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Licorice: The Sweet Root with Health Benefits

Published on February 12, 2024


By Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell has worked as a copywriter, writer, author, and editor for 35 years, specializing in the field of healthcare since 2009. She recognized the need for reliable health information while supporting friends through unique health challenges and refocused her career to bring clarity and compassion to healthcare communications. Lisa is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a lifelong Northern Californian.

http://lisastockwell.com/
Licorice: The Sweet Root with Health Benefits
Licorice: The Sweet Root with Health Benefits

When you think of Licorice, you may envision jet-black twists, a potent sweetness, and a flavor that inspires passionate devotion or profound dislike. While its taste is familiar to many, few know Licorice root as one of the oldest and most widely used plants in herbalism.

While Licorice root has been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine practices, scientists are only beginning to learn its properties and effectiveness as a natural way to support health. 

A Brief History of Licorice 

As early as 2300 BC, ancient Chinese texts were chronicling the health-supporting properties of Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza spp), noting its potential to support respiratory health, digestion, and age-related conditions. Even today, it is used in almost all herbal preparations in Traditional Chinese Medicine

It was so revered by the Egyptians, it was found in large quantities in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The ancient Greeks were the first in Europe to document the use of Licorice in their medical practices. Ancient Romans and Hindus also used this sweet root. 

By the 13th century AD, Licorice root extract was also being used to sweeten confections.

In medieval Europe, Licorice was popular not just in apothecaries but also in monasteries. Monks cultivated the plant, brewing it into soothing teas and incorporating it into throat lozenges and candies. 

By the 17th century, Licorice had crossed the English Channel. Pontefract Abbey in Yorkshire became a hub for licorice production, crafting the famous "Pontefract Cakes," coin-shaped candies that would pave the way for modern licorice confections.

Over time, Licorice made its way to Scandinavia, where salty Licorice became a national treasure, and across the Atlantic, where it was made into the chewy twisted sticks of candy you know and may love. Licorice adapted and evolved throughout its travels, taking on new shapes, textures, and even flavors. Curiously, much of the colored candy you see today labeled “licorice” has no Licorice root extract in it.

Licorice’s candy fame may have eclipsed its traditional medicinal past. But today, it is enjoying renewed interest as a health-promoting herb. 

The Bioactive Compounds in Licorice

Many scientists have investigated the key chemical constituents in Licorice root to determine the plant’s potential to support health.REF#3596 To date, they’ve identified over 400 compounds in Licorice. The compounds most likely to play an active role in health include: 

  • Glycyrrhizin: This unique triterpenoid saponin is licorice's most abundant bioactive compound, accounting for 10 to 16 percent of its dry weight. Its sweetness is over 40 times that of sucrose. It has been found to support normal inflammatory response, and it may support digestive and skin health and serve as an expectorant.
  • Flavonoids: These mighty antioxidants pack a punch against free radicals, potentially shielding cells from damage. Research suggests that Licorice root contains over 300 flavonoids that may contribute to its ability to support normal inflammatory response and immune health.REF#3597
  • Glabridin: The dominant isoflavone in Licorice root, Glabridin, is an antioxidant with estrogen-like properties, which may offer potential benefits for PMS and menopausal symptoms. It has also been found to have neuroprotective properties and may support brain health. 

Smaller amounts of various other components, including sterols, choline, and asparagine, may also contribute to Licorice's overall health benefits.

Research on the specific mechanisms of action and effective dosages of these components is ongoing. 

The Potential Health Benefits of Licorice

Despite Licorice’s popularity in traditional and folk medicine practices for thousands of years, we don’t yet have enough quality human research on its effectiveness as an herbal supplement. Most studies have looked at the action of the specific components of the root — glycyrrhizin, glabridin, and assorted flavonoids.

Based on the antioxidant properties of the primary compounds in Licorice root and their ability to support a normal inflammatory response, studies have shown Licorice may support the following:

  • Healthy Digestion: Licorice root has been shown in multiple studies to support a healthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is key to overall well-being and weight management.REF#3596 REF#3598 REF#3599
  • Respiratory Health: Research suggests the compound, glycyrrhizin, helps support respiratory health, from soothing throats to helping loosen and discharge mucus to relaxing the muscles around bronchi (airways).REF#3597
  • Normal Inflammatory Response: In a review of 93 research papers on the effects of Licorice extract on inflammation, the triterpines and flavonoids in Licorice were shown to reduce inflammation markers and offer a potential natural approach to support a normal inflammatory response.REF#3600
  • Oral Health: Because of its health-promoting properties, Licorice, when used within mouthwashes, may support oral health and help freshen breath.REF#3601
  • Women’s Health: The flavonoids and isoflavones have been shown to have estrogenic activity and may help manage some PMS and menopausal issues.REF#3602
  • Skin Health: A topical preparation of glycyrrhetinic acid has been used successfully to support skin health.REF#3600

While research is promising, more human trials are required to determine the full extent of Licorice’s health benefits. 

Adding Licorice Supplements to Your Health Routine

Given Licorice's flavor and promising health benefits, you may be tempted to dive headfirst into a bag of black licorice Twizzlers. While some black licorice candy has licorice extract in it, many of the candies labeled “licorice” do not. Of course, candy, with its high sugar content, is not the best way to incorporate any natural herb into your diet.

Supplements and teas offer the safest, most effective ways to add this potent plant to your wellness routine. While there is no recommended standard dosage for Licorice root, a 2020 review recommends the following dosages, no more than three times daily, as a safe and effective way to take advantage of the herb’s health benefits:

  • Powdered root: one to two grams
  • Fluid extract: two to four mL
  • Solid 4:1 (dry powdered) extract: 250 to 500 mg

Licorice supplements are available as powders, capsules, tinctures, and gels. If you prefer drinking tea, look for loose-leaf tea with whole or powdered root, or choose pre-made tea bags for ease. Start with a moderate serving (around one teaspoon) and steep for 5-10 minutes.

Seek Sources that Wild Harvest Licorice Sustainably

When purchasing Licorice root, be aware of whether it is wild harvested (also known as wildcrafted). Some herbs come from regions where they flourish naturally, and where indigenous and traditional communities have relied on them for generations. 

Since it’s not easy to check out remote locations, the health of the environment, and the treatment of the harvesters, an organization called FairWild is ensuring that wild harvesting is done using harvesting practices that protect the herb’s sustainability and regeneration. 

At Gaia Herbs, we’re proud to use FairWild herbs in various supplements, including FairWild Licorice harvested in Spain. 

Side Effects of Licorice Root and Precautions

Licorice root comes with potential side effects, primarily from glycyrrhizin. When ingested regularly, Licorice root has been shown to cause:

  • Sodium and water retention
  • Hypertension, especially for those with existing hypertension
  • Drop in serum testosterone in men

If you’re pregnant or nursing, you should not take Licorice root. Also, consult your healthcare provider if you take medications or have any medical conditions.

If you’re concerned about glycyrrhizin, opt for deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), which is believed to retain Licorice's benefits without the risk of side effects associated with high glycyrrhizin intake.

REFERENCES:

  • 1. , "Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): A phytochemical and pharmacological review", Phytotherapy Reseach. 1 1. , "Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): A phytochemical and pharmacological review", Phytotherapy Reseach.
  • 2. , "Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice): A Comprehensive Review on Its Phytochemistry, Biological Activities, Clinical Evidence and Toxicology", Plants. 2 2. , "Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice): A Comprehensive Review on Its Phytochemistry, Biological Activities, Clinical Evidence and Toxicology", Plants.
  • 3. , "An Extract of Glycyrrhiza glabra (GutGard) Alleviates Symptoms …: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study", Evidence Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. 3 3. , "An Extract of Glycyrrhiza glabra (GutGard) Alleviates Symptoms …: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study", Evidence Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine.
  • 4. , "Licorice flavonoid oil reduces total body fat and visceral fat in overweight subjects: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study", Obesity Research and Clinical Practice. 4 4. , "Licorice flavonoid oil reduces total body fat and visceral fat in overweight subjects: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study", Obesity Research and Clinical Practice.
  • 5. , "The anti-inflammatory activity of licorice, a widely used Chinese herb", Pharmaceutical Biology. 5 5. , "The anti-inflammatory activity of licorice, a widely used Chinese herb", Pharmaceutical Biology.
  • 6. , "The Power of Licorice (Radix glycyrrhizae) to Improve Oral Health: A Comprehensive Review of Its Pharmacological Properties and Clinical Implications", Healthcare. 6 6. , "The Power of Licorice (Radix glycyrrhizae) to Improve Oral Health: A Comprehensive Review of Its Pharmacological Properties and Clinical Implications", Healthcare.
  • 7. , "Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice)", Textbook of Natural Medicine. 7 7. , "Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice)", Textbook of Natural Medicine.