Sassafras Tea ---Top 7 Health Dangers

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Last updated August 5, 2016 (originally published January 28, 2015)

By Joseph Strongoli, Contributing Columnist

Sassafras is a genus of three species of deciduous trees
native to eastern North America and eastern Asia. An
essential oil called sassafras oil is distilled from the root,
bark, and fruit. A bioactive compound called "safrole"
makes up 75-80% of sassafras oil. The roots, bark, and oil
of Sassafras trees have a long history of uses in culinary,
medicinal and cosmetic capacities. Native Americans used
them to ward off evil spirits, and among early settlers and
pilgrims the herb
was used as a veritable panacea.

The list of historical medical uses
for sassafras is long:
scurvy, skin lesions and sores, kidney problems,
toothaches, rheumatism, inflammation, menstrual
disorders, STDs such as gonorrhea and syphilis, bronchitis,
hypertension, and dysentery were all treated using

Other uses were as a diaphoretic, or perspiration-inducing
agent; as a carminative, or to prevent bloating gas; a blood
purifier and a tonic; and a rubefacient, to promote blood

Sassafras had also found its way into diverse and wide-
ranging cuisines, from Southern Native Americans, who
first used it as a spicy herb derived from its dried and
ground leaves, to Creole cuisine in Louisiana, to use in
beverages such as tea (sassafras tea)  beers, root beer,
and candy flavoring.

Sassafras has also been historically used in cosmetics, as a
fragrance in perfumes, soaps, toothpastes, as a rubefacient
in make-up (blush).  Its rich fragrance has also been used
in aromatherapy. Also, because of its unique scent, the
Sassafras tree is often grown as an ornamental tree in
gardens outside of its native region, such as in Europe. Its
scent has also been used as a repellent for mosquitoes and
other insects.

In addition to its many medicinal, culinary, and cosmetic
applications, the Sassafras tree was sought after in Europe
as a wood prized for its beauty and durability in fine
cabinet and furniture-making.  In the 17th century
sassafras was a major export commodity to England, and
for a time was the second largest export from America,
after tobacco.

So versatile and varied are its applications, sassafras
seemed to be a miracle plant, almost too good to be true.

As it turns out, it
was too good to be true.

Modern science has exposed a fatal flaw in the plant’s
miracle arsenal of utilities: it is poisonous!

Indeed, the FDA banned the use of sassafras in all
medicinal, culinary, and cosmetic capacities in 1960. Even
the production and distribution of Sassafras oil is heavily
regulated, as safrole has been discovered to be a precursor
to illegal MDMA production.

[Editor's note:

MDMA is 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known
as the illegal psychoactive drug "ecstasy".]

These are the top 7 health dangers of Sassafras:


A genotoxin is a chemical agent that damages the genetic
information in a cell. This has two possible outcomes: the
first is apoptosis, or cell death.

If the cell doesn’t die upon exposure to the genotoxin, then
the second outcome results: mutations that can cause
cancer or be passed on to progeny.

A 1997 study performed at the Drug Safety Research
Laboratories in Japan, led by Dr. H. Daimon demonstrated
that safrole does just that: experiments on hamsters found
that safrole induced DNA modification through
chromosomal aberrations and sister chromatid exchanges.
Because of this, pregnant mothers are especially at risk.


When safrole isn’t causing DNA aberrations that lead to
mutations, it can be found causing cancer. A 1994 FDA
study led by Dr. DL Heikes found that safrole causes cancer
formation. In studies of rats and safrole, lung tumors, skin
papilloma, kidney tumors, sarcomas, and hepatic
carcinomas have been found.


This is a fancy way of saying liver damage. A 1981 World
Health Organization (WHO) report summarized research
that demonstrated the long-term danger safrole presents
to the liver.

Safrole was administered orally to canines at 5 and 20
mg/kg body weight for six years. The lower dosage group
exhibited necrosis, bile-duct proliferation, fatty
metamorphosis of the liver, hepatic cell atrophy and
leucocytic infiltration.

The higher dose group exhibited enlarged livers with
nodular surfaces (at risk for cancer), enlarged hepatic cells,
and post-necrotic cirrhosis. The WHO deemed these results
in canines as evidence of risk for humans.

Just Plain Old Toxicity

The above are the longer-term toxic effects of
sassafras/safrole consumption. But a high enough dose is
toxic enough to kill after a one-time ingestion: According to
a 2005 toxicity report by the US National Library of
Medicine, death has resulted from the ingestion of 5 ml of
sassafras oil in adults, and ¾ teaspoonful to 2 ounces has
caused serious symptoms in children.

Serious Side Effects

If not enough is ingested to cause death, serious poisoning
and symptoms may still occur.  According to the National
Library of Medicine report, these symptoms include but are
not limited to excessive drowsiness, vomiting, shock,
cyanosis, delirium, circulatory collapse, convulsions,
vertigo, hallucinations, stupor, aphasia, and respiratory


A 2003 study at the National Yang-Ming University in
Taiwan led by Dr. SL Hung found that safrole reduced the
antibacterial activity of neutrophils.

Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white-blood
cells, the immune system’s foot soldiers against pathogens.

In addition to causing direct damage, safrole can cause
indirect damage by actually
weakening our immune system.

Drug Interactions

Because of its severe side effects, particularly excessive
drowsiness, sassafras will interact with sedative
medications (CNS depressants) such as clonazepam
(Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), phenobarbital (Donnatal),
zolpidem (Ambien), and others.


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