Licorice is a perennial which grows to a height of anywhere from 3 to 7 feet tall. It is an erect, branchy plant which issues from a stringy taproot which is yellow on the inside and brown on the outside. The taproot sends out stolons which then branch out to form a mass that looks somewhat like a Medusa head.
The flowers of the licorice plant resemble a vetch or sweet pea and are approximately ½ inch long and are purple or lavender in color. The leaves are yellowish green, lighter on the underside and are sticky and somewhat damp underneath. The fruit of the licorice plant is a one-celled pod about ½ inch long and are colored anywhere from reddish brown to a deep maroon. The pods contain one to six small, kidney-shaped seeds.
Today’s licorice candy is often not flavored with real licorice but instead gets its taste from anise oil. In many countries, such as Italy, licorice fans can buy sticks of pure, unsweetened extract of licorice. This flavor is also popular in ice cream in southern Europe.
While many people think of this plant as simply a flavoring, its constituents are known to have a remarkable amount of pharmacological properties as well.
History of Licorice
Licorice as a flavoring has been around since the ancient Assyrians. A papyrus which dates to the Roman Empire discusses the therapeutic value of licorice. The root was also mentioned in the first Chinese herbal documents. It is said that Pliny, Theophrastus and Hippocrates all referred to the health benefits of licorice. Licorice was introduced to Europe in the late 15th Century. The plant became a popular choice as a chewing stick in the West Indies, Spain and Italy, as well as other regions where the plant fares well.
The main component in licorice, which makes up approximately 5 to 20 percent of the plant, is a saponin-like glycoside called glycyrrhizin. This is a sweetening agent which is more than 50 times sweeter than sugar. It is added to chocolate to mask the bitterness and to further sweeten chocolate products.
The medically active component in licorice is a terpene compound which resembles a steroid. The root extract of licorice produces mild estrogenic effects and has been proven to be useful in treating the symptoms of menopause and menstrual cramps.
Licorice Health Benefits
The root of the licorice plant is often used to color and flavor beverages and food. But oddly enough, as much as 90 percent of the licorice which is imported ends up in tobacco products.
The most common medicinal use for licorice is in cough drops and cough syrups. Licorice is the perfect choice for these products as it soothes the chest and helps to bring up phlegm. Some of its other diverse uses include treating ulcers, relieving rheumatism and arthritis, and to induce menstruation. It has also been used in powder form as a laxative.
Glycyrrhizin is known to stimulate the secretion of the adrenal cortex hormone, which is called aldosterone. In people who are healthy, licorice can cause lethargy, headaches, water and salt retention, potassium secretion, and raised blood pressure. However, because it is able to stimulate the adrenal cortex, it is very useful in treating conditions such as Addison’s disease, which is characterized by abnormally low activity in the cortex.
As far back as the 1940s, Dutch physicians were testing licorice as an aid for the digestive system. These physicians developed a derivative drug called carbenoxolone which showed promise in helping peptic ulcer patients.
Some of the agents in licorice have been credited recently with mild antiviral and antibacterial effects. As such, licorice may be useful in treating colds, infections and dermatitis. Licorice has also been used in medicinal dandruff shampoos. Other recent research of this plant found it can help reduce arthritic activity.
Over the years, licorice has been used in conjunction with other medicinal plants, to accentuate the action of the other plant or to mask their less attractive tastes. These plants include mullein, peppermint, horehound, chamomile, ginger, ginseng, comfrey, powdered linseed and marsh mallow.
Other Benefits of Licorice
For cosmetic use, licorice root can be a soothing emollient. A steam facial can be made with licorice, comfrey and either chamomile or lavender. The licorice is effective in opening up the pores and allowing the other cleansing and healing herbs to penetrate the skin.
The active ingredient in licorice is of benefit as an ingredient in shampoo because it suppresses the secretion of sebum from the scalp for a week after shampooing, thus postponing the sheen from oil.
Licorice is also used in toothpaste and mouthwash and a flavoring and sweetening agent. It can be mixed with anise and used in liquors and herbal teas. When used for making stout and beer, licorice adds color, flavor and a foamy head.
Licorice is able to intensify other flavors and is used commercially in ice cream, puddings, pastries, soy sauce and soy-based meat substitutes.
Licorice is also used as the foaming agent in fire extinguishers. Licorice products are used for wetting, spreading and adhesive agents in insecticides and as a medium for culturing the yeast used in foods.
The cortisone-like component which is found in glycyrrhizin does increase the retention of salt and water in the body. This can cause dangerous side effects, including abnormal heart action and kidney failure, both of which are triggered by potassium depletion. Therefore, licorice should be avoided by cardiac patients and those individuals who suffer from hypertension, obesity or kidney conditions. Pregnant women should also avoid the use of licorice.
Some individuals are also allergic to licorice, even in small quantities. Cases of toxicity in these people have been reported from ingesting less than a gram of glycyrrhizin in chewing tobacco. In these cases, licorice has caused paralysis of the limbs, high blood pressure, electrolyte imbalance and shortness of breath.
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- Kowalchik, C. & Hylton, W. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Schwartz Books (1987)
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