Botanical and Common Names
- Family Fabaceae/Leguminosae
- Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice, European Licorice, Sweet Root, Licorice root, Sweet licorice, Sweet wood, Sweet wort
- Spanish: Orozús, Regaliz, Yerba Dulce, Palo Cuate, Coahtli)
- Glycyrrhiza lepidota (American licorice, Wild Licorice, Dessert Root)
It contains glycyrrhizic acid, which increases the body’s retention of sodium and water.
It may interfere with the effectiveness of antihyperactive drugs, diuretics, and those used to treat heart disease.
Development of hypertension, edema, muscle contractions, and convulsions may occur if consumed with alcohol.
Long term use, of more than four weeks, can produced hypertension, cardiac problems, diarrhea/constipation, and ulcerations. Long term use can also deplete potassium stores.
Licorice should be avoided if there is high blood pressure present, or if there are irregular heartbeats.
It is contraindicated in the presence of chronic liver disease, severe renal insufficiency, diabetes, and pregnancy.
Daniel Mowrey, in his Herbal Tonic Therapies, suggests that the side effects from licorice are all from extracts and not from any use of the whole plant, that is, the ground root taken in capsules. (Buhner, Herbal Antibiotics, p.55) Buhner also adds that any citations he found for side effects generally occurred from licorice candy or extracts.
Licorice originated in the Mediterranean and Middle East and has been cultivated in Europe since the 16th century. It still grows wild in southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia, but it is now extensively cultivated worldwide. The plant likes to grow along ditches and slow moving streams at an altitude of 1,000 to 9,000 feet.
Licorice is a member of the pea family, and grows in large colonies formed and connected by creeping rootstalks that can spread out to at least three feet. It also has an extensive taproot, which is much stronger than the runners. The plant is a woody-stemmed perennial growing to six feet with dark leaves and cream to mauve, clover-like flowers. The leaves are made up of many smaller leaves along the stalk, common to the pea family. They are odd-numbered, eleven to seventeen, with a single leaf at the tip. The seed pods are numerous, dark, rusty-brown, and burred, sticking easily to clothing. It is these seed pods that make the plant easily identifiable. The roots are easy to harvest, growing fairly shallowly beneath the soil, and are harvested in the autumn from plants no younger than three years of age.
Glycyrrhiza is a Greek word meaning “sweet root.” The various species are all used in the same manner. However, the American licorice is not as sweet as the European species, tasting more like its leguminous ancestry.
The Chinese have used licorice for more than 5,000 years to treat a variety of ailments, including coughs, sore throats, food poisoning, and liver and stomach disorders. Today, licorice is the second-most prescribed herb in China, exceeded only by ginseng.
The ancient Assyrians and Egyptians used it to treat various respiratory disorders, as did Hippocrates. Since only the best and necessary items were put into the tomb of a pharoah, it is not surprising that licorice was also found there.
The ancient Greeks also knew of licorice’s medicinal value, and prescribed it for asthma, chest problems, and canker sores.
Licorice is mentioned by Oribasius and Marcellus in the 4th century CE and by Paul of Aegina in the 7th century. In 1574, pastilles flavoured with licorice juice were brought every year from Apulia.
Licorice roots were chewed by the Cheyenne in sweat lodges and during their sun dances for its cooling effect. The Paiute, Cheyenne, and many other tribes also chewed the root for its sweetness and treated diarrhea and upset stomachs with a tea made from the dried, peeled roots.
The Lakotas used the roots for flu, and mixed the root with Astralagus to treat the spitting up of blood.
The Dakotas steeped the leaves to make a topical medicine for earache, and a root tea was given to children to reduce fever. They also chewed and held it in the mouth to relieve toothache.
The Blackfeet made a tea from the root to treat coughs, chest pains, and sore throats. They also applied it to swellings.
The Bannocks chewed the root to strengthen the throat for singing.
Mexican Americans used licorice as a remedy for such post-parturition problems as fever and as an emmenagogue (promoting menstruation).
Licorice was listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1975 and is still listed in the British Pharmacopoeia.
The US uses 90% of the wild licorice root for flavouring and sweetening of tobacco products. It should also be noted that the licorice candy sold in the US is actually flavoured with anise.
- adrenal cortex and pancrease stimulant
- digestive aid
- demulcent (soothes gastric mucous membranes)
- immune system stimulant
- lowers blood cholesterol
- mild laxative
- possibly an antiallergenic
- protects the liver
- protects from radiation exposure
- tumor inhibitor
- glycyrrhizin (up to 6% and which is fifty times sweeter than sugar)
- isoflavones (liquiritin, isoliquiritin, and formononetin)
- vitamins and minerals (including magnesium, silicon, chromium, cobalt, iron, and niacin)
Glycyrrhetic acid has been isolated and shown to kill bacteria, especially Gram-negative and those resistant to antibiotics, as well as some viruses and yeasts. Another chemical, hispaglabridin, was also found to be potent against bacteria. Licorice has proven to be active against the following: malaria parasite, tuberculosis, Bacillus subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus sobrinus, S. mutans, Salmonella typhimurium, Escherichia coli, Candida albicans, Vibrio cholera, Trichophyton mentagrophytes, T. rubrum, and Toxocara canis.
Research has shown that when licorice is broken down in the gut, glycyrrhizin is formed, which is fifty times sweeter than sugar and has an anti-inflammatory action similar to hydrocortisone and other corticosteroids. It is thought to stimulate the production of cortisone, which fights inflammation, and aldosterone, which raises blood pressure, among other functions. It also has the ability to reduce the breakdown of steroids by the liver and kidneys. Japanese research in 1985, indicated that glycyrrhizin was also effective in the treatment of chronic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis.
Glycyrrhizin also acts as an expectorant by thinning and loosening mucous making it easier to cough up.
Licorice has been shown to be an immune system stimulant, activating white blood cells, interferon production, enhancing antibody formation, and stimulating phagocytosis.
Medical researchers have isolated several active compounds in licorice root, including glycosides, flavonoids, asparagine, isoflavonoids, chalcomes, and coumarins that act as anti-inflammatory agents.
Tinctures are used for arthritic or allergic conditions, as a digestive stimulant, or for lung disorders. Prescribed for gastric inflammation or to encourage adrenal function after steroid therapy, and also used to help disguise the flavour of other medicines.
Decoctions are used to reduce stomach acidity in ulceration.
Syrups are made from decoctions and used as a soothing expectorant for asthma and bronchitis.
Root powder is gently rubbed onto canker sores.
Dried root is often chewed like candy, and, in China, given to children to promote “muscle growth.”
Fluid extract is made into juice sticks that dissolve slowly in an equal volume of water to produce a strong extract that can be used like the decoction, tincture, or syrup.
Licorice is one of the major, potent herbs and has application to four major areas: lungs, adrenals, stomach, and the female reproductive system.
(a) For the lungs, licorice provides several important actions: as an antispasmodic to reduce coughing; as an expectorant to move phlegm up and out of the lungs; as an anti-inflammatory; and as a demulcent to soothe and coat inflamed mucous passages.
(b) For those who drink large amounts of coffee or who use other drugs, the adrenal glands quickly become exhausted, leading to a total body lack of vitality. Licorice supplies many substances that can be used by the body as substitutes for those produced by the adrenals which, in turn, allow them to rest and recuperate. It has been successfully used to treat Addison’s disease, where the adrenals cease to function normally.
(c) Licorice may stimulate the liver’s production of bile, thereby aiding in the digestive process. It has the ability to reduce stomach secretions while producing a thick, protective mucus for the lining, making it a useful remedy in the treatment and prevention of stomach ulcers and other digestive inflammations, including constipation. Chinese scientists have proven that licorice does cure ulcers through two means. First, it absorbs the acid content, bringing the pH balance into line. Secondly, it relaxes the stomach and intestines, relieving spasms. They have found that licorice is 99% effective in the treatment of ulcers, and taking the powdered root at the first onset of an attack is better than waiting for the pain to become full-blown. For stomach ulcers, licorice treatments have been used successfully by adding the powdered root to a liquid and drunk each morning. For duodenal ulcers, the powdered herb taken in capsule form is best. When the capsules dissolve, the powdered herb forms a thick mass at the entrance of the duodenum. When the sphincter muscle opens, the herbs fall directly onto the ulcerated area.
(d) It is a traditional treatment for erratic menstrual cycles and has been proven to induce the production of estrogen, the hormone that regulates menses. Licorice is high in phytoestrogens and is an effective treatment of menopausal symptoms. It is best when combined with such other herbs also high in plant estrogens as hops and black cohosh, but it is quite effective when taken on its own.
It is used to treat a variety of complaints – some skin problems and to soothe inflamed eyes.
The plant contains a number of chemicals which have been proven to be anti-inflammatory. Since scientists have established a link between allergies and inflammatory diseases, licorice has been successfully used to treat allergies and arthritic and rheumatic conditions.
At the first sign of the flu, equal parts of licorice, red root, and echinacea made into a tincture and taken each hour, has proven to be the best “flu shot,” but it must be taken each hour, though, in order to be effective. Licorice seems to enhance the action of other herbs taken in conjunction with it, including echinacea. When both are taken, they produce immune-enhancing actions far beyond what each can do on its own.
Licorice has been proven to inhibit the growth of sarcoma 45 and Ehrlich ascites cells. It is also used to boost the body so that it can fight off degenerative diseases. If licorice is administered early in a debilitating disease, it has shown to lead to weight gain and an improvement in strength, blood pressure, and general well-being. The key is to take it in the early stages rather than waiting until debility becomes serious.
In China, G. uralensis (gan cao), is called the “great detoxifier.” A decoction is combined with ginseng as a daily tonic. It is thought to drive the poisons from the system and is often referred to as the “grandfather of herbs.”
In rural Mexico today, a cough syrup is made by boiling the roots in water.
Licorice contains an active ingredient that is comparable to codeine and used for coughs and other lung infections. At one time, singers used to chew licorice root to strengthen the throat, while asthmatics did the same to help them breathe.
In the Arab world, licorice is used for fever, respiratory complaints, and gastritis. A favourite Arab sherbet is one made from grinding licorice root, carob pulp, and raisins together and freezing them. Since all three have healthy properties in them, the combination is above average.