The Benefits and Dangers of Licorice

The Benefits and Dangers of Licorice

By Docmo

Why Licorice?

Licorice ( Or Liquorice) is an extract from the roots of the plant Glycyrrhiza Glabra. The extract has been consumed by humans since ancient times and is still quite popular in candy form, as a flavoring agent and as a health supplement. Licorice candy is popular among young and old and has that unique sweet yet medicinal flavor. Little do we know that the flavor we associate with licorice in candies is mostly from aniseed oil that helps to augment the taste. True licorice has an intensely sweet, musty earthy flavor.

As licorice falls under the category of 'supplement' its production and supply are largely unregulated. It does not need approval by FDA or other health protection agencies and can be sold ( and consumed) freely. This allows for people to make tall claims of its benefits and encourages unwary consumers to take it without really understanding the balance between benefits and dangers.

Lets try and get a balanced overview and scientific truths about this ancient remedy.

'Little do we know that the flavor we associate with licorice in candies is mostly from aniseed oil that helps to augment the taste...'

                                                                      Glycyrrhiza Glabra

What is Licorice?

The roots of the leguminous plant Glycyrrhiza Glabra yields a sweet sap that is the sweetest naturally occuring substance known to mankind. It is over 50 times sweeter than sugar (sucrose)! The extracted sap in a liquid or solid form is what is commonly known as Licorice. The name Liquorice comes from Old French Licoresse which is turn is a direct descendant of the the Greek Glukurrhiza.

There over 20 varieties of the Glycyrrhiza plant.

In fact the word 'Gluku-rrhiza' literally means 'sweet root' in Greek.

The plant is a tall shrub that grows in the wild and is also cultivated in Southern Europe and Asia. Licorice stick is the fleshy underground stem that can reach up to 20 feet from the main root. Chopped into segments around 8 inches long, the sticks are sold widely in the herbal market.

The Ubiquitous Licorice

Licorice name
Radix Liquiritiae (root)
Succus Liquiritiae (extract)
Irq as-sus, sous
Madootag, Matutak
Chinese (Cantonese)
甘草 [gām chóu]
Chinese (Mandarin)
甘草 [gān cǎo]
Lakrids, Lakridsplante
Spanish Juice, Black Sugar, Liquorice
Süßholz, Lakritze
Γλυκόριζα Glikoriza, Glykoriza
मुलेठी Muleti
蕗草, Nankin-kanzō
Korzeń lukrecji, Lukrecja gładka
Лакричник, Солодка - Lakrichnik, Solodka
Madhuuka, Yashtimadhu
Orozuz, Regaliz
அதிமதுரம் Atimaduram
ชะเอมเทศ Cha-em thet
Meyan kökü
Historical Licorice
                  * In Buddhism, an infusion of licorice is used to ceremonially bathe Buddha's statue on his birthday
                  * Egyptian Pharaohs had a traditional licorice drink called Erqesos that was supposed to have healing  
                  * Ancient Chinese thought licorice prolonged life and helped healing
                  * Ancient Roman sweets included nougat and licorice
                  * Apparently Napoleon Bonaparte used to chew licorice constantly. He carried a small tortoise shell box of   
                     licorice pellets along with his snuff box. His teeth turned black from this overindulgence!
                 * Texan folk medicine used the root extract to reduce fever after childbirth and to help expel the placenta.


History of Licorice

In traditional Chinese medicine Licorice root is one of the most popular ingredients with many health benefits attributed to its use. It has been in recorded use since the Han dynasty of 2nd and 3rd centuries. The oldest specimen of licorice, first introduced in 8th century from China, is still found in the Imperial storehouse of Shosoin in Nara, Japan. Chinese licorice comes from the species Glycyrrhiza Uralensis.The Chinese traditional medicine uses combination of many herbs - these are often divided into a 'monarch herb' or the main ingredient and others such as 'minister herb' and a 'guide herb'. Licorice is used as a guide drug that is said to enhance the effectiveness of other herbs as well as help ti sweeten the concoction. In this way around 50% of chinese herbal remedies contain varying levels of licorice.

In India, the licorice root carries the ancient Sanskrit name of 'Yasthimadhu' ( sweet- stalk) and has been a mainstay of Ayurvedic and other traditional medicine.

Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Chinese and Indian cultures are all familiar with Licorice. There was a stash of Licorice roots found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.

In UK, the Benedictine monks who migrated from Spain during the crusades brought the licorice plant to their monastery in ancient West Yorkshire. This was grown in the old town of Pontefract and the extracts were used to flavor drinks. Around 500 years ago, the locals started to make licorice candies known as Pontefract Cakes. While the plants do not exist anymore in Pontefract, the candy is still made to this day. Unlike many other 'licorice' candies which are merely amped up by using aniseed, Pontefract cakes still contain pure licorice with molasses.

In the US, only one species of wild Licorice plant exists- Glycyrrhiza lepidota. There has not been any commercial plantation of this plant. The Teton Dakota used the leaves as poultice and the roots for toothache. The Texan folk medicine used the root extract to reduce fever after childbirth and to help expel the placenta.

The Chemistry lesson

The red segment represents Glycyrrhizin
The main chemical of Licorice extract is the organic compound Glycyrhizzin ( or Glycyrhhizic acid). This makes up for around 6- 25% of the constituent and is the major active component.Its effects have been widely studied and is still under research.

Glycyrhizzin shares its structure with the corticosteroids produced by our adrenal glands.It is a sweet glycoside that foams in contact with water.The other major components are flavonoids that are also said to confer the extract its health benefits.

Licorice extract is said to mimic stress hormones, has an estrogenic property and also helps raise prostaglandin levels in the body.

Trouble with food supplements is that they are not in patent by any specific drug companies. So they are unlikely to pour millions of dollars into research on licorice as no one can actually 'own' the extract.    


Health Benefits and Claims

Historically Licorice has been associated with many claims - some have been researched and considered plausible but others mere fiction.For over 3000 years it has been considered a demulcent ( soothing to irritated membranes), an expectorant ( loosening and expelling mucus secretions), an anti-inflammatory agent and as a liver protectant. It has also been said to have ulcer healing properties in the stomach.

Trouble with food supplements is that they are not in patent by any specific drug companies. The Pharma are unlikely to pour millions of dollars into their research as no one can actually 'own' the extract. However many interested parties have researched some of the claims to weed out fact from fiction.

It has been attempted to isolate the active ingredients that confer health benefits. As Gycyrhizzin is associated with many side effects in large doses De-Glycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) has been tried and found to have benefit without the attendant side effects.

It must be said that while there are many anecdotal claims and historic usage, there has not been much modern robust research to encourage widespread usage for the following conditions. Also as Licorice can interact with other medicines and can cause many dangerous side effects- much caution is needed in unregulated use without the advice of a medical professional.

Healing Stomach Ulcers

Many stomach ulcers are produced when the protective mucosal barrier is lost. As protaglandins help in restoring and enhancing the defensive barrier, it has been proven that licorice extract in suitable doses can help ulcer healing. It does so by increasing prostaglandin levels. A Dutch researcher has proven that Licorice not only helps heal ulcers but also helps restore the longevity of the stomach lining. It may also inhibit the ulcer causing bacteria Helicobacter Pylori

However, further research is needed. Some Iranian researchers have found Aspirin coated with licorice compounds have lesser gastric side effects.

Sore Throat, Bronchitis and Asthma

Licorice is used widely in tobacco industry to confer the flavouring for cigarette smoke and the characteristic 'taste' of cigarette smoke is also due to the level of licorice used in curing the tobacco. The tobacco industry knew that licorice extract opens up the airways and helps enhance the effective penetration of smoke and nicotine, giving more 'bang for the buck'.

Traditionally licorice flavoured lozenges and tinctures have been used to soothe inflamed throat membranes and to ease cough and breathing. It has been a major constituent of many ancient expectorants. The effect of opening up airways may be of benefit in Asthma where the closed airways cause wheezing.

Licorice Lozenges ' Clarifies the voice and Clears the Throat'
Licorice Lozenges ' Clarifies the voice and Clears the Throat'

Toothache, Oral hygiene and Voice

Chewing on wild licorice stem is said to work as a tooth cleaner, helping combat gum disease. A tea made of licorice extract has been used by Blackfoot Indian tribes to augment their voice during marathon singing sessions. It may work by enhancing the strength of the vocal cords in small doses.

Chewing licorice containing gum may confer similar benefits.                            

Future potential

As licorice extract can mimic a Glucocorticoid hormone, people with undiagnosed and borderline Adrenocortical insufficieny ( Addison's Disease) may benefit from the extract in small doses. However, this is currently being researched to find the right dosage where benefits will outweigh the risk.

Some anecdotal claims that it helps in Chronic fatigue syndrome are being studied.

A recent study in animals has shown that a constituent of licorice isoliquiritigenin may be of use in chronic Cocaine abuse and may benefit as an antidote and as a weaning agent when withdrawing from cocaine by inhibiting Dopamine receptors. It is yet to be tested in humans.

Some agencies report that the liver protective effect of licorice may be of benefit in treating Chronic Hepatitis caused by viruses such as Hepatitis B and C.

Its Estrogenic effect may also help women who may suffer from higher testosterone levels during menopause that causes unsightly hair growth, male pattern hair loss and fatigue.                                                                                                                                             


A bag of black licorice candy will contain 40- 50 g - so more than 2-3 bags daily can lead to health problems within 1-2 weeks.( FDA warning)

                                                                                                                                                                             And Now the Bad News!

True potent Licorice has largely been abandoned by many health practitioners due to the serious side effects.

In large doses it can cause:

Serious Hypertension ( Raised Blood pressure)                                           

Muscle paralysis

Hypokalemia (Reduced Potassium)

Heart Rhythm disorders

Erectile dysfunction ( Impotence) in men

Period Disorders in Women

Reactivation of Breast Cancer

There have been documented cases where people have been admitted to hospital with muscle paralysis and very low serum potassium after consuming large quantities of true licorice sweets. At doses over 200g /day it can be very dangerous. so caution is advised when overindulging on black licorice candies or pontefract cakes! A bag of black licorice can contain 40- 50 g of the stuff so more than 2-3 bags daily can lead to health problems within 1-2 weeks.( FDA warning)

Ideally around 100 mg or less per day is not known to cause any ill effects but you should always consult a medical practitioner if you have other medical problems. Thankfully most licorice 'candies' have very little true licorice extract and rely on aniseed oil for that unique flavor.

It is better not to take licorice during Pregnancy and Breast Feeding.

                           FDA Warning ( )

Drug Interactions with Licorice : Caution

Bumetanide ( Bumex)
Furosemide ( Lasix)
Hormone Replacement thearpy ( Estrogens)
Hydrochlorthiazide( Esidrix, Oretic)
Prednisolone ( Ovapred, Pediapred)
Chlorothiazide (Diruil)
Hydrocortisone ( Cortef)
Warfarin ( Coumadin, Jantoven)
Metolazone (Zaroxolyn)
Fludrocortisone (Florinef)
and others...
Traimcinolone ( Kenalog)

On Balance

As with most ancient remedies there are a lot of anecdotal usage and health benefit claims. However, due to lack of robust research it is hard to recommend more than a cautious, occasional use of very low doses of black licorice, if that.

Many licorice candies dont actually contain much of the 'real licorice' however, when taking authentic licorice extracts, candies or lozenges it is better not to over indulge.

Hopefully more research will unlock the potential of this ancient root that has fascinated many!


Views: 354


You need to be a member of to add comments!


© 2015   Created by Student, Foodpathshala.

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service