What Is Licorice Root?
Also, Known As:
- Chinese Licorice
- Gan Cao
- Licorice Root
- Sweet Licorice
- Sweet Wood
- Yasti Madhu
Licorice refers to the roots and rhizome of a variety of plants belonging to the species Glycyrrhiza glabra L. of the family Fabaceae. This is a European species and possesses a sweet yellow wood. There are also Asian species of the plant like Glycyrrhiza uralensis Fisch. and others. In the commercially available licorice in the US markets, all these species are included since a significant part of licorice is imported from China and other Asian countries.
The herb has expectorant and demulcent properties and has been used traditionally in the treatment of common cold and coughs. The medication is commonly called licorice root or Glycyrrhiza and has also been in use as a flavoring agent. Licorice has been popular for long, in many parts of the world, not just in Europe but in China and Russia as well. The traditional Chinese healers have known its herbal properties for ages and it is familiar as gan Cao in Chinese. The species of licorice found in China and Russia is the G.uralensis and the scientific name refers to its sweet taste.
However, licorice roots and licorice candy, especially those available in the US, has nothing or very little to do with each other. These two are entirely different products but unfortunately, there is a strong misconception regarding the two products among people. Licorice candy gets its flavor from anise oil and contains very little or no licorice whatsoever. Anise oil has a flavor that is strikingly similar to that of licorice and because of this it is often confused with licorice, but the resemblance ends there. The properties are very different and where licorice roots are potentially toxic the other is quite common and harmless.
Nonetheless, recently a case of licorice overdose was reported in the US and on further investigation, it was found that the culprit was the popular candy Twizzlers. It appears that the black variety of the candy contains some licorice. Licorice is also found in candies imported from Europe, where they don’t use anise or other flavoring agents.
Authentic licorice candy is very popular in Britain and in most parts of Europe, but not so much in America. Most of the licorice that reaches the United States is used to flavor tobacco products like cigarettes, pipe tobaccos, cigars and so on. It is estimated that 90 percent of the millions of pounds of licorice that is imported to the United States annually is used for this purpose. The perceptible sweetness and pleasant flavor that many commercial tobacco blends have are due to the presence of licorice. The amounts of licorice used to get the required flavor and sweetness is a trade secret and is never revealed by the tobacco companies. Another use for licorice is an ingredient in throat lozenges and various other pharmaceutical products.
Licorice gets its sweetness from glycyrrhizin, which is a saponin glycoside present in the roots. On an average 5 to 9 percent of the roots are made up of glycyrrhizin, which is fifty times sweeter than sugar. It is otherwise known as glycyrrhizic acid and is commercially available in a form known as ammoniated glycyrrhizin. The structure and physiological effects of glycyrrhizin are related to aldosterone or desoxycorticosterone. This is possibly why a condition which medical literature terms as pseudoaldostronosm is brought about in licorice by glycyrrhizin. This condition is similar to the one brought about by excessive secretion of aldosterone which is an adrenal cortex hormone. Excessive quantities of this in the human body can be disastrous. It can lead to high blood pressure and in some cases even heart failure and cardiac arrest. Other symptoms of a headache, lethargy, sodium and water retention and excessive excretion of potassium are also seen.
A high rate of consumption of licorice especially by people suffering from high blood pressure or heart trouble could have serious consequences. With increased consumption, its toxic effects are apparent within a matter of days or a single week. There is, for instance, one popular herbal cough remedy available in the market which if overused could be really bad. It contains 1 ounce of licorice root per quart of water and the directions suggest one-half pint at bedtime. Also suggested are additional quantities as and when needed. This means that the daily amount might be doubled or even tripled depending on the person and the frequency of use. With each half-pint easily containing 0.5 gram of glycyrrhizin, the amount of glycyrrhizin in the body could easily reach toxic proportions.
Off late, deglycyrrhizinated licorice products have started to make their appearance in the American market as the toxicity associated with glycyrrhizin is quite well documented. These deglycyrrhizinated licorice products may have some residual activity, but with the principal constituent being removed, it will surely be less harmful. While its flavor might please a lot of people and it might be useful to a certain extent in the treatment of coughs, colds and certain other ailments, its potency and toxicity will always be a matter of concern. Its use in large doses and for an extended period of time is certainly not advisable.
Its affinity for the endocrine system makes licorice a most remarkable herb, which when used judiciously can be very helpful in treating many human ailments. Licorice has an anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic and anti-arthritic effect similar to that of cortisone but without its side effects. This is because of glycyrrhizin which has a structure similar to hormones produced by the adrenal glands. Its antiallergic effect makes it very useful in treating allergic rhinitis, hay fever, conjunctivitis and bronchial asthma. Licorice has mild estrogenic properties and can be very helpful during menopause. It gets these properties from the steroid-like compounds present in it which can change to estrogen precursors like estradiol and estrone. Licorice can act as a mild laxative and can also relieve indigestion and heartburn by lowering stomach acid levels.
The herb is popularly used to ease irritation and for inflammation and spasm in the digestive tract. Licorice is reputed to heal ulcers. The herb acts on the liver and helps increase bile flow and it also helps lower cholesterol levels. Licorice helps the body to build up resistance to stress by acting on the adrenal glands. It has a soothing and healing effect on the respiratory system and helps to ease irritation and inflammation. Because of its expectorant properties, it is used in treating colds, coughs, asthma and chest infections. Like aspirin, licorice is useful in relieving headaches and fevers. The herb is handy for people coming off orthodox steroid medications as it has the effect of revitalizing or energizing the body. Anti-allergenic effect of licorice is very useful for hay fever, allergic rhinitis, conjunctivitis and bronchial asthma. Licorice is quite useful in bringing back the liveliness when one is feeling tired or fatigue especially after surgery or during convalescence. It is a good stress reliever- both physical and emotional.
Documentary and other scientific evidence suggest that licorice was known and was put to a variety of uses for many centuries, generally as medicine and as a flavoring agent in food and other medicinal herbs. From ancient literature, primarily those of Hippocrates and Pliny the elder, the herb’s use as a medicine is evident. The use of the dried roots and rhizomes of the plant as a digestive aid and for coughs and colds is clearly described. Furthermore, a piece of licorice dating back to the eighth century was recently discovered- it still contained active principles of the herb.
One can find licorice mentioned in ancient Chinese texts as well. A wonderful summation of the uses of licorice found in an ancient Chinese text says that it will “improve the tone of the ‘middle Jiao’ [digestive system] and replenish qi, to remove ‘heat’ and toxic substance, to moisturize the lungs and arrest coughing, and to relieve spasms and pain.” Modern day uses for licorice remain more or less the same, although the terminology used might be different. Chinese researchers also agree with their ancient counterparts and vouch for the herb’s effectiveness against a cough and in treating sore throat. In Europe, medical practitioners use the herb to treat coughs, colds and other respiratory infections. They say glycyrrhizinic acid present in licorice stops the growth of many bacteria and of viruses like influenza A. It is also thought to stimulate the production of interferon.
Licorice is said to be extremely useful in the treatment of stomach ulcers. Stomach ulcers heal quickly when there are high levels of prostaglandins in the stomach and the upper intestine. Licorice helps in bringing about higher levels of prostaglandins in the stomach and the upper intestine. This happens because licorice prevents the secretion of gastric acid and reduces the activity of pepsin. This, in turn, curbs the enzymes that dismantle prostaglandins. Studies done on rats also seem to corroborate this.
Licorice protected the stomach tissue of rats from aspirin-induced damage and it is surmised that its action on the prostaglandin regulating enzymes must be the reason. A semisynthetic compound called carbenoxolone derived from licorice acts to protect the colon and is used to treat ulcerative colitis in China. This compound is also seen to protect against colon cancer but there are some serious side effects. To offset this researcher developed a deglycyrrhizinated licorice, DGL.
If you frequently use antacids for heartburn or ulcer pain, you should know that DGL is superior to over-the-counter and prescription antacids in several ways. Antacids work by reducing acid secretions in the stomach, which can interrupt normal digestion and may cause problems later. In fact, it is very common for people with excess acid or ulcer pain to have frequent recurrences. However, DGL works by increasing the protective lining in the stomach and small intestine, providing a natural buffer against stomach acid, and this may actually help to prevent future problems. Several clinical studies concluded that DGL worked better than many popular prescription treatments for duodenal ulcers. In fact, patients taking DGL healed faster and had fewer relapses than those using other drugs. And unlike prescription or over-the-counter antacids, DGL does not cause unwanted side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, or possible liver damage. Even better, it is much less expensive than many other medications.
Physicians in Japan use licorice to treat hepatitis B as glycyrrhizin interferes with the hepatitis B surface antigen. Licorice is synergistic with interferon against hepatitis A virus and it is also used at times to treat the hepatitis C virus. The liver can be protected from the harmful effects of chemotherapy with licorice, say, researchers. Licorice at low doses can help lower serum cholesterol levels by stimulating the liver to manufacture cholesterol and excrete it in bile. Licorice has the ability to prolong and increase the action of the steroid hormone cortisol produced by the adrenal glands. It does this by slowing down the conversion of cortisol into cortisone. Licorice can thus act more or less like a steroid.
This property of the herb is the reason for many of its medicinal benefits. Unfortunately, this can also lead to some undesirable effects. However, used judiciously, many of the side effects can be overcome. For example, in Russia, they administer licorice together with the prescribed cortisone, which allows for a lower dose of the medication. Likewise in China, they treat mild cases of Addison’s disease; in which the body produces too little of cortisol; by administering licorice alone or together with cortisol. Overuse of glycyrrhizin can cause symptoms similar to aldosteronism which is a serious condition because it inhibits an enzyme that inactivates aldosterone.
China has found another use for licorice; licorice is used to treat pesticide poisoning. They consider licorice a powerful anti-toxin. It is thought that licorice can also curb the malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. The herb induces anti-inflammatory activity by its effects on adrenal steroids. Another important use for licorice is in helping to prolong the survival time of transplanted tissues. LX immunosuppressant, which does this by reducing hypersensitivity reactions, is a constituent of licorice. The antioxidant and anti-tumor properties of glycyrrhizin are well known, but regular use is not encouraged because of serious side effects. Researchers thought that licorice attached to estrogen receptors would promote the growth of uterine cells much like estrogen does. But in a study conducted, it failed to do so. In a more topical use, glycyrrhizin is made a constituent of certain shampoo brands to treat excess oil secretion of the scalp. It is also a part of certain ointments to treat skin diseases.
Plant Part Used:
Licorice was mainly used for medicinal purposes. Ancient records from Greece and other places show it was used in the treatment of asthma, chest problems, and canker sores.
The herb’s healing and demulcent properties come into use to treat a number of ailments, especially of the digestive system. Inflammation, gastritis, peptic ulcers, excessive acid problems and canker sores are all treated with the herb. Licorice is also found to be useful to ease certain chest complaints, arthritis, and inflammation of joints skin and eyes.
In cases where the adrenal glands do not function normally, licorice comes in very handy. It stimulates the adrenal glands and is very useful in conditions like Addison’s disease where the adrenal glands cease to function normally.
Licorice is a gentle laxative.
OTHER MEDICAL USES
- Kidney cancer
- Tooth decay
- Toxic shock syndrome
- Bell’s palsy
- Thyroid cancer
- Viral infection
The Habitat of Licorice Root:
Originally it grew in the wild in many parts of Southeastern Europe and Southwestern Asia. But now licorice is extensively cultivated and can be found in many other parts of the world.
It is usually in the springtime that the roots of licorice are divided and cultivated. Dividing the roots is its propagation method. When the plants are 3 to 4 years old, the roots are unearthed and harvested. Generally done in late autumn.
Research shows that licorice acts on the adrenal glands and stimulates the production of hormones and slows the breakdown of steroids by the internal organs. Studies have also found the anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic properties of glycyrrhizin that is quite similar to those of hydrocortisone and other corticosteroid hormones.
Japanese researchers identified the effectiveness of glycyrrhizin in the treatment of chronic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis in 1985.
Licorice is very effective in treating stomach inflammations. Its healing properties come from the protective mucus it produces in the stomach, and even though licorice reduces stomach secretions, it provides the stomach walls with a protective sheath.
The estrogenic properties of isoflavones are well documented.
Licorice contains saponins, glycosides (inc. glycyrrhizin), estrogenic substances, coumarins, flavonoids, sterols, choline, asparagine, volatile oil.
Medicinal Extracts, Tinctures:
As said earlier licorice has its good and its bad points. The best thing to do is use it judiciously and with discretion. Glycyrrhizin can be very good for certain ailments while it is to be avoided for certain others. To circumvent this problem, licorice preparations with and without glycyrrhizin are available. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice or DGL is available and is best for treatment of the digestive tract in cases of ulcers. It comes in the form of 200-300 mg tablets and for best results, it is to be chewed three times a day before meals and before bed. For mouth ulcers, DGL powder is mixed with water and swished in the mouth for three minutes and then spat out. The dosage is 200 mg of DGL mixed with 200 ml of warm water. Another dosage is a tincture of 2-5 ml of licorice taken three times a day.
Licorice extracts containing glycyrrhizin is used in the treatment of respiratory infections and for chronic fatigue syndrome. Licorice root is taken either as capsules in dosages of 5 to 6 grams per day or in the form of a tea or infusion. This is made by boiling a ½ ounce of root in a pint of water for about fifteen minutes and the dosage is two to three cups per day. But the internal use of licorice should only be done under careful supervision and long-term use of high doses can have serious side effects. Licorice is also used topically to treat herpes and other skin inflammations. Creams or gels are applied directly to the sores three to four times a day.
Possible Side Effects and Precautions:
Long-term and high intake of licorice which contains glycyrrhizin can be quite harmful. It can increase blood pressure and can cause retention of water in the body. Some people are more sensitive to glycyrrhizin and in them, the effects are more pronounced. One gram of glycyrrhizin or about 10 grams of licorice root a day is enough to cause problems. So long term use should be avoided or should be done only under strict supervision of competent doctors. Another way to get around the problem is to use deglycyrrhizinated licorice extracts, which do not have any side effects.
How Licorice Root Works in the Body:
Licorice’s effect on respiratory problems is mainly due to the presence of glycyrrhizin in it which acts as an expectorant and helps prevent and ease coughing. Glycyrrhizin, which is 50 times sweeter than sugar, and its derivatives act as an anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic agents and this is the reason for its effectiveness. Its anti-allergenic properties help in treating asthma. Licorice has a positive effect on the liver and helps the body rid itself of unwanted elements. It acts as a detoxifying agent. The Chinese have found a use for the herb in treating hepatitis and jaundice. Licorice gives the stomach walls a protective sheath of mucus thereby speeding up cure of stomach ulcers. Vomiting, nausea and bloating can also be treated using the herb.
The effects licorice has on adrenal glands and the way it acts as a steroid is well documented. Researchers think that licorice has anti-carcinogenic and immune-stimulant properties and studies are going on in these areas in different parts of the world. Licorice is no longer just a home herbal remedy, a commercial preparation of the medication and its extracts are becoming more popular. DGL or deglycyrrhizinated licorice is one such product and is used for specific purposes without fear of side effects. There is no likelihood of blood pressure shooting up with this product, whereas it can happen with homemade remedies.
- TINCTURE – Take the root of licorice as an anti-inflammatory for arthritic or allergic conditions, as a digestive stimulant, or for lung disorders. Licorice is useful for gastric inflammation or to encourage adrenal function after steroid therapy. Licorice helps disguise the flavor of other medicines.
- DECOCTION – Used to reduce stomach acidity in ulceration.
- SYRUP – Drink as a syrup made from the decoction as a soothing expectorant for asthma and bronchitis.
- FLUID EXTRACT – Let juice sticks dissolve slowly in an equal volume of water to produce a strong extract that can be used as the decoction, tincture, or syrup.
- TONIC WINE – Macerate a piece of the root of licorice for a few weeks in gin or vodka to obtain a tonic wine. Drink after meals in small doses.