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Ancient Healer for Digestion, Auto-immune, Respiratory, and More: Licorice

Ancient Healer For Digestion, Auto-immune, Respiratory, And More: Licorice

For centuries, we humans have had a love-it or hate-it relationship with Licorice. Have you met anyone who doesn’t have a strong opinion on the taste of black licorice candy or, for that matter, Jaegermeister?

If you’ve sided with the supporters of this sweet, slightly spicy and oh-so distinctly flavored root, you’re not alone. For at least 3000 years, we humans have relied on a variety of licorice species to help us heal and stay healthy. Our earliest recorded use of licorice root comes out of ancient Assyria on tablets dated around 2000 BCE and the earliest preserved samples of licorice root were found in ancient Egypt and King Tut’s Tomb. Chances are high, though, that licorice has been used to soothe irritated mucus membranes, balance hormonal function, fight bacterial infections and clean the blood for far longer than that.

You’ll Find Licorice at Home Just About Everywhere

Licorice has claimed a home on every continent of our planet save Antartica. The native species for North America is Glycyrhiza lepidota. In Asia, it’s G. uralensis. In Russia you’ll find G. echinata and G. canthrocarpa graces Australia’s sandy soils. Licorice gets around!

It helps that Licorice is a fairly hardy and tolerant plant. Damp to dry, well-drained soils with full to part-sun like those found around the world are exactly the conditions that best serve this medicinal shrub. Perhaps not so coincidentally, you’ll find those precise conditions in many of the areas where humans have traditionally settled, making Licorice’s medicine one that’s been within easy reach for our species all along.

Which Species of Licorice to Use?

The European variety, G. glabras, is the one you’ll find most often studied in modern Western journals and referenced in many of our modern and older herbals, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only or the best variety to use. Glycyrrhiza glabras is often cited as the sweetest and tastiest variety, but as far as medicine is concerned it’s on-par with the varieties that have been used for centuries by natives everywhere licorice species grows. Chinese Licorice root and North American Licorice root have a well-documented history of use by the locals and are now gaining popularity with herbalists both worldwide and in their native regions.

Chinese Licorice Root

In China, the favored local variety is the one you’ll most likely find in most medicinal preparations. Glycyrrhiza uralensis has long been cultivated and used to clean the blood and detoxify, clear heat, and tonify Qi. Today, you’ll find G. uralensis or G. glabras used as a guide herb or harmonizer in many TCM formulas, too. Chinese licorice root, also known as Gan Cao, is used raw (Gan Cao) or fried (Zhi Gan Cao) in honey. Raw, it has a slightly spicier and slightly less sweet scent and flavor than G. glabras, in my experience.

North American Licorice Root

In North America, G. lepidota has been used for many of the same healing actions as is G. glabras, too. Stephen Buhner teaches us that the varieties are fairly interchangeable, which suggests that those of us who have the good fortune to have access to our North American variety would be wise to follow the leadership of the tribal healers who came before us and use that one rather than its European cousin, G. glabras. The major difference you’ll find, according to Buhner, is North American Licorice isn’t as sweet as its European cousin. According to Kathy Eich, Wild Licorice, as G. lepidota is often known in America, seems to also have a lower concentration of glycyrrhizin, the chemical in G. glabras that’s been connected to hypertension and increased blood pressure in many studies, making it potentially a better choice than the European variety at least for North American herbalists.

European Licorice Root

Since the time of Hippocrates, licorice root has been used in Traditional Western Herbal medicine. No doubt, Hippocrates and his contemporaries were informed by a long history of use of G. glabras throughout their regions and from neighboring Egyptian and Middle Eastern traditions. By the Middle Ages, tax records show quite clearly licorice root was a valued medicine and commodity in England and beyond. Around the year 1760, G. glabras made the jump from a purely medicinal crop to a foodstuff with the advent of Pontefract Cakes, a confection developed by George Dunehill of Pontefract Apothecary in the town of Pontefract.

We might wonder, though, if the Ancient Egyptians might have beat him to it; Hieroglyphic records connect licorice root with a drink that was popular among Egyptian men of all levels. Erk Sous, modern Egypt’s popular licorice root preparation, is most likely a direct descendant of the licorice root drink of Ancient Egypt. Simplified, Erk Sous is a lightly fermented infusion of licorice root and other spices imbibed daily to promote overall health and wellness, boost the immune system, and create hormonal balance much as Hippocrates would have used it. Egyptians then and now certainly shared the same species, G. glabras, as Hippocrates and herbalists of the European Tradition.

When to Use Licorice Root

Words like anti-microbial, hepa-protective, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, demulcent, and expectorant are often used to describe the actions of licorice root. Simplified, licorice root protects the liver by detoxifying and preventing toxins, including poisons and other microbes, from creating damage (hepa-protective). It soothes and moistens damaged tissues with an affinity for the mucus membranes (demulcent) while helping to drive out toxins (expectorant and anti-microbial) from those areas. It’s also got a long-documented history of helping reduce inflammation and ease muscle spasm internally and externally.

Licorice for Stress, Hormonal Balance, and Rejuvenation

David Winston surmises from modern research that licorice root’s anti-inflammatory capacity may be linked to the way its chemicals, primarily glycyrrhizin, break down within the body into structures that mimic human adrenal cortex hormones. This accounts for how licorice root may be helpful for balancing reproductive hormones and tonifying or helping re-build exhausted adrenal systems. It also supports ancient use of licorice root as a daily tonic for reproductive health as well as for recovery after or amidst highly stressful situations, such as the Roman Army’s use of licorice root as a daily rejuvenator when on-the-march.

Licorice to Protect the Liver and Detoxify

Asian use of licorice root as a detoxifier and cleanser for the system is linked to licorice’s liver-protective or anti-hepatoxic action. Modern research, according to Winston, indicates licorice root’s triterpene glycyrrhizin blocks some chemicals from damaging or killing more liver cells than the liver can create or repair (hepatocyte injury). In other words, licorice’s action is to protect the liver from injury by blocking potentially harmful agents. This goes for chemical agents as well as some viral agents, like the herpes simplex virus or some DNA or RNA viruses. This supports modern use of licorice root in formulas designed to heal and detoxify the liver for conditions like hepatitis, poisonings, and auto-immune diseases like Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD or IBS), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Fibromyalgia.

Licorice for Coughing, Bronchitis, Pnemonia, and Respiratory System

In all likelihood, licorice’s demulcent, antispasmodic, expectorant, and anti-inflammatory properties are why it’s been used in formulas for bronchial and lung-related problems for centuries. As and antispasmodic, licorice helps relax the nervous system and smooth muscles of the lungs, thus easing coughing and painful contractions, while its expectorant action helps to effectively drive excess mucus and microbial illness from the lungs. The moistening action of Licorice as a demulcent herb supports a return to proper balance for the mucus membranes that line the respiratory tract. While licorice is calming and moistening injured or aggravated areas, it’s also cooling the system with its ant-inflammatory action. Modern research and traditional practice supports the use of licorice root for conditions like cough and sore throat from common colds and flus as well as more intense conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia.

Licorice for Ulcers, Digestion, Diarrhea, and Stomach Complaints

Traditionally, licorice root has been a boon to the human digestive system. Herbalists across traditions have used licorice root to soothe diarrhea and reduce inflammation in the digestive system, help the body fight off microbial illnesses like flus and other bacterial or viral infections, and to repair inflammed, damaged tissues such as stomach and duodenum ulcers.

Surely, many of the same properties that make licorice root an aid to the respiratory system are those that offer support to the digestive system as well. It’s ability to cool, soothe, and moisten as well as fight or block microbial agents from causing damage all support licorice root use for digestive problems including diarrhea, ulcers, GERD or Gastroesophageal reflux disease and gastrointestinal distress as well as auto-immune related problems linked to diseases like Crohn’s disease and IBD or IBS. Modern studies link licorice root’s anti-microbial action to its effectiveness in treating ulcers specifically. According to Buhner, powdered licorice is the best form for treating ulcers, dissolved in a small amount of water for stomach ulcers and in capsule form for duodenum ulcers or those of the upper small intestinal tract.

Cautions: What to Watch Out for with Licorice Root

While licorice root is relatively safe and has been used as a daily tonic for centuries, there are a few risks you consider before making it part of your daily diet.

Hypertension and High Blood Pressure

Folks with hypertension or who are predisposed to high blood pressure need to tread carefully with licorice root. Glyyrrhizin, one of the terpenes in licorice root, is known to increase blood pressure. The effect is more likely to happen with longer-term use or higher doses, but suseptible folks need to be wary at any dose. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice has been processed to remove glycyrrihizin, thus making it a potentially safer version. You can find deglycyrrhizinated licorice under the name DGL or Deglycerized Licorice Root. North American licorice root, G. lepidota, also seems to be naturally lower in glycyrrhizin than the more popular and widely available European variety (G. glabras).

Heart conditions, Muscle Conditions, Diuretics and Potassium

Long-term use and high doses of licorice root can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb potassium. People who are taking diuretics for a heart condition, muscle condition, or other conditions would be wise to avoid licorice root. Incorporating herbs like dandelion leaf or alfalfa that are high in potassium may mitigate this danger. As always, it is wise to proceed with caution and work with a qualified health practitioner to access the danger for your individual case and make appropriate decisions.

Pregnancy and Nursing

Studies show licorice root can have an adverse effect on a developing fetus. Pregnant women should avoid licorice root while pregnant. According to Demetria Clark, modest amounts of licorice root may be safe during pregnancy. Licorice root, according to Clark, is safe in moderation postpartum for recovery and for nursing or breastfeeding mothers.

More Licorice Resources and References

Candace Hunter

Candace Hunter is a self-taught herbalist and artist who never, ever practices on guinea pigs in part because her family and friends are generally up to the job. She is co-author of The Practical Herbalist's Herbal Folio series and author of Herbalism for the Zombie Apocalypse. She edits The Practical Herbalist website and Practical Herbalist Press publications. She has also recently entered into the field of podcasting with reckless abandon. Listen to her on Real Herbalism Radio today, see her work at CandaceHunter.com, or find her on Facebook at Candace Hunter Creations.


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