An herbaceous perennial native to Europe and Asia, the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant produces woody roots that are highly prized as a natural sweetener. Commonly known as licorice, the roots are 30 to 50 times sweeter than sugar, and are chiefly composed of the compound glycyrrhetinic acid (GA) which is what gives licorice its unique flavor.
Though it is mainly cultivated to flavor tobacco and candy, licorice root has been used for millennia in folk medicine to treat a wide range of ailments.
1. Reduce Body Fat
Consuming 2.5 grams of pure licorice root extract per day for 2 months had the effect of reducing body fat mass in a group of healthy volunteers. The study, published in 2014, measured extracellular water that can contribute to excess weight, body mass index, and body fat mass before and after the trial period. Although water levels rose and body mass index remained unchanged, skin fold thickness was reduced after consuming licorice – even though the subjects’ caloric intake remained the same.
Another study involved using glycyrrhetinic acid topically to specifically target fatty areas on the body. The cream was prepared with 2.5% GA and the participants applied 80 mg per day to their thighs for one month. Using ultrasound analysis, the researchers found that GA cream treatment significantly reduced the thickness of superficial layers of fat. Although the dosage of GA was moderately low and the study’s subjects were in the normal BMI range, the authors speculate that topical creams could have an even greater effect on people who struggle with obesity and the over-accumulation of fat in the thighs and abdomen.
2. Enhance Learning & Boost Memory
Licorice root contains several antioxidants, including isoflavans, chalcones, and isoflavones, that may contribute to brain health. In an animal study, groups of mice were fed 150 mg/kg of licorice root extract over the course of seven days. In experiments meant to measure cognitive abilities, such as mazes and passive avoidance tests, the mice showed a marked increase in learning and memory. Taking these results a step further, the researchers fed the mice diazepam and scopolamine to induce amnesia; when fed licorice root, the amnesiac effects were completely reversed.
Comparable to Prozac (Fluoxetine) and Tofranil (Imipramine) in its effects, licorice root has proven to be an effective treatment for depression according an animal study published in 2006. At a dose of 150 mg/kg each day, the mice showed an increase in mobility when subjected to various stress tests traditionally used to evaluate antidepressant drugs. Licorice root was found to be effective for depression because it increases the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, the brain’s feel good chemicals.
4. Natural Relief For Hot Flashes
Hot flashes are the most common symptom of menopause and can persist for several years. Though hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is fairly effective for mitigating the discomforts of menopausal transition, this treatment can increase your risk factor for heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, and blood clots.
Licorice root has long been used as a natural treatment for menopausal symptoms due to its estrogen-like activity in the body. Comparing the effects of licorice and HRT on 60 menopausal women, a 2014 study found that licorice exerted a similar effect on hot flashes as hormone therapy. Over a 90 day period, half of the women received 1140 mg of licorice while the other half were given estrogen and progestin. Although both therapies reduced the number and duration of hot flashes, licorice was particularly good for curtailing the length of hot flashes and HRT was better at lessening hot flash severity.
5. Sore Throat & Cough Remedy
Using licorice root as a remedy for coughs and sore throats goes back to prehistory. The glycyrrhetinic acid in licorice roots is a powerful anti-inflammatory, capable of inhibiting the activity of cyclooxygenases and prostaglandin that can cause irritation in bodily tissues.
According to a study published in 2013, licorice does indeed help prevent and soothe irritated airways. Because post-operative sore throat is a common complication, the study comprised of 236 patients who were to be intubated and anesthetised prior to surgery. Groups were tasked with either gargling a solution of 0.5 gram of licorice diluted in 30 ml of water or sugar water for 1 minute before the surgery. Those who took licorice water had a significant reduction of incidence of sore throat and coughing, the effects of which endured for several hours afterwards.
6. Antiviral & Antimicrobial
The GA component of licorice root has a profound effect on viruses, bacteria, and fungal infections. It has been found to be very effective against several difficult to treat conditions:
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) – Thankfully the SARS outbreak of 2003 is no longer a major health concern, but then as now, there is no effective cure or vaccine for this highly infectious virus. However, a study published at the height of the SARS panic identified GA as an effective treatment for SARS because it was capable of completely blocking the replication of the virus where many other antiviral drugs had failed.
Helicobacter pylori – A bacterium that resides in the stomach, an H. pylori infection can lead to the development of peptic ulcers. Though it is increasingly becoming resistant to antibiotics, H. pylori can be successfully treated with GA.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – Difficult to cure due to antibiotic resistance, MRSA can be deadly when left treated. Using extracts from Glycyrrhiza uralensis (Chinese licorice), researchers found it had a strong antimicrobial effect against various strains of MRSA as well as standard S. aureus infections, and was 2.5 times as powerful as penicillin.
Fungal infections – Pitting licorice root against 14 strains of fungi – including Candida and Aspergillus cultures as well as drug-resistant mutants – resulted in inhibition of growth and spread of each fungal strain. It was especially effective against the drug resistant cultures.
Influenza – The antiviral effect of licorice root is so potent that mice injected with lethal doses of the influenza virus survived when they received 10 mg/kg doses of GA before and after being infected.
The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities of licorice root can have a beneficial effect on skin conditions like eczema. A 2003 study investigated the outcomes on atopic dermatitis sufferers using a 20% solution of GA formulated into a topical gel. Applied to the skin over the course of two weeks, the patients had a statistically significant reduction in redness (60%), swelling (83%), and itchiness (72%) compared to baseline.
8. Functional Dyspepsia
Functional dyspepsia is the term used when the symptoms of indigestion – such as heartburn, bloating, nausea, and feeling of fullness – have no clear cause.
Because licorice root tends to have a soothing and healing effect on the gut, a study published in 2012 explored how extracts of Glycyrrhiza glaba affected people with functional dyspepsia. Licorice root extract taken twice daily for 30 days improved the total symptoms of the group considerably with a marked reduction in symptoms of stomach pain, belching, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and heartburn, without any adverse effects.
How To Take Licorice Root
Licorice root, and GA, is available in several forms, but unfortunately eating black licorice candy will not provide these excellent effects.
Although licorice root is generally safe and well tolerated, it should not be taken when pregnant or if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, or low potassium levels. Licorice root can be toxic when taken at high doses so always consult with your doctor before taking it and never exceed the dosage on the label.
- Organic loose cut licorice root can be used to sweeten beverages or made into a tea.
- Licorice root capsules may be taken as a daily supplement.
- Licorice Root liquid extract is wonderful for making your own skin care products.
- Deglycyrrhizinated licorice extract capsules are a form of licorice root that have had the sweetness (and GA content) removed. It is recommended as a safer option for people with indigestion, acid reflux, and stomach ulcers.