Licorice (Glycyrrhiza) is an herb long used in ancient Chinese medicine and folk herbalism, renowned for its wide range of therapeutic effects. It derives its scientific name from the Greek word for “sweet root” and common name from a French word also meaning “sweet root”—and that is what is so remarkable about this herb; a key compound in this herb, glycyrrhizin, is up to 50 times sweeter than sugar!
Licorice has a rich history of being used in candies and dried sticks of licorice can even be chewed as a delicious, sugar-free and mouth freshening agent that is remarkable sweet. Stories of Alexander the Great circulate that pieces of licorice were given to chew in his armies as a way to help with thirst and dry mouth, within the traditional herbal energetic system this quality is called "dampness" and relates to moistening and nourishing qualities. Licorice is fabled in Tibetan and Classical Chinese medicine as one of the most important herbs used for cough, and is found in many herbal formulas in these traditions as a "synergist" meaning that is harmonizes the actions of other herbs.
Many of you may be familiar with black licorice, which is a concentrate of licorice root made chewy candy that most either love or hate—but licorice root in teas and tinctures has a much mildly earthy and strangely sweet taste. We love to get the benefits of licorice by chewing on pieces of the root, which in addition to not having sugar - many kids love! This is because a key healing component of licorice root is glycyrrhizin, which as mentioned is 50 times sweeter than sugar. Licorice is typically known as an immune supportive botanical, but it touts benefits for digestion, hormone balance, adrenal function and functions as a marvelous synergist with other botanicals—making it a key herbal in anyone’s natural remedies cabinet.
Traditional Uses of Licorice
Energy & Stress Relief:
Licorice is remarkable in its ability to support adrenals in those with chronic fatigue and low adrenal functioning through its effects on glucocorticoid/mineralcorticoid receptors. Glucocorticoids & mineralcorticoids are produced in the adrenal cortex and have direct influence on stress response, immune function, inflammation, metabolism and even mood. Interestingly some research indicates that glycyrrhizin lowers cortisol levels in fat cells, which decreases fat storage. High cortisol is related to visceral fat storage (inside abdomen and around organs) which is a risk factor for a variety of health issues (1).
Licorice tincture (alcohol extract) has been shown to help lower blood sugar and high insulin levels making it potentially beneficial for those with metabolic disorders such as PCOS & Diabetes. Specifically, in those with PCOS a study showed that it lowered androgen levels, possibly from its ability to increase liver detoxification of excess hormones. A particular isoflavone in Licorice has a weak phytoestrogenic effect which may be protective from excess levels of estrogen (1).
Licorice is used in traditional medicines to support digestion, improve nutrient absorption and increase appetite. It is an overall digestive restorative particularly used for those that feel fatigued between means and have difficult to manage sweet cravings. (2)
Licorice has demulcent (moistening) qualities which is why it is used traditionally for dry cough, sore throat and respiratory infections. It overall is useful for viral & bacterial infections and is an expectorant (releases mucus). Licorice has a specific indication for any infection where there is dryness, irritated airways and inflammation. From its immune regulating effects, it may even have benefit for allergies, asthma and autoimmune issues. (2)
Dosage & Preparation
Around 10g of dried root (2 heaping tbsp) and put in a small pot filled with water and boiled for at least 20 min. You can then strain out the licorice and drink the infused water. This method is especially important for licorice and other roots as only boiling for some time will pull out all the constituents. Simply making a tea will still work but will be less potent as in a decoction boiling temperatures are sustained for longer.
You can make a tincture out of licorice quite simply, or purchase one—dosage is 1-3 ml/day (2-6 dropperfuls/day). Tinctures are easy to make, convenient to take, are highly concentrated with plant compounds and are a great way of preserving herbs (fresh or dry) as they last for more than 5 years before expiration.
1) Scientific Method: Mix 100 ml of vodka, brandy or other 40% alcohol with 100 ml of filtered water and put into a mason jar. Grind/blend 40-50g of dried licorice root into a powder and mix into the alcohol mixture, close the jar and let it sit in a dark place for at least 3 weeks. At the end of the 3+ weeks, filter out the licorice root material through a cheesecloth into another container so that you only have the extracted fluid.
2) Folk Method: Put as much ground licorice root as you have on hand into a large mason jar and fill up with half-half alcohol water mixture enough to cover the root material by 2 inches. The rest of the is the same as above.
*Safety: Licorice should not be used by those with high blood pressure or in high doses (>3g/day) for more than 6 weeks without the guidance of a healthcare professional according to literature.
Fascinating Research Facts about Licorice
Licorice may have benefit for neurological disorders by protecting neurons from inflammatory damage:
“Emerging findings demonstrate the therapeutic potential of glycyrrhizin against several HMGB1-mediated pathological conditions including traumatic brain injury, neuroinflammation and associated conditions, epileptic seizures, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. Glycyrrhizin’s effects in neurological disorders are mainly attributed to the attenuation of neuronal damage by inhibiting HMGB1 expression and translocation as well as by downregulating the expression of inflammatory cytokines. HMGB1 (High Mobility Group Box) is a ubiquitous protein with proinflammatory cytokine-like activity implicated in an array of inflammatory diseases.” (3)
Licorice may be an effective anti-bacterial for the bacteria that cause tooth decay:
“The constituents glycrrhizol A exhibited the strongest activity against Streptococcus Mutans, the main bacteria that causes tooth decay.” (1)
Licorice may be effective for increasing metabolism and weight loss:
“A meta-analysis of 26 clinical trials with the total of 985 patients showed that consumption of licorice (G. glabra) preparations such as licorice flavonoid oil decreases body weight and body mass index.” (4)
Licorice may be helpful for eczema due to allergic causes:
“A licorice gel has been found to be superior to placebo in the treatment of atopic eczema, according to the systematic review of randomized controlled trials.” (5)
1) Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth. Tilgner, Sharon. 2nd edition 2009. Wise Acres LLC.
2) The Energetics of Western Herbs Vol.1, Holmes, Peter. 4th Revised Edition 2007. Snow Lotus Press.
3) Potential Neuroprotective Effect of the HMGB1 Inhibitor Glycyrrhizin in Neurological Disorders. Yam Nath Paudel et al,ACS Chemical Neuroscience 2020 114, 485-500 DOI: 10.1021/acschemneuro.9b00640
4) Metabolic changes after licorice consumption: A systematic review with meta-analysis and trial sequential analysis of clinical trials. Ângelo Luís, Fernanda Domingues, Luísa Pereira. 2018 Phytomedicine,Volume 39, 09447113,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2017.12.010.
5) Topical Herbal Medicines for Atopic Eczema: A Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials Y. Thandar et al. Dermatol. 2016 Jul 4 : 10.1111/bjd.14840. Published online 2016 Jul 4. doi: 10.1111/bjd.14840