Ellen Kamhi, Ph.D. R.N. THE NATURAL NURSE
Licorice is a traditional herbal remedy with an ancient history. The latin name of
Licorice is Glycyrrhiza glabra. The plant family known as glycyrrhiza, is a group of at
least 26 varieties of plants in the Pea family. Licorice is a perennial herb that grows to
approximately 3-7 feet. The large tap root and its side runners can attain lengths of over
3 feet. The official medicine, Radix glycyrrhiza is derived from these roots, which are
unearthed in the fall and dried. It is mainly cultivated in Spain, India, Turkey, China, Italy
and S.W. Asia.
The first written mention of Licorice was recorded in the ancient Chinese medical
work, “Divine Husband's Classic” of the Materia Medica, as Gan Cao (Kan-Tsao) or
Sweet root. The Chinese believed that licorice root was unique in that it entered all 12
acupuncture meridians, and directed the actions of other herbs in the complex formulas
of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Licorice is used for coughs, sore throats, asthma, to
clear pathogenic heat (a sign of microbial infection in TCM), and to increase Qi, (vital
energy). These ancient applications of Licorice indeed are accurate reflections of modern
pharmacological research. So much was licorice revered, that it is an ingredient in 60%
of all traditional Chinese medicinal formulas. Licorice also was written about in ancient
Assyrian tablets and Egyptian papyri, like the noted “Codex Ebers”. Linneus coined the
term "glycyrrhiza" from Glykys, meaning sweet, and rhiza, or root.
Licorice root is used for arthritis and other painful afflictions due to it's ability to block
the degradation of corticosteroids. By allowing cortisone to have a longer half life, two
benefits occur. The amount and duration of pharmaceutical drug corticosteroid therapy,
which has many negative side effects, can be reduced, and the efficacy of the natural
steroids produced in the body by the adrenal glands is enhanced. Licorice can aid patients
decrease the use of toxic drugs, such as cortisone and help to reduce pain naturally.
Licorice root displays a wide range of powerful free radical scavenging antioxidant
activities. Components naturally present in licorice are potent antioxidants against the
free radicals which cause LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) to oxidize. Since LDL oxidation is a
key event in the formation of the early atherosclerotic lesions, the use of licorice may
decrease atherosclerosis. Other components found in licorice have been shown to protect
the mitochondria (energy production centers) of liver cells.
Licorice has been shown in scientific studies to have several specific effects improving
the function of the immune system. It improves the white blood cell’s ability to engulf
unwanted invaders, as well as increasing the body’s production of T cells. In addition,
licorice can interfere with the ability of viruses to replicate and cause infection. Licorice
has also been documented to have anti-bacterial effects against Streptococcus mutants,
one major cause of dental cavities.
Modern research has shown that it has beneficial effects on the endocrine system,
adrenal glands, and liver; it is also a systemic anti-inflammatory. The anti-irritant effect
on the gastrointestinal system is thought to be due to flavonoid derivatives of licorice
called steroidal saponin glycosides, which exert a protective effect on the lining of the
digestive system. Licorice root is used internationally for its anti-ulcer and healing
effects on the gastrointestinal system. Licorice root has also been shown to reduce gastric
bleeding, which is a well documented side effect caused by the use of non-steoridal anti-
Licorice flavors candies, liqueurs, ice cream, chewing gum and bakery items with good
reason! One of its major components, glycyrrhizin is 50 times sweeter than cane sugar.
It increases the amount of foam in stout beers, and is a common ingredient in Italian
licorice candies. Licorice has a distinctive flavor, but most licorice candies in the US do
not contain true licorice. Instead they are flavored artificially or with anise.
The use of Licorice root may cause high blood pressure. One of the main studies that
examined the link between licorice root and high blood pressure, found that individuals
who experienced these or other side effects, commonly in used over 3000 mg per day
of licorice, usually through eating a lot of real licorice candy! Licorice should not be
used by people with severe hypertension, active kidney disease or depleted potassium
levels without consulting a knowledgeable health care practitioner. However the form of
licorice called DGL (deglycyrrhizized), does not generate these concerns. DGL licorice is
often used to help settle the stomach.