Sassafras was known primarily as a medicinal herb to the American Indians and, later, to the Europeans, who shipped great quantities to shops in England and on the Continent.
The leaves could be made into teas and poultices, while the root bark was either chipped or crushed and then steeped in boiling water, one ounce of bark to one pint of water, and taken in doses of a wineglassful as often as needed to reduce fevers; soothe chronic rheumatism, gout, and dropsy; relieve eye inflammation; ease menstrual and parturition pain; help cure scurvy and various skin conditions; and act as a disinfectant in dental surgery.
Because it was thought to be a blood purifier and effective against excess mucus discharge, the plant was even regarded as a cure for syphilis and gonorrhoea. Sassafras is sometimes combined with sarsaparilla in herbal formulas to address prostate problems in men; however this use is based on folklore and has not as yet been supported by modern research.
The roots are often dried and steeped for tea, and sassafras was formerly used as flavouring in root beer. Its use as a drug or food product has been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as carcinogenic; however, its use and sale persist throughout the United States.
Sassafras may possess weak anti-inflammatory properties similar to willow. Sassafras tea may ease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, muscle tension and certain injuries. Bathing an injured area in sassafras tea may also help to reduce pain and inflammation.
Although considered to be safe in small, occasional doses, sassafras tea has lost some popularity in recent years due to concerns about its safety. Additionally, large doses of sassafras can lead to short-term side effects such as nausea and vomiting. Before using herbal supplements it is always of great importance to consult a physician first.