Licorice and its Historical Uses
Licorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra, is a flavorful medicinal herb of the Pea family (Fabaceae). It is native to Europe and Asia. This perennial plant grows up to 7 feet high and produces an extensive branching root system. Its woody roots and rhizomes (underground stems) are the useful parts of the plant; they contain glycyrrhizin, a compound 50 times sweeter than table sugar that shows medicinal properties. The roots and rhizomes also contain other bioactive compounds that have therapeutic properties.
Licorice has been used in Europe and Asia for thousands of years as food and medicine.
The Chinese used it as laxative and to help regulate heartbeat. They also combine licorice to other traditional herbs to enhance their absorption and effectiveness. The Chinese believe that licorice is a superior balancing and harmonizing agent when added to other herbs.
Licorice is used by the Greeks to quench their thirst and to cure swelling caused by water retention.
Licorice has been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, signifying the herb’s importance in Egyptian culture. Licorice drink was used by ancient Egyptians to honor the spirits of dead pharaohs.
According to Pliny the Elder, licorice lozenge clears the voice and postpone hunger and thirst. The ancient medical doctor also added that licorice powder is often sprinkled in ulcerous sores in the genitals and mouth. The herb also heals kidney pains and excrescences of the bladder.
The ancient Hindus believed that licorice enhanced sexual vigor. They prepared a concoction by mixing licorice with milk and sugar.
Licorice flavor is used in a variety of foods: candies, gums, beverages, cookies, cough syrups, and beverages. It is also used as flavor for cigarettes, tobacco gums, and bitter medicines.
The roots are usually boiled to make tea. They can also be ground to make tablets and capsules. Liquid extract can also be made by boiling the roots and subsequently evaporating most of the water. Licorice dried roots, capsules, tablets, and liquid extracts can be purchased in grocery stores, pharmacies, and health food stores.
There are many claimed medicinal uses of licorice but only few of them are supported by scientific studies. The following are claimed medicinal uses of licorice:
- treat common cold
- rid of phlegm and mucous from the respiratory tract
- treat peptic ulcers
- treat canker sores
- relieve reflux (GERD)
- treat cough and asthma
- treat eczema and other skin problems
- treat hepatitis C and other viral infections
- regulate heartbeat
- prevent and treat cancer
- reduce inflammation
- balance hormones
- used as laxative
- control menopausal symptoms
- treat arthritis
- relieve bronchial irritation
- lower potassium levels in the body
- reduce body fat
- inhibit LDL oxidation
- treat Addison’s disease
Scientific studies have been done on the effectiveness of licorice in treating peptic ulcers, canker sores, eczema, dyspepsia, and respiratory problems (cold, cough), and in reducing body fat. The results of the studies are mixed but promising. More studies are needed.
In a laboratory study, chemical constituents of licorice like glabridin, glabrene, licoricidin, and licoisoflavone demonstrated anti-Helicobacter pylori activity. H. pylori is the bacterium associated to peptic ulcer. The researchers concluded that the compounds from licorice “may be useful chemopreventive agents for peptic ulcer or gastric ulcer in H. pylori-infected individuals.” (Fukai et al. 2002 Life Sciences)
Japanese researchers found out that isoflavones, flavonoids extracted from licorice, showed ability to scavenge free radicals, unstable and reactive atoms or compounds that can damage cellular components like DNA, RNA, and proteins. (Tsutomu et al. Chemical & Pharmaceutical bulletin)
The antioxidants of licorice prevent the oxidation of low density lipoproteins, proteins associated with atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries.
Constituents of licorice like triterpenoids (e.g. glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhizic acid), polypenols, and polysaccharides can protect the body against carcinogen-induced DNA damage. (Wang 2001. Nutrition and Cancer)
Licorice may contain phytoestrogens that help women with hormonal imbalances and menopausal symptoms.
- Fluid retention (Swelling)
- Heart failure
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Muscle pain
- Numbness in arms and legs
- Low potassium levels causing heart problems
It is highly advised to take licorice in moderation to prevent these side effects.