Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Photo by Stephen Foster

When we talk about licorice, most people think of licorice candy. I remember when I was young going to the ice cream store and getting licorice flavored ice cream, too. It was blackish colored and one of my favorite flavors. Most licorice candy is made with anise these days, although you can get real licorice candy at the health food store. Read licorice colors your tongue black (that licorice ice cream used to do that), but the licorice flavored with anise doesn't.

But, we're not talking about the candy (or the ice cream) here, we're talking about the herb and licorice root is a fabulous medicinal plant that just happens to balance blood sugar levels and counteract the craving for sweets.  So, instead of thinking of licorice as a candy, think of it as the anti-candy herb!

Licorice is a perennial herb and a member of the pea family.  The part used is the root, which is pictured below in a photo from Wikipedia.

licorice-root.gif

Licorice contains a compound called glycyrrhizin which is a triterpene saponin glycoside (which simply means its a saponin bonded to glucose) that is 30-50 times sweeter than sugar. The sweet taste of licorice has some great benefits.  First, it makes it easy to get kids to take the herb and secondly, it means it can be used to mask the flavor of nasty tasting herbs in an extract. So, I've added licorice (both for its therapuetic benefits and as a flavoring agent) to many herbal formulas I've designed for children.

My favorite use of licorie is to balance blood sugar. In my experience, licorice root (especially in extract form), rapidly raises low blood sugar to overcome feelings of hunger, sugar cravings, shakiness, mental confusion and irritability associated with hypoglycemia.  I typically give people with hypoglycemia and sugar cravings two licorice capsules with breakfast, two with lunch and two in mid-afternoon (about 3-4 o'clock).  I often combine this with an equal dose of Super Algae.  If this is not enough, I use one ATC concentrated licorice for breakfast and lunch (the equivalent of 8 regular capsules).

Licorice root is also soothing to irritated tissues.  It is a very benefical herb for ulcers, gastritis and acid indigestion. Sucking on the powder can help to ease sore throats and dry, irritated coughs. 

Licorice has a powerful affect on the adrenal glands, which is why it is an ingredient in Adrenal Support. It affects both aldosterone and cortisol, which means it has a very powerful anti-inflammatory effect and it can also cause fluid retention and increased blood pressure in large doses.  For this reason, licorice should be used with caution in people suffering from high blood pressure.  However, if high blood pressure is aggrevated by the use of licorice, adding extra potassium to the diet via Combination Potassium or even dandelion leaf seems to counteract this effect.

The anti-inflammatory action of licorice can make it useful in hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, arthritis, asthma (especially in children), bronchits, laryngitis, dermatitis and canker sores. It is one of the herbs I use to help wean people off of corticosteroid drugs.

This perennial member of the pea family has a long history of use in Oriental medicine. In fact, licorice is mentioned in Pen Tsao Ching, a 5000 year old Chinese herbal. It is one of the most frequently used herbs in Chinese herbal medicine and is often added in small doses to herbal formulas as a catalyst to improve their effectiveness (much like capsicum is often added as a catalyst to Western herbal formulas).  In fact, licorice root is found in 15 of NSP's 17 Chinese herbal formulas.  That says a lot of for the value of this plant, doesn't it?

Licorice has also been prized in traditional Western medicine for thousands of years. A large amount of licorice was found in the treasures of King Tut’s tomb.  The Egyptians believed that the dead used licorice to prepare a sweet drink called “maisus.” 

Licorice has an antiviral effect and has been used for treating Epstein-Barr virus and herpes.  It increases stamina and endurance and relieves thirst, making it useful in overcoming fatigue and helping tissues to stay hydrated better. It is one of the key ingredients in the energy-enhancing formulas ENERG-V, Target Endurance and Nature's Chi.

Licorice contains isoflavones that are known to be estrogenic.  Although it does not appear to have any estrogen-like properties, it is possible that licorce may help inhibit estrogen-dependent cancers by tying up estrogen receptor sites.

One can easily see why licorice root is an ingredient in 43 NSP formulas. It is also available as a single in capsules, liquid and concentrate form. 

General use is two capsules two or three times daily.  For the liquid, take one teaspoon with water up to three times daily.  Safe doses of licorice can range much higher for inflammatory conditions, ulcers and other problems.  Higher doses range from 6-15 grams of the powdered herb, which is about 12-30 capsules per day.  If you're taking more than six capsules worth, use the ATC concentrate where one capsule is as potetent as four capsules of the regular licorice root.  The concentrate is also better for ulcers.

Overuse of licorice (which you can see requires taking quite a lot) may cause severe water and sodium retention, potassium depletion, hypertension, edema, vomiting, and nausea.  These reactions rarely occur, especially when using the whole root.  However, licorice should be used with caution with people who have hypertension. If these symptoms occur, the use of Combination Potassium or dandelion leaf tea may counteract them.

Selected References

Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica by Dan Bensky and Andrew Gamble
The Healing Herbs:  The Ultimate Guide to the Curative Power of Nature’s Medicines by Michael Castleman
Herbs that Heal:  Prescription for Herbal Healing by Michael A Weiner, Ph.D. and Janet Weiner
Nutritional Herbology by Mark Pedersen
The Wild Rose Scientific Herbal by Terry Willard, Ph.D.