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The Uses, Benefits, and Dangers of Liquorice

Mohan is a physician with over 20 years experience in family medicine. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of GPs, London.

Why Licorice?

Licorice (or liquorice) is an extract from the root 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.

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

Let's try and get a balanced overview of scientific truths about this ancient remedy. If you're only interested in the potential dangers, scroll down towards the end of the article.

Licorice Root

Licorice Root

The flavor we associate with licorice in candies is mostly from aniseed oil that helps to augment the taste.

What is Licorice?

The roots of the leguminous plant Glycyrrhiza glabra yield a sweet sap that is one of the sweetest naturally occurring substances. It is 30 to 50 times sweeter than sugar (sucrose)! The extracted sap in a liquid or solid form is what is commonly known as licorice, a name that comes from Old French licoresse which is, in turn, from the Greek glukurrhiza, meaning "sweet root."

There over 20 varieties of the Glycyrrhiza plant, which is 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 eight inches long, the sticks are sold widely in the herbal market.

"Licorice" in Many Languages

LanguageLicorice name

Pharmacological

Radix Liquiritiae (root); Succus Liquiritiae (extract)

Arabic

Irq as-sus, sous

Armenian

Madootag, Matutak

Basque

Erregaliz

Chinese (Cantonese)

甘草 [gām chóu]

Chinese (Mandarin)

甘草 [gān cǎo]

Danish

Lakrids, Lakridsplante

Dutch

Zoethout

English

Spanish Juice, Black Sugar, Liquorice

French

Réglisse

German

Süßholz, Lakritze

Greek

Γλυκόριζα Glikoriza, Glykoriza

Hindi

मुलेठी Muleti

Japanese

蕗草, Nankin-kanzō

Norwegian

Lakrisrot

Polish

Korzeń lukrecji, Lukrecja gładka

Portuguese

Alcaçuz

Russian

Лакричник, Солодка - Lakrichnik, Solodka

Sanskrit

Madhuuka, Yashtimadhu

Spanish

Orozuz, Regaliz

Tamil

அதிமதுரம் Atimaduram

Thai

ชะเอมเทศ Cha-em thet

Turkish

Meyan kökü

Historical Uses of 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 powers.
  • Ancient Chinese used licorice to prolong life and aid in 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 overindulgence!
  • Texan folk medicine used the root extract to reduce fever after childbirth and to help expel the placenta.

History

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.

  • Chinese licorice comes from the species Glycyrrhiza uralensis. In traditional Chinese medicine, licorice root is one of the most important 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 extant specimen, first introduced in 8th century from China, is still found in the Imperial storehouse of Shosoin in Nara, Japan.
  • Chinese traditional medicine uses combinations of many herbs, often divided into a 'monarch herb' (or the main ingredient) and others such as 'minister herbs' and 'guide herbs.' Licorice is used as a guide herb that is said to enhance the effectiveness of other herbs as well as help sweeten the concoction. In this way, around 50% of Chinese herbal remedies contain various amounts 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 medicines.
  • In the UK, the Benedictine monks who migrated from Spain during the crusades brought the licorice plant to their monastery in ancient West Yorkshire. It 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 there anymore, 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 (imported from Turkey) mixed with molasses.
  • In the US, only one species of wild licorice plant exists, Glycyrrhiza lepidota. There has not been any commercial planting of this plant. The Teton Dakota Sioux tribes used the leaves as poultice and the roots for toothache. Texan folk medicine used the root extract to reduce fever after childbirth and to help expel the placenta.
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The red segment represents Glycyrrhizin

The red segment represents Glycyrrhizin

A Chemistry Lesson

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

Glycyrrhizin shares its structure with the corticosteroids produced by our adrenal glands. It is a sweet glycoside that foams with contact with water.

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

For over 3000 years, licorice has been considered a demulcent (soothing to irritated membranes), an expectorant (loosening and expelling mucus secretions), an anti-inflammatory agent, and a liver protectant.

Health Benefits and Claims

Historically, licorice has been associated with many claims— some have been studied and are considered plausible, others have been determined to be fiction, and many other claims have never been researched. 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 a liver protectant. It has also been said to have ulcer-healing properties in the stomach.

The trouble with food supplements is that they are not patented by drug companies. The pharma are unlikely to pour millions of dollars into their research as no one can actually own an extract. However, many interested parties have researched some of the claims to weed out fact from fiction.

Some have attempted to isolate the active ingredients that confer health benefits. As Glycyrrhizin is associated with many side effects in large doses, de-Glycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) has been tried and found to retain benefits 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 medicinal reasons. Also, since licorice can interact with other medicines and can cause many dangerous side effects, caution is needed in unregulated use without the advice of a medical professional.

The trouble with food supplements is that they are not patented by drug companies. The pharma are unlikely to fund research as no one can actually own an extract.

Healing Stomach Ulcers

Stomach ulcers are produced when the protective mucosal barrier is lost. As prostaglandins 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 prolong the longevity of the stomach lining. It may also inhibit the ulcer-causing bacteria Helicobacter pylori.

Some Iranian researchers have found aspirin coated with licorice compounds have lesser gastric side effects.

However, further research is needed.

Sore Throat, Bronchitis, and Asthma

Licorice is used widely in the tobacco industry for flavoring. The characteristic taste of cigarettes has to do with the level of licorice used in curing the tobacco. The tobacco industry knows that licorice extract opens up the airways and helps enhance the effective penetration of smoke and nicotine, giving each cigarette more "bang for the buck."

Traditionally, licorice flavored lozenges and tinctures have been used to soothe inflamed throat membranes and ease coughing 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 gum may confer similar benefits.
Italian Licorice toothpaste

Italian Licorice toothpaste

Future Potential

  • As licorice extract can mimic a glucocorticoid hormone, people with undiagnosed and borderline adrenocortical insufficiency (Addison's Disease) may benefit from the extract in small doses. However, this is currently being researched to find the dosage where benefits 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 that cause unsightly hair growth, hair loss, and fatigue during menopause.
Poison in high doses!

Poison in high doses!

FDA Warnings!

  • More than two or three 40-50g bags of black licorice candy daily can lead to health problems within 1-2 weeks.
  • If you are 40 years old or older, eating two ounces of black licorice a day for at least two weeks could cause irregular heart rhythm (or arrhythmia).
  • Glycyrrhizin can cause potassium levels in the body to fall. As a result, some people experience high blood pressure, edema (swelling), lethargy, and congestive heart failure.
  • It can interact with some medications, herbs, and dietary supplements. Consult a health care professional to discuss drug interactions.
  • If you have been eating a lot of black licorice and experience sudden muscle weakness or irregular heart rhythms, stop eating it immediately and contact your doctor.

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, licorice can cause:

  • Serious hypertension (raised blood pressure)
  • Muscle paralysis
  • Hypokalemia (reduced potassium)
  • Heart rhythm disorders
  • Erectile dysfunction (impotence) in men
  • Menstrual disorders in women
  • Reactivation of breast cancer

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

Consumption of 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 while pregnant or breast feeding.

FDA Warning

FDA Warning

Drug Interactions with Licorice: Caution

DiureticsCorticosteroidsDigoxin

Bumetanide ( Bumex)

Betamethasone

 

Furosemide ( Lasix)

Cortisone

Hormone Replacement Therapy (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 claims of health benefits. 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.

Many licorice candies don't actually contain much real licorice; however, when taking authentic licorice extracts, candies, or lozenges, it is better not to overindulge.

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

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Comments

Karen A Szklany from New England on January 24, 2020:

Awesome comprehensive article about licorice. Thank you!

My interest has arisen because after our beloved pet hamster passed away, I asked his spirit forgiveness for any way I contributed to his suffering and death. I soon felt his forgiveness, followed by the scent of licorice in the air. I know we don't have any licorice in the house, so this was very intriguing.

Susan Ham on October 28, 2017:

I did know these side effects as i had a father that LOVED him some licorice. His doc said not too much it will raise blood pressure. Thanks for the rest of the story DOCMO, you are terrific! All of us could benefit from the great things licorice can improve. Thanks for all the info

Mansi on July 12, 2017:

Hey I hv heard that licorice is good fr those who hv ovarian cyst ... does it really work...

geeta bhagat on May 18, 2017:

I have a cough that is on and off sort of allergic cough, I stay in Mumbai city that is now highly polluted with towers coming at every 10 metres away. I am boiling a Yasthimadhu ( licorice stick ) brought from Kerala and i have the water after boiling it in it with ginger turmeric & garlic, twice a day. I find it is helpful. How may days should i have it so as not to exceed intake ??

reesc on May 11, 2017:

Liquorish. It is a bit like liquor i guess...the way it 'opens us up'...something to chew on there for me...verbal osmosis

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 12, 2017:

It's been really interesting reading your article about licorice. I've never liked it myself, but know many people that do. It was particularly interesting reading what it means in different languages. I've learned a lot about licorice from reading this! Thankyou. =)

Jane Stratton on February 11, 2017:

Can you post the link to the breast cancer research?

Jane Stratton on February 11, 2017:

Came across this site when searching for a liquor or flavouring made with REAL licorice extract not aniseed, as my baking business is nut and seed free. Very interesting. I used to chew licorice root daily because I liked it...until a naturopath said not too as I had a high stress job and licorice was an adrenal stimulant. That was pre-internet, so I could not easily verify.

I just discovered Pontrefact cakes and have gone through quite a few bags the past month. Was finishing up one when I read your article! Now I am concerned when I read about "reactivation of breast cancer" and arythmia. Geez, can't smoke, can't drink, can't eat sugar, now I can't eat licorice. ....

When I was young, doctors would scoff at the suggestion of herbs as medicine- but now all this evidence of their potentially potent effects! I recall once getting hooked on the taste of a roasted dandelion coffee substitute and drank 2-3 cups a day. My doctor was freaking out after my annual physical as my bilirubin levels were elevated. She couldn't accept the suggestion that as dandelion is a known cholagogue, it was likely that the elevation was simply due to that.

Tess on December 29, 2016:

Wow,what a lot of info in one hub.Thank you Docmo.

I am nearly 80 yrs old and how well I remember chewing on licorice sticks as a child .One stick cost us a farthing but seemed to last forever,We called it sticky lice.We also loved eating ponterfract cakes which cost a whole penny for a cone shaped bag.That was a real treat but our pocket money didn't stretch that far very often.We would stir a cake into water and make a drink.how on earth we enjoyed it I don't know as now it tastes ugh .I still eat licorice but find it does cause my body to retain fluid so don't have it so often. Thanks again Blessings Tess.

Estelle on December 14, 2016:

I'm a little confused...is it INGESTING licorice or using skin care products with licorice in it bad for breast cancer...or both?

judeebean on November 12, 2016:

thought i read licorce used to have arsenic in it and with a hair sample of Nspoleon they figured he died of arsenic poisening

Max on January 20, 2016:

I've chewed the root as a quit-smoking aid. Generally just to replace the 'thing in the mouth,' but it worked so well I assumed it had some medicinal use too. Hard to believe it causes hypertension, seems to work the opposite on me.

Boy, all these people freaking out how dangerous this article makes licorice seem. It all sounds pretty tame to me. And the times I've used it to quit smoking, I'd have a chunk in my mouth 3/4 my waking hours for a week straight, and never noticed any issues.

Stanley on December 15, 2015:

Mrs. Grieve's Modern Herbal (1931) says "The sugar of Liquorice may safely be taken by diabetic patients." I have been using a product I discovered in a Latino/Asian grocery called Licorice Ramzy, ingredients: peeled licorice roots crushed and saturated with pure licorice extract. It seems to be diminishing my craving for alcohol, which I have been struggling with.

raima on June 11, 2015:

Hello docmo, it was really interesting all the research which u hv put up in this article on licorice. My mother is suffering from pancreatic cancer, someone suggested to give her licorice. Will it be safe for her as she is on chemotherapy or will it react with her chemotherapy medicines???

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on April 25, 2015:

@bob - Depends on how much - it is hard to estimate how much liquorice one consumes from the root- as I say in the article a little is helpful- also make sure you are not on any of the medication that liquorice interacts with.

bob on April 23, 2015:

I chew the roots purchased from a heath shop. once they soften I get shots of the juice. Is this beneficial or harmful

Kate Gilbert on January 16, 2015:

Just ate this while sucking and chewing a good old fashioned licorice stick. All the more enjoyable for that!

Mary-Joe on November 26, 2014:

Being Dutch, I have eaten huge quantities of licorice. I love it in tea form too. We use to have licorice extract in the shape of a black stick. We put it in a bottle and shook it and then sucked out the foamy part, repeating this endlessly over days.

I can not imagine anybody eating 2-3 bags a day! Diabetes will get'm before anything else! Also, most licorice contains gelatine. It always makes me wonder about the danger of BSE. Any thoughts?

Elizabeth Kirby on September 08, 2014:

Excellent article, brilliant research, very comprehensive and interesting. I have loved liquorice since I was a child and still eat it many years later. I'm on a lot of medication which makes me constipated but with regular consumption of liquorice I find it to be a great natural laxative. But apart from that, I just love the taste especially the natural hard sticks. Thank you for such a great piece on my favourite sweet.

divya on June 29, 2014:

A very alert mes which in descriptive and sequencial..thank uu

kumar on June 01, 2014:

licorice base flavoured water available in India consuming daily it will be benefit as per company they add only 0.005%/l per day licorice flavor in drinking water to improve taste and health benefit i have tried water is soft to drink good taste better then normal water and price is same more info given in website ihwf.org.in,

friends i like to know consuming flavoured water will give any side effects

Yova on November 26, 2013:

Being a fan of licorice (and now also a big fan of Docmo), I looked up the FDA info, and found this from Consumer Reports:

"Thankfully, nearly all of the licorice candy in the U.S. isn't made from actual licorice root. (Anise oil, which mimics the taste and smell of licorice, is used instead.) And the abnormal heart rhythms and other side effects aren't permanent.

Still, the FDA warns that adults over 40 years old with heart conditions probably shouldn't over-indulge. The agency says more than two ounces a day for more than two weeks could lead to arrhythmia."

Maybe there's fresher news out there now, but if some of you are still sobbing over the red vines, this might cheer you up.

Thanks so much for your very well written article, Docmo!

ABHISHEK TIWARI on November 09, 2013:

How to regain my hair at bald paches area

D.Juris Stetser from South Dakota on September 02, 2013:

Sob! I LOVE the stuff, darn it...but those side effects are really important to know. Surprised how little the information is made available to you. You, however were right on the mark again!! Thanks so much. This was fascinating, Helpful to the max, Interesting and Awesome job! Grateful for the info...not too happy but sincerely grateful...Thanks Docmo

sairam,chennai on April 17, 2013:

i have seen one of my friend from Taiwan is drinking the medicine water prepared by him by boiling 2 lits of water along with 100 grams of wheat + 10 slices of Licorice root( which is very very sweat + 2 nos of Jujube or red date for 15 minutes . he said it is good for ulcer, stress and for lungs problems

vibesites from United States on January 14, 2013:

Wow, I didn't know that licorice heightens blood pressure, I've never known such a plant (or a plant part) could cause that, I've always thought of cholesterol and fatty foods being synonymous with hypertension. And health dangers to women as well. Learned something new today. Voted up and useful/interesting. :)

alwaysamber on January 08, 2013:

Wow! This is interesting. I didn't know that liquorice had any dangers. I'm not a huge fan of liquorice, but it's still good to be informed. Thanks!

Keely Deuschle from Florida on January 08, 2013:

Very well written article about licorice! I love it, but don't have it very often. Actually, it's probably been a few years at least. I knew about the issue with reducing potassium but did not know it could cause breast cancer reoccurance. As a breast cancer survivor, this will make me think twice about licorice. Thank you for sharing and educating me! Voted up and pinned.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on January 08, 2013: