Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Common Names: licorice root, licorice, liquorice, sweet root, gan cao, gan-zao, Chinese licorice
Latin Name: Glycyrrhiza glabra, Glycyrrhiza uralensis
Liquorice (British English) or licorice (American English) is the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra from which a sweet flavor can be extracted. The liquorice plant is an herbaceous perennial legume native to southern Europe and parts of Asia, such as India. It is not botanically related to anise, star anise, or fennel, which are sources of similar flavoring compounds. Liquorice flavors are used as candies or sweeteners, particularly in some European and Middle Eastern countries.
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History of Licorice
The word “liquorice” is derived (via the Old French licoresse) from the Greek γλυκύρριζα (glukurrhiza), meaning “sweet root”, from γλυκύς (glukus), “sweet” and ῥίζα (rhiza), “root”, the name provided by Dioscorides. It is usually spelled “liquorice” in Commonwealth usage, but “licorice” in the United States.
It is one of the most widely used herbs worldwide and is the single most used herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine today. It was used by the Egyptians as a flavoring for a drink called Mai-sus, and large quantities were found in the tomb of King Tut for his trip into the afterlife. Pliny the Elder recommended it to clear the voice and alleviate thirst and hunger.
Dioscides, when traveling with Alexander the Great, recommended that his troops carry and use it to help with stamina for long marches, as well as for thirst in areas of drought. In the Middle Ages it was taken to alleviate the negative effects of highly spicy or overcooked food.
It was also used for flavoring tobacco, and as a foaming agent in fire extinguishers and beer. In a recent survey of Western medical herbalists, licorice ranked as the 10th most important herb used in clinical practice.
An astonishing number of Chinese herbal formulas (over 5,000) use it to sweeten teas and to “harmonize” contrasting herbs. Its first documented use dates back to the time of the great Chinese herbal master Zhang Zhong Zhing, about 190 AD, but it was certainly used for many centuries prior to this.
In 1914 the Chicago Licorice Company began to sell Black Vines, the first in a very long line of licorice based modern candies.
The scent of this root comes from a complex and variable combination of compounds, of which anethole is up to 3% of total volatiles. Much of the sweetness in liquorice comes from glycyrrhizin, which has a sweet taste, 30–50 times the sweetness of sugar. The sweetness is very different from sugar, being less instant, tart, and lasting longer. The isoflavene glabrene and the isoflavane glabridin, found in the roots of liquorice, are phytoestrogens.
Medicinal Uses of Licorice Root
The chemicals contained in licorice are thought to decrease swelling, thin mucus secretions, decrease cough, and increase the chemicals in our body that heal ulcers.
It can be taken by mouth for various digestive system complaints including stomach ulcers, heartburn, colic, and ongoing inflammation of the lining of the stomach (chronic gastritis).
Some people take licorice by mouth for sore throat, bronchitis, cough, and infections caused by bacteria or viruses.
Licorice is also taken by mouth for Addison’s disease, a type of diabetes caused by a hormone deficiency (diabetes insipidus), menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), liver disorders, malaria, tuberculosis, high potassium levels in the blood, food poisoning, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a condition in which there is too much muscle tone (hypertonia), abscesses, recovery after surgery, rash, high cholesterol.
It is recommended to treat respiratory problems. Taking licorice as an oral supplement can help the body produce healthy mucus. Increasing phlegm production may seem counter intuitive to a healthy bronchial system. However, the opposite is true. The production of clean, healthy phlegm keeps the respiratory system functioning without old, sticky mucus clogging it.
Licorice is sometimes taken by mouth along with the herbs Panax ginseng and Bupleurum falcatum to improve the function of the adrenal glands, especially in people who have taken steroid drugs long-term. Steroids tend to suppress the activity of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands produce important hormones that regulate the body’s response to stress.
Licorice is also taken by mouth in combination with peony to increase fertility in women with a hormonal disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome, to treat people with abnormal levels of a hormone prolactin, for muscle cramps, and to reduce cancer pain. In combination with other herbs, licorice is also used to treat prostate cancer and the skin disorder known as eczema. Licorice is also taken in combination with andrographis, Siberian ginseng, and schisandra to treat familial Mediterranean fever. This hereditary condition is characterized by recurrent and painful swelling in the chest, stomach, or joints. A formulation containing licorice root along with slippery elm bark, lactulose, and oat bran has been used for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Some people use licorice as a shampoo to reduce oiliness in their hair. It is also applied as a gel for itchy, inflamed skin (eczema), as a solution to stop bleeding, as a patch in the mouth or as a gargle for canker sores, as a cream for psoriasis, weight loss, or a skin condition characterized by brown spots (melisma), as a gargle for recovery after surgery, and as a paste for dental plaque.
Licorice is used intravenously (by IV) to treat hepatitis B and C, as well as mouth sores (lichen planus) in people with hepatitis C.
Recovery after surgery. Research suggests that sucking on a single lozenge containing licorice (Sualin, Hamdard Pharma, India) beginning 30 minutes before having a tube inserted through the mouth into the trachea reduces cough following surgery by about 50%. Also, gargling with a licorice fluid before intubation reduces complications when the breathing tube is removed.
Bleeding. Early research suggests that applying a specific product containing alpinia, licorice, thyme, stinging nettle, and common grape vine (Ankaferd Blood Stopper, Mefar Ilaç Sanayi A.S., Istanbul, Turkey) to the skin reduces bleeding during surgery, but does not reduce time in surgery. Another early study suggests that applying the same product after dental surgery reduces bleeding.
Hepatitis. There is some evidence that certain components in licorice might be effective in treating hepatitis B and hepatitis C when given intravenously (by IV). Early research shows that using a specific IV product (Stronger Neominophagen C, Minophagen Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd) seems to reduce death by about 50%. However, the studies involved too few patients to draw firm conclusions.
High cholesterol. Early research suggests that taking licorice root extract daily for 1 month reduces total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in people with high cholesterol.
High potassium levels. Some research suggests that certain components in licorice decrease potassium levels in people with diabetes or kidney problems.
Hot flashes during menopause. Some early research shows that taking licorice root extract can reduce the number and intensity of hot flashes in menopausal women. But other early research shows that taking licorice root extract does not significantly reduce the number or intensity of hot flashes.
Muscle cramps. Early research suggests that taking a specific product containing licorice and peony (Shakuyaku-kanzo-to) might reduce muscle cramps in people with liver disease (hepatic cirrhosis) or in people undergoing treatment for kidney failure (hemodialysis).
Liver disease not associated with alcohol use (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease). Early research suggests that taking 2 grams of licorice root extract daily for 2 months reduces test markers of liver injury in patients with liver disease not caused by drinking alcohol.
Pain. Early research suggests that taking a combination of licorice root and peony root with Taiwanese tonic vegetable soup containing lily bulb, lotus seed, and jujube fruit reduces pain in cancer patients.
Psoriasis. Early evidence suggests that applying a cream containing licorice and milk to the skin for 4 weeks does not reduce the amount of standard therapy needed, but does seem to improve skin peeling in patients with psoriasis.
Weight loss. There is conflicting information about the use of licorice for weight loss. Licorice seems to reduce body fat. However, it causes water retention that can offset any change in body weight.Other research suggests that taking a specific licorice product (Glavonoid) daily for 8 weeks has no effect on weight or body fat.
Caution Must Be Taken with Licorice Root
Liquorice extracts have been used in herbalism and traditional medicine. Excessive consumption of liquorice (more than 2 mg/kg/day of pure glycyrrhizinic acid, a liquorice component) may result in adverse effects, such as hypokalemia, increased blood pressure, and muscle weakness.
The United States Food and Drug Administration believes that foods containing liquorice and its derivatives (including glycyrrhizin) are safe if not consumed excessively. Other jurisdictions have suggested no more than 100 mg to 200 mg of glycyrrhizin per day, the equivalent of about 70 to 150 g (2.5 to 5.3 oz) of liquorice. Liquorice should not be used during pregnancy.
An increase in intake of liquorice can cause many toxic effects. Hyper-mineralocorticosteroid syndrome can occur when the body retains sodium, loses potassium altering biochemical and hormonal activities. Some of these activities include lower aldosterone level, decline of the renin-angiotensin system and increased levels of the atrial natriuretic hormone in order to compensate the variations in homoeostasis.
Some other symptoms of toxicity include electrolyte imbalance, edema, increased blood pressure, weight gain, heart problems, and weakness. Individuals will experience certain symptoms based on the severity of toxicity. Some other complaints include fatigue, shortness of breath, renal failure, and paralysis.
Dosage and Forms
Liquid extract: Licorice extract is the most commonly found form of licorice. It’s used as a commercial sweetener in candies and beverages. Licorice extract consumption by an individual should not exceed 30 mg/mL of glycyrrhizic acid. Ingesting more could cause unwanted side effects.
Powder: Health food stores and online specialty retailers sell licorice powder. Combined with a gel base, it can become a topical ointment that clears the skin. In its powder form, licorice is especially helpful in treating eczema and acne. You can also pour the powder into vegetable capsules and ingest them orally. The recommended dosage of licorice root is less than 75 milligrams per day, according to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
Tea: Licorice plant leaves, dried and crushed into a tea, have become popular. You can purchase these teas at supermarkets and health food stores. Teas are used to promote digestive, respiratory, and adrenal gland health. When you see herbal teas for “bronchial wellness” and “cleanse and detox,” they usually contain forms of licorice. The popular throat remedy known as Throat Coat tea is a combination of marshmallow root, licorice root, and elm bark. It’s not recommended that people ingest more than 8 ounces of licorice tea per day.
DGL: licorice with glycyrrhizin removed, which is a safer form. DGL should contain no more than 2 percent glycyrrhizin. This form is recommended for gastrointestinal symptoms as long-term intake may be needed. DGL is available in chewable tablets, capsules, tea, and powder. Consume no more than 5 grams of DGL per day.