The Uses, Benefits, and Dangers of Liquorice
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.
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
Radix Liquiritiae (root); Succus Liquiritiae (extract)
Irq as-sus, sous
甘草 [gām chóu]
甘草 [gān cǎo]
Spanish Juice, Black Sugar, Liquorice
Γλυκόριζα Glikoriza, Glykoriza
Korzeń lukrecji, Lukrecja gładka
Лакричник, Солодка - Lakrichnik, Solodka
ชะเอมเทศ Cha-em thet
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Drug Interactions with Licorice: Caution
Bumetanide ( Bumex)
Furosemide ( Lasix)
Hormone Replacement Therapy (Estrogens)
Hydrochlorthiazide( Esidrix, Oretic)
Prednisolone ( Ovapred, Pediapred)
Hydrocortisone ( Cortef)
Warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven)
Traimcinolone ( Kenalog)
Various Licorice-Containing Products on the MarketClick thumbnail to view full-size
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!