Licorice has long been touted as a natural remedy for a wide range of ailments. Historian Pliny the Elder wrote of the widespread use of licorice for its healing properties in treating the common cold, asthma and wounds. Licorice root was found in the tombs of the pharaohs in Egypt, implying the importance of the herb for the Egyptians. Evidence of its use has been documented in ancient Greece, throughout the Roman Empire and in Chinese herbal remedies. Licorice extract in its natural form contains mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid properties, as well as antimicrobial properties.
Licorice is extracted from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, which is a woody shrub that can grow up to five feet (1.52 meters) tall. The name glycyrrhiza originates from the Greek word for “sweet root.” The plant is indigenous to many subtropical climates, including northern China, Greece, Spain, Turkey and Iraq. The root holds glycyrrhizic acid (GZA), which is the main compound in licorice extract. GZA is approximately 50 times sweeter than the sucrose found in sugar cane.
Although in many countries, the extract is used to flavor candy, cigarettes, gum and so on, most foods with licorice flavoring in the US are not flavored naturally by GZA. Although medical studies have shown GZA to be successful for many applications, one of the main drugs derived from GZA, Carbenoxolone, which is used for the treatment of peptic ulcers, is not available in the US. Licorice has not yet caught on as a mainstream treatment for certain ailments in the US, although it is more widely used throughout the world.
Antiviral: GZA was found in tests to stop plaque formation in three different strains of Japanese encephalitis, to inhibit the growth of the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and to kill cells of the virus that causes a cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Studies have also shown the inhibiting effect of GZA on Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), as well as on hepatitis A and B.
Antiparasitic: In laboratory tests on animals, the compound in licorice was found to protect against candida infections, in addition to having some effect on Staphylococcus aureus.
Antitumor: Tests using licorice extracts showed “inhibitory activity” with some tumors and melanoma cells. The studies showed that GZA provided a protective effect against laboratory-induced tumors in rats and mice.
Cholesterol: Studies using GZA showed an impact on low density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation, which can improve overall cardiovascular health.
Anti-inflammatory: Although extracts of licorice have long been used to treat asthma, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis, few studies have been conducted to prove these claims. In the studies that have been conducted, licorice was shown to have a mild anti-inflammatory affect.
Common Cold: Licorice is often found in throat lozenges and has been found to act as a mild expectorant.
Licorice can be ingested as a tea by chopping or grating the licorice root and brewing it in hot water, or it can be crushed in powdered form and put into caplets to swallow. For centuries, the roots were simply dug up, cleaned and chewed to extract the juice. When the root is boiled, the resulting liquid is licorice extract, which can be used as a flavoring or remedy.
Because few studies have been conducted on humans, most of the effects of licorice on human ailments remain anecdotal. One must be careful when using licorice as a self-treatment, as licorice poisoning is well documented. An overdose of licorice can cause edema, fluid retention and an increase in blood pressure and sodium levels in the body.