Licorice (Glycyrrhiza Glabra) is a perennial legume herb native to southern Europe and parts of Asia. You are probably familiar with the flavor of licorice – or liquorice. But what you might not know is that the health benefits of licorice root go back thousands of years.
Modern licorice got its name from the Greek word glukurrhiza. Dioscordes (40 AD – 90 AD), the ancient Greek physician and Botanist, named the herb Glukus, or “sweet” and rhiza, or “root.” He included licorice root in his De Materia Medica, a pharmacopeia that would be widely used for over 1,500 years.
Licorice root named medicinal plant of the year
In 2012, licorice was named the “medicinal plant of the year” by the Study Group for Herbal Research at the University of Würzburg, Germany. The scientists at Würzburg selected the plant together with experts from the German environmental foundation, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In Germany, the WWF serves to spearhead the conservation and sustainable harvest of medicinal plant species.
Heritage of the Health Benefits of Licorice Root
Licorice is primarily grown in central and southeastern Asia. Licorice roots are densely packed with complex chemical compounds that give it the sweet, familiar taste as well as its many healing properties.
While most of our experience with licorice is in the form of sweets, most candies, however, contain little or no actual licorice extract. Instead, most candies contain forms of anise seed oil. In fact, anise, star anise, and fennel all have flavor similar to licorice but none of these herbs are actually botanically related.
Medicinal Traditions Old and New
Modern medicine continues to examine the health benefits of licorice root. Studies are looking into several different conditions and healing properties of licorice, including: respiratory ailments, digestive conditions, anti-inflammation, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, analgesic, and skin conditions.
In pre-modern medicine, licorice was one of the most widely used natural medicines. Licorice plays an important role in traditional Chinese medicine, Traditional German Medicine, and Ayurvedic medicine. Pliny the Elder, whose work resulted in the first known pharmacopeia, recognized the healing power of licorice in his work. In addition, our namesake Hildegard of Bingen incorporated licorice into her healing tradition.
“It makes the root of the human sense mild and brightens its eyes…and softens his stomach for digestion” – Hildegard von Bingen
When Napoleon pressed his stomach…
We’ve come to think of pre-modern medicine as a collection of home remedies based on extensive practice in tradition. We often overlook the centuries of informal clinical studies related to early medical healing. In the case of the health benefits of licorice root, we have early medical records and anecdotal accounts of historical figures like Napoleon. He reportedly carried it to improve the mild symptoms related to his gastritis.
Modern Healing Applications of Licorice
Today, microbiologists at the Institute for Medical Microbiology in Kiel, Germany have evaluated the positive effects of licorice on neutralizing and preventing Helicobacter pylori from attaching to the walls of the stomach. H.Pylori is a common type of bacteria that found in the digestive tract. When the gut is out of balance, H.Pylori has the tendency to attach to the walls of the stomach. This can cause serious damage, including ulcers. Licorice could prove to be instrumental in preventing and healing ulcers and other conditions due to the inflammatory response caused by bacteria.
A Nobel Prize for Licorice in Ulcers
For decades, scientists believed that excessive digestive acids breaking down the cells of the stomach lining were the principle cause of stomach ulcers. But in 1982 researchers first discovered that helicobacter pylori bacteria caused inflammation and even peptic ulcers. The initial claims of the researchers were cause for ridicule within the medical community. Further studies, however, would cement their findings and vindicate the researchers as they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005.
The health benefits of licorice root include anti-inflammatory properties. Licorice root also stimulates mucus production in the stomach. These soothing properties are why licorice can be an effective natural treatment and preventative therapy for mild forms of gastritis and gastric ulcers.
Of course, the health benefits of licorice root can only come from sources of actual licorice. Fortunately, licorice products are widely available in pharmacies and health food stores in a variety of forms. Keep in mind that the licorice products found in pharmacies and health food stores (including licorice roots, extracts, teas, and elixirs) may contain concentrated amounts of licorice. In these cases, be sure to consume only well-marked products and carefully follow the dosage instructions.
A Remedy for Coughs and Hoarseness
The health benefits of licorice root include the relief of mild respiratory issues. In ancient Egypt, licorice was regularly consumed as an expectorant and for throat pain. When combined with hot milk, this sweet root (licorice is estimated to be 50 times sweeter than sugar) becomes an ancient Ayurvedic remedy for treating hoarseness.
Modern medicine supports the healing properties of licorice as an effective anti-inflammatory for soothing mucus membranes in the airways. In addition, a lozenge of medically effective licorice has an emollient-promoting effect insofar as it dissolves tough mucus in the lungs and bronchi.
Licorice for colds and viruses
In addition to traditional medicinal uses for coughs and respiratory inflammation, recent research suggests that licorice can have a dampening affect on the cold and flu viruses as well as other more chronic viruses.
Over the last 20 years, the Japanese have embraced the health benefits of licorice root. The Japanese use licorice root to treat symptoms related to chronic hepatitis C. Modern evidence suggests that regular treatment using licorice root extract (often in the form of injections) serves as anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antiallergic drug for liver disease, particularly when combined with appropriate treatment.
The antiviral effect is attributed to Glycyrrhizic acid, a triterpene glycoside found in the roots of licorice plants. Glycyrrhizic acid is the primary active ingredient in the licorice root.
The antiviral properties of licorice root are well-documented. In 1977 scientists discovered that Glycyrrhizin (licorice root) helps inhibit the effects of herpes simplex viruses. Further research demonstrates the efficacy of licorice root in addressing symptoms related to more serious viruses such as hepatitis, flu, and even HIV and SARS viruses – at least in the test tube. These results are so promising that further studies are now underway worldwide.
Promising Antiviral for Inactive Virus Strains
Scientists at New York University have established the nuances of Glycyrrhizin (licorice root) as a potential treatment for herpes simplex virus or even the more dangerous HHV-8 virus, associated with HIV.
Glycyrrhizin effectively addresses both active and inactive virus variants. In many cases, the inactive variants pose the greatest risk, due to their dormant nature. For example, the herpes virus often does not produce symptoms in the infected person. If the infected person’s immune system becomes weakened, however, the virus becomes active and symptoms appear (or reappear.)
To be effective, active treatment must address those inactive viral strains that often remain dormant in the body for years. Based on the studies from NYU, that is exactly what Glycyrrhizin may be capable of achieving. However, studies indicate that to be effective, the necessary licorice consumption would exceed levels considered normal (healthy or safe). In addition, researchers only performed these tests on cell cultures, not on human subjects. We look forward to more studies.
Licorice Root for Burn Treatment
A University of Texas study revealed very different effects of Glycyrrhizin (licorice root) for burn victims. The study in mice showed Glycyrrhizin (licorice root) contributes meaningfully to preventing life-threatening infections that occur frequently after burns. The study showed that Glycyrrhizin found in licorice root improves the ability of damaged skin to defend itself against bacteria. Glycyrrhizin also stimulates various host defense immunities, including the inhibition of inflammatory responses.
Other research is underway exploring the potential health benefits of other active components of licorice root, beyond Glycyrrhizin, including flavonoids. This research includes evaluating the efficacy of licorice in treating symptoms associated with cancer, oxidative stress, and allergies.
So far, the results seem promising. This sweet root, with an ancient history, is beginning to reemerge in modern phytotherapy. As with many other potent healing remedies, we must address the undesirable effects that might accompany the therapeutic properties.
Licorice For (and Against) Fertility
For men who plan to procreate, licorice may not be the best medicinal herb. Licorice is rich in flavonoids, specifically prenylated flavonoids. This category of flavonoid have been associated with estrogenic affects in laboratory studies and significant testosterone reduction in human trials.
In fact, researchers at the Iranian Shahid Beheshti University found that 400 milligrams of Glycyrrhizin may be sufficient to show significant negative testosterone levels in men. Levels of licorice consumption in both human studies we reviewed were well within normal levels, so take caution if you are a man considering using licorice.
For women, on the other hand, a daily dose of licorice may promote procreation, since it stimulates ovulation. In Japan, a traditional fertility treatment includes giving women an herbal mixture of peony and licorice root to help promote fertility. Those same flavonoids that seem to negatively impact testosterone in men, however, may positively impact estrogen levels in women.
More studies are underway to investigate the potential health benefits of licorice root. Specifically, the potential for licorice root to help ease symptoms associated with menopause and bone loss.
Licorice Root Use & Cautions
The continuous use of licorice and licorice solutions may cause unwanted side effects. In clinical trials, a dose of 100 milligrams of glycyrrhizic acid daily caused shifts in mineral balances. Specifically, sodium levels in the body increased with a corresponding decrease in potassium levels. This imbalance in electrolytes can result in water retention, muscle weakness, hypertension, and cardiac arrhythmia.
For this reason, we recommend limiting your consumption of licorice (including tea) for no more than four consecutive weeks. Cardiovascular patients, hypertension patients, and diabetics should only use licorice products in small quantities.
Pregnant women or those who are taking diuretic medication should avoid consuming licorice root altogether. Similarly, those who have had heart transplant surgery or take medications containing Ciclosporin should abstain altogether from licorice. Taiwanese academic research demonstrates a link between licorice in the body and prevention of Ciclosporin.
Healthy people may consume 15 grams of pure licorice per day, when accompanied by a healthy diet and regular activity regimen. But at no time should you consume more than 50 grams per day.
For a great way to start enjoying the health benefits of licorice root, try our Licorice tea!