by Steven Foster
Text © 2000 Steven Foster
We have come to associate
licorice as a flavor, at once loved by many and disliked by others. The
flavor that conjures "licorice" in our minds is not what it seems. What
we have come to associate as licorice flavor is actually anise.
Formulations for licorice candies contain anise oil as the primary
flavor, with licorice root itself used as a sweetener, a sort of
background flavor. Licorice is one of those herbs that crosses the lines
among fragrance, flavor and medicinal herb. The source plant is a member
of the pea family. The most familiar licorice is European licorice
Glycyrrhiza glabra. On medicinal markets Chinese licorice
Glycyrrhiza uralensis is also commonly used. It is probably the most
abundant species in the American market given that the Chinese
commercial licorice root is cheaper than its European counterpart.
Origins and History
The genus Glycyrrhiza
includes about 20 species native to Europe, Asia, North and South
America as well as Australia. The English name licorice is derived from
"liquiritia," itself a corruption of the ancient name
Glycyrrhiza, which now serves as the scientific generic name for the
Only one species is
native to the United States, Glycyrrhiza lepidota. Our wild
licorice has a broad range from western Ontario to Washington, south to
Texas, Mexico and Missouri. Eastward, there are scattered populations.
It is a plant of prairies, meadows and the western shore. It has never
been developed as a commercial source of licorice. Surprisingly, the
plant is little studied. The Teton Dakota used the leaves for treating
sores on the backs of horses. The leaves were chewed and applied as a
poultice. Toothaches were treated by chewing the root, holding a piece
of the root in the mouth. The root was also used for treating fever in
children. It has a strong bitter taste, which then becomes sweet. In
Texas, it is called amolillo, which refers to the foaming produced by
stirring the root in water. In Texas folk tradition, the root tea was
used to reduce fever in women after childbirth and to help expel the
placenta. Other than a few relatively obscure folk uses of the plant by
European settlers and indigenous groups, the plant is little known in
the United States.
European licorice, on the
other hand, is a plant with a rich historical tradition. In Europe it is
found in dry open habitats in the south and east, and has been
cultivated throughout the continent where it is naturalized in almost
all countries, except Scandinavia. Licorice was always harvested from
the wild until the first European plantings of the herb were established
almost a thousand years ago. The first century Roman naturalist Pliny
mentions that licorice is native to Sicily. Theophrastus notes the sweet
flavor of the roots and says it is used for asthma, dry cough, and all
diseases of the lungs. Though not native to Germany, it was well-known
there by the eleventh century and extensively grown in Bavaria by the
end of the sixteenth century. Cultivation is recorded in Spain by the
thirteenth century. Edward the First of England placed a tax on licorice
imports in the year 1305 to finance the repair of the London Bridge.
Licorice stick is the sweet, earthy- flavored underground stem of the
plant, which may travel up to twenty feet from the main root. Cut into
sections about 8 inches long, these underground stems or stolons are
widely available in the herb market. They can be chewed to impart their
sweet flavor. Napoleon chewed licorice sticks and that's what is said to
have turned his teeth black.
Chinese licorice mainly
comes from Glycyrrhiza uralensis. It is found in dry grassy
plains, and sunny mountainsides from much of northern China, especially
the Asian steppes to the west. Most of the supply comes from northwest
China. While it is the main species used in Asia, European licorice also
occurs in wild desert regions, dry plains, grassy plains with salty
alkaline soil, and fallow wastelands that were once used for producing
rice, wheat, and millet in northwest China. These two species along with
another Chinese native, Glycyrrhiza inflata, are official drug
plants in Chinese Pharmacopoeia. The Chinese call licorice gan-cao,
which means "sweet herb." An ancient Chinese herb, it is mentioned in
one of the earliest Chinese herbals attributed to the Divine Plowman
Emperor, Shen Nong, surviving from the first century. The work is known
as Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing. Virtually all of the important Chinese
medicinal herbs of today were mentioned in this important work, which
has never been translated into English.
In Chinese medicine, licorice is
one of the more widely used herbal drugs. Unlike European herbal
medicine, in which herbs are often used alone, in traditional Chinese
medicine most herbs are used in prescriptions with 3 or more herbs,
sometimes 10 herbs, or even 50 or 100 herbs in a single prescription.
According to the theories of traditional Chinese medicine, the
prescriptions are separated into the monarch or main drug, minister
drugs, assistant drugs, and guide drugs. The monarch drug is the "king"
of the prescription and has the primary effect on the health condition.
Many "assistant" drugs cooperate with a major ingredient in a
prescription to produce a better effect on one particular organ or
condition. The minister drug helps to synergistically increase the
effect of the monarch drug. The "guide drug" is added to enhance the
effectiveness of other ingredients, reduce toxicity or improve taste.
Licorice is used in many Chinese herbal prescriptions as a guide drug to
enhance the activity of other ingredients, reduce toxicity, as well as
improve flavor. It is said that licorice is used in as many as half of
all traditional Chinese medicine prescriptions.
If we look at use of
licorice from a western perspective, we see that its use has changed
little over 3,000 years. It is considered demulcent (soothing to
irritated membranes), expectorant (loosening and helping to expel
congestion in the upper respiratory tract), and stimulates mucous
secretions of the trachea. Other well-documented activities include
significant antiinflammatory effects, a protectant effect on the liver
against toxic substances and antiallergic activity.
As a very important medicinal
plant on a worldwide basis, the chemistry and pharmacology of European
and Chinese licorice have been well studied. Up to 24 percent of the
root weight is glycyrrhizin, the plant's major active component.
Glycyrrhizin (also known as glycyrrhizic acid) is an extremely sweet
glycoside, which foams in water. Other components called flavonoids are
also responsible for some the root's attributed actions. Glycyrrhizin is
said to be from fifty to two hundred times sweeter than sugar, hence the
sweet taste associated with licorice root. Licorice root itself has a
very sweet musty flavor, rather than the "anise" flavor we have come to
associate with licorice.
Studies have shown that
glycyrrhizin stimulates the excretion of hormones by the adrenal cortex.
Some researchers have suggested it as a possible drug to prolong the
action of cortisone. Glycyrrhizin has a similar chemical structure to
corticosteroids released by the adrenals, and further studies have
suggested that it might one day prove useful in improving the function
of hormone drugs, or be used as an aid in helping to reduce withdrawal
symptoms from dependency on some corticosteroid hormones. Glycyrrhizin
has also shown estrogenic activity in laboratory animals, and is
experimentally antiinflammatory, antirheumatic, and antibacterial. In
China, licorice root is used as an antacid.
Licorice and ulcers
One of the better known
folk uses of licorice in Europe has been in the treatment of gastric
ulcers. Based on this historical use, in European herbal medicine,
licorice has been widely used as a treatment for gastric ulcers. Modern
use began in 1946, when a Dutch physician, F. E. Revers demonstrated
that licorice was the active ingredient in a domestic medicine used in
the Netherlands, then reported good results obtained in the treatment of
stomach ulcers in 32 patients. In the 1950s new research showed that
licorice-derived compounds can raise the concentration of prostaglandins
in the digestive system that promote mucous secretion from the stomach,
as well as produce new cells in the stomach lining. It was also shown
that licorice prolongs the life span of surface cells in the stomach and
has an antipepsin effect. The combined effect leads to the healing of
ulcers. A recent study from Iranian researchers used aspirin coated with
licorice and found that it helped protect against ulcers induced by
aspirin, reducing the size and number of ulcers.
Licorice - the Down Side
About 20 percent of
patients treated with licorice in the 1950s experienced side effects
such as water retention, upper abdominal pain, headache, shortness of
breath, and stiffness. At first scientists thought this was an allergic
reaction. Treatment with antihistamines brought no relief. The symptoms
usually disappeared when the dose was reduced, though sometimes it was
necessary to stop licorice use all together. Similar symptoms have been
reported from ingestion of large amounts of licorice-containing candy,
as well as by users of tobacco products flavored with licorice. This
litany of side effects left medical practitioners with little interest
in using licorice in the past thirty years.
More experience has been
accumulated in the clinical use of licorice. Recognized side effects of
prolonged use of licorice can include hypertension, water retention,
sodium retention and loss of potassium. Therefore, the German health
authorities warn that licorice should not be used for more than four to
six weeks in therapeutic doses, without medical advice. During this
period of time, a diet rich in potassium (such as bananas and dried
apricots) is recommended. The potassium loss can also produce
interactions with other drugs. The water loss-producing effects of
conventional thiazide diuretics can be increased. In addition, if the
individual is on digitalis glycoside heart medications (derived from
foxglove), the potassium loss can actually increase the effect of the
digitalis glycoside drugs by up to 50%. Since the toxic and effective
doses of digitalis glycosides are in close balance, physicians should be
aware of this potential drug interaction. In addition, various European
health authorities, including the German and French health agencies warn
that licorice should not be used in cases of high blood pressure,
potassium deficiency in the blood, or chronic liver inflammation and
According to the German health
authorities, the dose of licorice is about 1 teaspoonful of the cut and
sifted root (equivalent to 2-4 g), in a cup of boiling water. After the
water is poured over the root, it is allowed to simmer for an additional
five minutes. It is then cooled and filtered. One cup of the tea is
taken after a meal. Use is limited to four to six weeks without a
physician prescribing further use.
Scientists have shown
that licorice has an effect on the adrenals, helping to stimulate
glucocorticoid production. In excess, this leads to the side effects now
recognized for licorice. Recognizing these effects described for and
related to licorice, Riccardo Baschetti of Padova, Italy, sent a letter
to the New Zealand Medical Journal reporting his own success in
treating his own case of chronic fatigue syndrome with licorice root.
Citing the work of Dr. Mark Demitrack of the University of Michigan
Medical Center who had published a number of papers related to mild
glucocorticoid insufficiency in chronic fatigue syndrome patients who
don't have symptoms of Addison's disease. Mr. Baschetti, put two and two
together. If his theory is correct, it occurred to him that licorice
consumption, which potentiates glucocorticoid hormone action, might be
useful in chronic fatigue syndrome. His chronic fatigue syndrome had
persisted for 20 months with unsatisfactory results with various
treatments. He then started taking licorice at a dose of 2.5 g/ 500 mL/d
in milk. After a few days of his licorice therapy, his physical and
mental stamina returned (though his lymph nodes did not reduce
significantly in size). The author warned that the symptoms of
depression are similar to chronic fatigue syndrome, and that licorice
could be detrimental to depressed patients. Physicians, he warned,
should make sure that patients have chronic fatigue syndrome and not
depression before trying this regimen. It is important to note that this
report is only the experience of one individual and is not a cure for
chronic fatigue syndrome. Rather, it provides a significant research
lead, and possible approach that other practitioners may wish to monitor
in patients using licorice.
Licorice is more than a flavor.
While in small doses over a short period of time, licorice can help in
reducing ulcers, and is used traditionally as a cough suppressant,
expectorant, and other uses, its future perhaps lies in taking what is
currently known about the herb, and applying that to new applications.
We shall see what the future will bring.
R., New Zealand Medical Journal, April 26, 156-157, 1995.
M. eds., S. Klein, trans. German Bundesgesuntheitsamt (BGA) Commission
E Therapeutic Monographs on Medicinal Products for Human Use. (English
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