For most of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “licorice” likely isn’t the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, nor its long history of medicinal use and health benefits. Instead, our first thought is probably of candy. So it may come as a surprise that most commercial brands of licorice confections today contain none of this sweet medicinal root. But licorice’s medicinal and culinary history does include candy — the root’s compound glycyrrhizin is 50 times sweeter than sugar and has been used to make confections designed to aid digestion and soothe sore throats. It’s also useful in treating ulcers and other digestive complains. However, there is reason to use caution with this herb. Long-term high levels of consumption have been tied to health conditions, including the raising of blood pressure; a drop in potassium to dangerous levels; and hormonal changes.
Licorice comprises about 20 species of sticky, sometimes hairy perennial herbs with creeping rootstalk. One of the most common types used medicinally is Glycyrrhiza glabra (glykys, the Greek word for “sweet,” rhiza for “root,” and glabra from the Latin for “smooth”). It is native to dry scrubland or damp ditches in the Mediterranean region and southwestern Asia. Three to five feet tall, licorice plants can be identified by their alternate, pinnately compound leaves; pealike flowers in colors ranging from violet to pale blue that bloom in late summer; and fuzzy stems and leaf stalks. Their fruits appear in the form of leathery or prickly oblong seed pods containing two to five seeds each.
Medicinal Uses for Licorice
Licorice has been used in medicine since antiquity. The ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus reported on the use of the root to treat respiratory disorders. The Chinese have used the roots of G. glabra and G. uralensis to treat a wide range of illnesses; Chinese herbalists include licorice in many formulations, believing that it reduces the toxicity of certain other ingredients. Native Americans and early European settlers used the native G. lepidota to bring on menstrual periods; expel the placenta following childbirth; and relieve earache, toothache and fever. Licorice has also been used to treat sore throat, urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers, constipation and Addison’s disease — a disorder marked by insufficient secretion of hormones of the adrenal cortex. Externally, licorice has been used to soothe irritated skin.
Research has shown licorice’s potential to relieve inflammation associated with eczema, and to inhibit the growth of bacteria — including drug-resistant strains — and viruses. Some components of licorice have also shown estrogen-like activity. Preliminary research suggests the potential ability of licorice to reduce hot flashes brought on by menopause. One Japanese study showed that a preparation including licorice extract stimulated normal ovulation in women with infrequent menstrual periods. Other potential medicinal uses for licorice include the treatment of peptic ulcers, and the treatment of hepatitis B and C. It is also traditionally used for upper respiratory infections such as coughs, asthma and sore throats, and as a laxative.
Long-term use of whole licorice root can result in sodium retention and potassium loss. Pregnant women, people who have high blood pressure or kidney disease, or those who are taking digitalis medications should not take it. These side effects are caused by the glycyrrhizin in licorice, the component responsible for the root’s sweetness. For long-term use, practitioners recommend taking deglycyrrhizinated licorice (licorice treated to remove the glycyrrhizin), or DGL, which has no known side effects, according to Andrew Weil, M.D. Several studies show that DGL is effective in healing ulcers of the stomach and small intestine. Consult a qualified health practitioner if you are considering taking licorice for long-term health benefits.
Choose a spot in full sun or part shade. Licorice plants thrive in moist, fertile, but well-drained soil. They are easily grown from divisions or root cuttings planted 1 to 1-1/2 feet apart, or you can sow seeds outdoors in spring or fall. Commercial licorice root is harvested after three or four years’ growth. Dig up the roots in the fall after the tops are dry, and compost the tops. New plants will grow from any bits of root left in the soil, which may make it difficult to clear an area of licorice. Dry the roots for several months and then store them in a cool place.
In places where licorice doesn’t overwinter you can try growing it in a greenhouse in deep pots of well-drained sandy loam. Or grow it in the ground outside, but dig the plants in the fall and overwinter them in soil in a cool basement or root cellar.
Original article by Betsy Strauch. Updated by the Mother Earth Living editors.