Licorice has a secret life. A
series of medical studies have
revealed that this mild-mannered
candy is actually a superhero
herb in disguise.
For example, research with
animals and humans supports
the traditional use of licorice root
to prevent and treat stomach ulcers.
In a study of rats given
either plain aspirin or licoricecoated
aspirin (high doses of aspirin often causes ulcers in
rats), the rats receiving the licorice aspirin developed 50 percent
fewer ulcers. Studies with humans have found that compounds
containing glycyrrhizin (an active substance in licorice
– more on this later) may be as effective as leading antiulcer
medications in relieving stomach ulcer pain and preventing
ulcers from developing. In a study that utilized licorice
root extract to treat one hundred stomach ulcer patients
(of which eighty-six had not improved from conventional medication),
90 percent of patients improved. The ulcers totally
disappeared in twenty-two of these patients.
A study done by a team of Scottish researchers concluded
that a chemical derived from licorice may boost brain function
and slow age-related memory loss. The chemical is
carbenoxolone, a substance traditionally used to soothe ulcers.
Ten healthy elderly men without any memory impairment
took carbenoxolone three times a day. A month later the subjects performed about 10 percent
better on tests of the ability to use and
recall certain words than nonmedicated
Other research suggests that licorice
can help prevent and treat chronic hepatitis
(a liver disease), lower cholesterol
and blood pressure, and reduce the risk
of heart disease. All this from what
many of us regard as a pleasant candy.
This purple and white flowering perennial
is native to southern Europe,
Asia, and the Middle East. Sweet tasting
licorice has been used for over two
thousand years to soothe chest and
Modern herbalists also use licorice
for its anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory
properties, particularly its healing
qualities for inflamed mucous membranes
of the respiratory tract.
The plant flowers between May and
August. In the late fall, the roots are
gathered and dried. It is the root that is
most widely used in herbal medicine.
Known as “sweet root,” licorice root
contains a substance (glycyrrhizin) that
is about fifty times sweeter than sugar;
hence, the candy sticks derived from this
versatile herb. Licorice is the second
most prescribed herb in China following
Consistent with traditional usage,
Edgar Cayce recommended licorice primarily
for its healing effects on the mucous
membranes of the stomach and intestines
in the sixty-three readings that
discuss this herb. The readings always
prescribed licorice as an ingredient in
various complex herbal formulas – never
Licorice root and its derivatives can
be purchased at many health food stores.
In addition to the dried root, this herb is
available as a powder, cream, lozenge,
tablet, or liquid.
As with any powerful medicine, licorice
can be harmful if misused. Glycyrrhizin,
one of the active ingredients in licorice,
can produce negative side effects
including increased blood pressure, sodium
and water retention, and a variety
of harmful medication interactions. For
licorice without glycyrrhizin, look for
products labeled DGL (deglycyrrhizinated).
To avoid these potential problems,
many modern candy products substitute
anise (an herb with a pleasant licorice
flavor) or remove the glycyrrhizin. Be
careful to consume only modest amounts
of any candy labeled as “real licorice.”
Although I am sure that I am preaching
to the choir, be aware that swallowing
saliva from licorice-laced chewing tobacco
can also result in toxic reactions.
Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends
avoiding whole licorice or licorice root
products if you have high blood pressure,
kidney or liver disease, diabetes or heart
disease, if you’re using diuretics, and
during pregnancy. For anyone considering
using licorice as an ulcer treatment,
be sure to seek the assistance of a
qualified health professional.