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Licorice: Not Just A Candy But A Healing Tonic Herb
by Patricia Andersen-Parrado

For many of us, the word licorice evokes pleasant memories of the penny candy-strings (which come in either red or black) that we enjoyed as children. Some of us may not know that licorice, or Glycyrrhiza, is actually an herb, of which there are more than 20 species, and one which has been used to alleviate an array of ailments and conditions such as asthma, coughs, bronchitis, ulcers, arthritis, and gastritis.

The western variety of licorice, called Glycyrrhiza glabra, is a perennial herb which blooms in the summer and autumn and features blue-violet flowers and smooth, reddish-brown fruit. Native to southern Europe and western and central Asia, licorice is now widely commercially cultivated. We learn in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs that licorice was grown in the Pontefract district of Yorkshire, England in the 16th century; however, all such cultivation there has ceased, and licorice is now imported to England. In China, licorice was first mentioned in the literature in the first century A.D. This variety is known as Glycyrrhiza uralensis. In the book, Chinese Tonic Herbs, we find that licorice root stands only next to ginseng in importance in Chinese herbalism.

Flavor and Active Constituents

In his book, Herbs for Your Health, Steven Foster says, "What we think of as `licorice' flavor is actually anise; licorice itself tastes very sweet and musty". He explains that glycyrrhizin (or glycyrrhetic acid) is thought to be the primary active constituent, albeit not the only one. This constituent may account for licorice's sweetness since it is 50 times as sweet as sugar! It is found in licorice at concentrations of 1 to 25 percent; good-quality licorice should contain at least 4 percent glycyrrhizin, according to Foster. Other constituents include: flavonoid glycosides, traces of essential oil, starch, sugars, a phytosterol (sitosterol) tannins, and enzymes.

Licorice and Autoimmune Diseases

Licorice is said to stimulate the production of the hormone cortisone; this may help explain why it has been found to ease arthritis. The anti-inflammatory action of glycyrrhetic acid may also contribute to this capability.

Recent research shows that licorice may also be helpful against other autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus. The symptoms of this chronic disease may include fever; weakness and fatigue; joint pains or arthritis; skin lesions on the face, neck, and upper extremities; and it often affects the kidneys, spleen, and various other organs.

A research review written by Rob McCaleb, which appeared in the Fall 1996 edition of the journal Herbal Gram, reported on this recent research done by Japanese scientists which was published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

McCaleb explains that, in this study, the researchers tested licorice to learn if it could prevent elevated levels of immune complexes (IC) which are related to autoimmune disease. The results showed that, in mice, an extract of licorice significantly increased the clearance of these substances. While further study is recommended, the authors concluded that herbal formulations containing licorice may be beneficial for autoimmune diseases.

Licorice For Heartburn

Decreasing stomach acid is the key to easing heartburn, and licorice is said to possess the capability to do just this. In her book, Herbs for Health and Healing, Kathi Keville says that clinical studies have shown that licorice and other herbs (such as garlic and St. John's Wort) "protect the stomach from its own acid and also reduce inflammation and infection of the lining."

Persons who should avoid licorice include those who have heart disease, liver disease, or hypertension; pregnant women; and those taking diuretics or heart medications.

Licorice is available as capsules, tablets, tinctures, and extracts. It is also available whole, sliced, and as the cut-and-sifted root.

SOURCE: Better Nutrition (May, 1997)

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References
Bunney, Sarah, ed. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996.
Foster, Steven. Herbs for Your Health. Loveland. Colo.: Interweave Press. 1996.
Keville, Kathi. Herbs for Health and Healing. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, Inc., 1996.
McCaleb, Rob. "Licorice May Fight Lupus," Herbal Gram 38: 17, Fall 1996
Teeguarden, Ron. Chinese Tonic Herbs. New York: Japan Publications, Inc., 1984.

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