Nutritional and Health Benefits of Licorice Root
General Information About the Licorice Plant
Latin name: Glycyrrhiza glabra
Licorice (American English), or liquorice (British English), is also known as the sweet root, Spanish licorice, and the peacemaker herb. In India, it is called Mulethi. The plant is native to Asia and southern Europe.
The sweet taste of licorice comes from the molecule glycyrrhizin, which is about 50 times sweeter than sugar. Its pleasant smell comes from the volatile oils (essential oils) it contains.
The roots of the licorice plant are straight and round and grow horizontally underground. They are brown on the outside and have a yellow tint on the inside. The fresh root is about 50% water while the dried root is only about 10% water.
Common Uses of Licorice
Licorice has been used in both Eastern and Western medicine for thousands of years. In Ayurvedic medicine, licorice has been used since ancient times. Its uses are mentioned in ancient Ayurvedic texts like Charak Samhita, Sushruta, and Ashtanghvday.
The root stays good for roughly two years after harvest. It is available in teas, tablets, capsules, as dried roots, and as liquid extracts.
It is also used to make candies, sweets, herbal infusions, soft drinks, liquor, and some tobacco products to enhance the flavor and taste. It is also used as a spice.
Nutrients in Licorice
Licorice contains many nutrients including the following:
- Glycyrrhizic acid, one the main active constituents
- Isoflavones, a phytoestrogen (plant equivalent of estrogen)
- Flavonoids, another active constituent
- Sugars and starches
- Several amino acids
- Essential oils
- Minerals like manganese and phosphorus
- B vitamins
Health Benefits of Licorice
Licorice is an amazing herb that is claimed to have a wide range of health benefits. Like with many other claims of natural remedies, those of the licorice plant require more studies for confirmation. However, numerous studies have been done which support the various health claims. Here are some of the reported benefits.
- May Treat and Prevent Diabetes
- Licorice root contains an antidiabetic substance, amorfrutine, that has anti-inflammatory properties. Amorfrutine was found to help reduce blood sugar levels and can prevent the development of insulin resistance.
- Another study found that a different molecule, glabridin, protects nerve cells and prevents cognitive decline in diabetes and other neuropathic conditions.
- Roasted licorice may also treat and prevent diabetic nephropathy (kidney damage due to diabetes).
- According to one study, licorice flavonoid oil reduced abdominal adipose tissue and triglyceride levels in the plasma in rats fed a high-fat diet, suggesting that it has anti-obesity effects.
Licorice contains many antiviral and antibacterial components.
- Hepatitis B
- One study states that glycyrrhizin is commonly used in Japan to treat hepatitis B, supporting liver health and occasionally resulting in full recovery. The study elucidated a possible mechanism by which glycyrrhizin acts and suggests a therapeutic benefit when used intravenously.
- An in vitro study demonstrated that glycyrrhizin can potentially stop the replication of an HIV variant, although more studies are needed to confirm and fully understand the efficacy of licorice in treating HIV.
- Reduces Canker Sores
- Licorice root extract has been reported to reduce the size and pain of the ulcers in cases of recurrent canker sores.
- Supports Dental Health
- In Ayurvedic medicine, licorice root extract is believed to be antibacterial and is used to prevent plaque formation and cavities.
- A recent study shows that deglycyrrhizinated licorice root extract has antimicrobial action against Streptococcus mutans and prevents biofilm and plaque formation.
- Aside from the taste, this is another reason why licorice extract is used in many kinds of toothpaste and mouthwashes.
Women's Reproductive Health
- Licorice reduces serum testosterone levels in females, and when used as a complement to traditional therapies, may help treat hirsutism (growth of facial, chest, and back hair in women) and polycystic ovary syndrome (enlarged ovaries and growth of small cysts around the ovaries due to hormonal imbalances).
- Menopause and PMS
- One study indicates that licorice treats symptoms of menopause and premenstrual syndrome. It suggests that isoflavone, a phytoestrogen, helps balance estrogen and progesterone levels in the body.
- May Reduce Cancer Growth
- Studies have shown that licorice can control and reduce the growth of human breast cancer cells and rat colon cancer cells by promoting cell death.
- Other studies show that licorice has anti-tumor activity. It reduces the toxicity caused by chemotherapy and also prevents tumor proliferation.
- Licorice extract can also help in cases of chronic prostatitis, possibly by reducing inflammation, and prostate cancer, also by promoting cell death.
Other Health Benefits
- Liver Protection
- Gastric Ulcers
- Reports from the University of Maryland Medical Center site studies which suggest deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) may help reduce inflammation and irritation of the gut lining.
- It is unclear whether the benefits were from the DGL alone since it was used in combination with antacids.
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
- Dr. Daivati Bharadvaj, a holistic medicine practitioner, cites studies in his book, Natural Treatments of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, that show licorice root is better than hydrocortisone for treating CFS because it sustains the action of the cortisol released by the body rather than introducing new cortisol. This avoids the suppression of the adrenal glands seen with long-term use of hydrocortisone.
- Antioxidants in licorice may help prevent atherosclerosis by reducing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, an important step leading to the formation of arterial blockages.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- An investigative study suggests two components in licorice, glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhizetinic acid, may alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis through their anti-inflammatory action. These two components may be beneficial when used in addition to other treatments prescribed by your doctor.
- Coughing and Asthma
Precautions and Side Effects of Licorice
Although we've discussed how licorice can be beneficial for a variety of health conditions, keep in mind that most of the studies used isolated constituents of the licorice plant, meaning eating taking a bunch of licorice may not show any benefits and can even present harmful side effects. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) often presents fewer side effects and is gentler on the stomach.
If you are thinking about taking licorice, talk to your doctor first.
Although the side effects usually occur with very high doses of licorice—especially of glycyrrhizin—even at normal doses, some may still experience:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular menses
- Kidney disorders
- Changes in testosterone levels in men
You should not consume licorice if you have:
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Low potassium levels
- Kidney disease
- Heart disease
- Hormone-sensitive cancers
- Fluid retention or edema
It is also contraindicated in those who take prescriptions containing digoxin, ACE inhibitors, corticosteroids, insulin and other diabetic drugs, diuretics, warfarin, laxatives, or any medicines processed by the liver.
Pregnant women and nursing mothers should also avoid it.
Again, talk to your doctor before using licorice as a treatment.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult your physician or another healthcare provider before taking any home remedies, supplements, or starting a new health regimen.
© 2013 Rajan Singh Jolly