One of the most widely used botanicals worldwide and found bundled in King Tut’s tomb, licorice has a lengthy and extensive history of use.
Known as the “sweet root,” licorice was used in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and noted in the writings of Greek physician Theophrastus (3rd century BC) and Roman physician Pliny the Elder, who recommended chewing it to strengthen the voice and alleviate hunger. Roman and Greek soldiers typically chewed the root to help quench thirst and enhance their stamina, and Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly chewed the root habitually.
Licorice was introduced in England by Dominican monks who used the herb to create lozenges that soothed the throat and settled the stomach. In the Chinese tradition, it is one of the most often used of the 50 fundamental herbs, included in thousands of herbal formulas to sweeten teas, to harmonize herbs or to minimize harsh effects of other herbs. In 1914, licorice candy was first sold by Chicago Licorice Company.
Not really the root
Licorice has a deep tap root that can grow up to 6 feet deep and rhizomes that spread out from the plant. It’s these rhizomes that are actually used for their beneficial properties. Licorice grows on dry grassy plains in northwest China and Europe, and one of the Glycyrrhiza’s 18 species grows in North America (though not traditionally used).
Licorice is 50 to 100 times sweeter than sucrose, making it an ideal sweetener. It is also known for enhancing the action of other herbs when taken in combination.
Current interest in licorice root centers on the major active component, glycyrrhizin. This is being extensively studied for the beneficial effects, sometimes in combination with other constituents, which include triterpenoids, isoflavonoids, amino acids and volatile oils.
Licorice helps support the respiratory system by promoting the health of the bronchial system. It also promotes a healthy level of cortisol, which helps adrenal glands that may be exhausted by prolonged stress. And it has been shown to help support the digestive system, especially when the stomach and other organs have been effected by long-term use of aspirin or NSAID products.
A word of caution
When taken long-term, as for problems in the digestive system, DGL may be recommended, which has a greatly reduced level of glycyrrhizin.
Monitoring of blood pressure and electrolytes is recommended with long-term use, which at high doses can result in reduced potassium levels and increased sodium and water retention. Prolonged use at higher doses is not recommended for people with a history of hypertension or renal failure, and pregnant or nursing women.
Like most sweet things, moderation is the key to enjoying the benefits!