Learn to Use Medicinal Herbs Safely

Learn how to use medicinal herbs safely, includes information on Sassafras, Sarsaparilla and Bayberry herbs.

Sassafras leaf

Sassafras leaf.

PHOTO: FOTOLIA/STEPHANIE FREY

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Learn how to use medicinal herbs safely in your home. 

As with any use of medicinal herbs, homebrewers should be conscious of the advantages and drawbacks of the plants they employ and learn to use medicinal herbs safely. Most of the herbs featured are considered benign or wholly beneficial by both traditional herbalists and the medical establishment, except to people with allergies to specific plants. But some of the ingredients in root beer are more controversial.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): Animal studies have linked consumption of large amounts of safrole, one of the chemical constituents of sassafras, to liver and nerve damage, as well as liver cancer. Therefore, the United States and Canada both have banned the use of sassafras in processed and packaged foods. It is, however, legal to sell sassafras in its natural or dried form, and it continues to be available at many health-food stores and through mail order. It is interesting to note that the amount of ethanol in a bottle of beer is many times more carcinogenic than the amount of safrole in a same-sized bottle of root beer.

Sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.): Sarsaparilla may affect levels of sex hormones, such as testosterone and progesterone. Physicians and herbalists recommend that pregnant women avoid it. Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is not known to have the same effect and may be used as a substitute if sustainably harvested.

Bayberry (Morella cerifera): If you collect your own bayberry roots, avoid touching the waxy fruits of the plant, which irritate the skin. Some compounds in the fruit wax also are thought to be carcinogenic.