made from its root as a tonic to “purify the blood of winter stagnation.” In March when the ground was soft enough to dig but before the bush had developed any leaves, I went after a bit of sassafras root. (It is easy to identify the plant even without leaves, because the stems stay green all winter.) As my shovel hit the root, the air filled with a zingy fragrance that smelled to me like essence of spring. When I boiled a piece of the white root, it produced a deep red tea that tasted so good I began drinking a cup every day. After a few weeks, just as leaves began to appear on the bush, the tea stopped tasting good, and I lost my desire for it. It was as if the plant told me the right time to drink it had passed.

Bottom line: Consuming moderate amounts of safrole in plant products (such as sassafras tea) is not comparable to injecting large amounts of the pure chemical into the abdomens of rats. A search of the medical literature for sassafras tea shows only one report of an adverse effect: excessive sweating in a man who had been drinking it.

Andrew Weil, M.D.


Additional information:
The laurel family contains many aromatic tree and shrub genera from the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world. Although fossil records show sassafras once was widely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, only two species currently exist: our native American species and an east Asian species.

The name sassafras was derived from the Spanish word salsafras, referring to the tree’s alleged medicinal value. The specific epithet, albidum, refers to the light or whitish color of the undersides of leaves.

Oil extracts of sassafras roots and bark were used extensively by Native Americans, and the first European explorers felt sure sassafras was the miracle cure-all of the New World.

The Creole spice filé includes dried sassafras leaves ground to a fine powder. It gives gumbo its unique consistency.

Sassafras roots exude chemicals that may kill other plants within its root zone (allelopathic).

Starting as early as 1584 English explorers were sent to the New World to locate and procure sassafras. Although its medicinal value proved disappointing, oils extracted from the spicy, pleasant-tasting root bark and twigs have been used to flavor tea, root beer and candy and for scenting perfume and soap. However, the oil contains safrole, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in rats and mice. The Food and Drug Administration has prohibited the use of oil of safrole and sassafras bark in food, but permits use of edible spices, which contain very small amounts of safrole.

Large nursery stock and trees collected from the wild do not transplant well. Container-grown nursery stock is preferred for transplanting. An alternative is to collect and grow sassafras from seed or root cuttings and transplant while still relatively small.

Sassafras is common in Kentucky and is one of the first trees to grow in abandoned fields (with the help of visiting birds that love to eat the tree’s fruit). Owensboro, Ky., is home to the national champion, a 78-foot-tall sassafras with a 69-foot spread.

Recently, we’ve had several adults report using Sassafras (or “Sass”) to get high at concerts and in social situations. In researching sassafras, this is what we learned.

Like Sassafras… the plant?

Sort of. Safrole (4-allyl-1,2-methylenedioxy-benzene) is a phenylpropene oil derived from sassafras plants (typically root bark and fruits). Safrole can be isolated from camphor oil, and can also be synthesized from catechol. Naturally-occurring sassafras oil contains approximately 80% safrole. However, safrole is prohibited from inclusion in food products since the 1960s due to concerns about its carcinogenicity (linked to liver cancer). Safrole is used in the production of insecticides and fragrance.

Why would anyone use safrole?

Safrole is also a precursor for MDA (methylenedioxyamphetamine) and MDMA (Ecstasy). In one 2015 drug lab raid, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police seized 1500 kg of sassafras oil. News media reported that those 1500 kg could ultimately be converted into 4.2 million tablets of MDMA . Sassafras has been around for years; user reports go back to at least 2010. The terms Sass or Sassafras are sometimes used to refer to MDA itself, and users may refer to Sassafras as “natural Ecstasy.”

Can safrole make you sick?

Clear reports of safrole-induced illness are lacking. However, MDA and MDMA toxicity are well-described, and can include agitation, high temperature (hyperthermia), seizures, abnormal cardiac rhythms (dysrhythmias), and death . Since drug names can be used inaccurately, Sassafras cannot be linked to an actual drug without rigorous drug testing. In one death reported in the media, Sassafras was reported by witnesses as the culprit agent.

Is safrole legal?

Safrole is a List I Chemical in the United States. A chemical is designated as List I by the DEA if in addition to legitimate uses, it is used in manufacturing a controlled substance or is important to the manufacture of a controlled substance.

Right now, “It is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to possess or distribute safrole, knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe, the safrole will be used to manufacture MDMA.”

Will we be seeing more of this?

We don’t know yet. But we’ll be looking for it. Any more information on Sassafras? Feel free to Tweet at us @umasstox.

Authors: Dr. Albert Conicella and Dr. Kavita Babu

Links for further reading:

A US Department of Justice advisory on safrole and sassafras oil.

A description of the role sassafras may have played in singer Scott Weiland’s death.

A news story on a death attributed to sassafras in Chicago.

A DEA description of what makes a List I Chemical.

Sassafras Tea

When drinking Sassafras tea, the surprise comes on the first sip. Who would imagine that a cleansing tea would taste like a soft drink?

Well, this tea does! This medicinal infusion tastes like the long known root beer because the root used to prepare this tea is also used to flavour root beer.

Let’s take a deeper look into the story behind this herbal tea and what it can offer you and your family.

Sassafras (sassafras albidum in Latin) is a deciduous tree, from the Lauraceae family and native to eastern North America and eastern Asia. You may also know it as ague tree, root beer tree, saloop, white sassafras, cinnamon wood, sarifrax or smelling-stick.

Sassafras trees can be very impressive, as they grow from 9.1 to 18 meters (30-59 feet) tall and spreading 7.6 to 12 meters (25-39 feet), with many slender branches and a smooth and spongy orange-brown bark.

A curious peculiarity about these trees is that they possess three distinct leaf patterns, with smooth margins that grow 7-20 cm long by 5-10 cm broad.
Tiny greenish yellow flowers, with five petals bloom in the spring and a small egg-shaped fruit, 1cm long, produced on long red-stalked cups, reaches maturity in late summer.

Due to its unusual leaves and also the aromatic scent produced when the bark, roots, branches, leaves, flowers or fruits are crushed, sassafras tea is often used as an ornamental tree. After all, these trees are relatively easy to grow, so they will add a bit of colour to your garden.

Sassafras Tea – A Cup of History

Sassafras tree bark has been used in North America for centuries. According to an old Appalachian folk legend, those who carried sassafras bark in their pockets or drank sassafras root tea were protected against the evil eye, malevolence and envy.

It was also used by the Cherokee people as a blood thinner to purify blood, to treat skin diseases, rheumatism, among other ailments.

In 1512, American Indians introduced the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon to the bark and years later the same happened to pioneers, who settled on the continent.
Whether or not this is true, looking back, we can trace the word “sassafras” as to probably deriving from the 16th century Spanish term “saxifrage”.

Interestingly, Sassafras was one of the first forest products to be exported from what are now the Mid-Atlantic states, in 1603, when England sent two vessels to the New World to bring back, among other things, cargoes of sassafras bark.

Once introduced to the Europeans, they used Sassafras as a medicinal tonic in the 17th and 18th century to treat everything from rheumatism to gout. The marvels of this blood thinner helped to heal many ailments.

Later in the 19th century, sassafras extract was used to flavour one of the first soft drinks in the US – root beer.

However, in the 20th century, the use of safrole, the main constituent found in sassafras, became illegal despite its great reputation in the medical literature.
This was due to a study performed on laboratory rats in the 1960’s which confirmed that safrole is carcinogenic, after the creatures developed liver cancer, once exposed to it.

Consequently, safrole and sassafras not certified as safrole-free have been banned in the US as food additives or flavouring agents by the FDA and even the interstate shipment of sassafras trees for tea preparations were prohibited since 1976.

Despite the ban on safrole, some people still enjoy sassafras herbal tea today, using it as an herbal remedy, a cooking additive to thicken soup and to season dishes, or even to create perfumes.

So let’s see what benefits this tea has been reputed to offer.

Benefits of Sassafras Tea

Sassafras root tea contains safrole, tannins, mucilage, asarone and alpha-pinene. A combination that will provide you several health benefits when taken in small amounts.

Cleansing Tea

  • If you wish to maintain your liver healthy and normalize hormonal function, sassafras bark is your answer. It will offer you a liver cleanse, by stimulating the liver, balancing your hormones which in turn may prevent cramps during menstruation.
  • Proper liver function will also help with hangovers. So remember this tea when you feel like you have had a little too much to drink the night before.
  • This tea will also clear congestion in the gallbladder and remove toxins from your body, so if you suffer from gout, rheumatism or arthritis, drink sassafras tea to ease your pain.
  • Sassafras bark is also a great herb for enhancing flavour and healing properties of drinks for the male body, which can be used to deal with hormonal imbalances in men, the recovery of potency and vitality issues, liver congestion and the disruptions in the genitourinary system.
  • A cup of sassafras root tea can also relieve adrenal stress, which exacerbates the symptoms in menopause.

Blood Thinner

  • When drinking sassafras herbal tea in small quantities, it can be used as an anticoagulant and a blood purifier.
  • If you suffer from high blood pressure, enjoy its diuretic properties as it eliminates toxins from the body, strengthening your immune system.

Treating Respiratory Illnesses and Infections

  • Sassafras herbal tea comes in great hand to relieve those horrible symptoms of cold and flu, by treating fever, soothing cough and clearing stuffed nasal passages due to the spicy, numbing flavour of the sassafras oil in the plant’s root.
  • You may also use it to alleviate bronchitis.

Other Uses

  • Sassafras tea is able to boost your immune system and fight digestion problems.
    Drinking it in small amounts will ease gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea or constipation, by keeping your stomach hydrated and safe from harmful agents.
  • Keep an eye on this cleansing tea if you tend to suffer from urinary infections or kidney problems. This medicinal tea is diuretic, able to calm down the urinary tract irritation and treat kidney ailments.
  • Due to its antiseptic, antibacterial and astringent properties, sassafras tea can be used externally to treat skin irritation, eczemas and insect bites, by applying a soft rag on the area. It helps to heal wounds as well.
  • It’s also a good alternative to treat sprains or muscle problems, as it relieves inflammation and eases pain.
  • When taken in small amounts, sassafras tea comes as an alternative cancer treatment.
    Evidences have shown that safrole can stimulate the conversion of other carcinogens to non-carcinogenic metabolites and a study proved it can induce apoptosis in human lung cancer cells.

Savor these Sassafras delights!

or purchase your tea at

Sassafras Tea Side Effects

As was mentioned before, the FDA has restricted the use of the herb based on the 1960’s study on rats. Therefore, only sassafras root extracts which do not contain safrole are still used commercially in teas and root bears.
However, its safety is also questionable, so it’s up to you whether you drink it or not as there aren’t any proper human testing results so far.

It has been estimated that one cup of strong sassafras tea could contain as much as 200mg of safrole, which is more than 4 times the minimal amount believed hazardous to humans.

Consuming sassafras tea daily and in large doses may cause sweating, nervousness, liver damage, cancer, lethargy, in-coordination, body temperature rise, breathing difficulty, skin inflammation, chest pain, itching, loss of mental balance, confusion, vomiting and allergic reactions.

Most of these side effects are caused by the high amount its powerful active ingredients – safrole, tannin, asarone and mucilage, which is why you shouldn’t make this a daily habit. Moderation is essential.

Whatever your take may be on the ban in place on safrole, be sure to avoid this herb in the following situations:

  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding you should avoid all forms of this herb. It can promote uterine spasms, heavy bleeding and consequently lead to abortion.
  • Do you suffer from one of the following? Kidney problems, heart diseases or high blood pressure? Then avoid consuming large quantities of sassafras tea as it may interact with heart medication and because it is a blood thinner, it may be fatal even to adults.
  • Another important advice about sassafras is to stay away from the small white berries of the sassafras tree, as they may be toxic.

Drinking Sassafras Tea

Taken in moderation, sassafras tea is still appreciated worldwide. Therefore, if you choose to drink this tea, you must brew it the right way to fully enjoy its flavour and health benefits.

Let’s go to the kitchen and find out how to make sassafras tea.

  • To prepare your tea, use the bark and the root bark, which is the most potent part of the plant and where the benefits reside.
  • Use one teaspoon of organic sassafras root and bark and place it in a tea pot. Next, pour a cup of boiling water and let it steep for 20 minutes.
  • If you prefer to brew sassafras tea leaves the process is the same – one teaspoon of dried leaves to one cup of water and allow it to steep for 20 minutes. Don’t forget to strain out the leaves before serving.
  • To enhance the flavour of sassafras tea you may sweeten it with sugar or honey or even add a bit a lemon.
  • Drink just one cup a day and do not consume it for too long.

Easy, isn’t it?

If you are in the mood for something different, you can brew the leaves and roots in maple syrup, or concentrate it into jelly.

Now take a moment to inhale that wonderful smell. Yes, it smells great, tastes like root beer and it has a beautiful orange dark amber colour.

Sassafras tea is a surprising and interesting world waiting to be discovered. Keep in mind the benefits of sassafras and its side effects and make your choice.

Buy Your Sassafras Tea Today!

Click on the image or on the link below to purchase from Starwest Botanicals your Sassafras root bark.
Make your own sweet root beer tasting tea with this cut and sifted sassafras root bark.
If you are searching for an alternative, you could always experiment making your tea with root powder or use it to flavour your dishes.

Buy here: sassafras root bark or powder

Try Sassafras Root Tea today!

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”While there’s tea there’s hope.” – Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934), British actor

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