Licorice is mostly associated with candy and has been used in food and medicine for 1,000 years. It contains various compounds that help with heartburn, cancer, and a leaky gut. Keep reading to learn more about its health benefits.
What is Licorice Root?
Licorice, or liquorice, is a plant native to southern Europe and Asia and is used to flavor candies, sweeteners, and tobacco products. It is also a widely-used Chinese herb .
Licorice has many components that have proven health benefits. It has been used in herbal and folk medicines for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Deglycyrrhizinated Licorice (DGL) vs Regular Licorice
Glycyrrhizin is an active compound in licorice with several health benefits, as well as significant side effects like hypertension .
Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) has glycyrrhizin removed, thus preventing its side effects. DGL is available in wafers, capsules, liquids, and lozenges .
Without glycyrrhizin, DGL is not associated with any adverse effects but still retains some of its beneficial properties. DGL supplements lack the side effects of glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhizic acid . DGL is typically used to treat stomach ulcers and other digestive problems.
The main active component of licorice is glycyrrhizin, which is transformed into glycyrrhizic acid in the gut. Glycyrrhetinic acid is a potent inhibitor an enzyme (11-ß-HSD) that turns cortisol to a less active form (cortisone)–so glycyrrhizic acid in regular licorice increases cortisol levels [2, 3].
The liver breaks down glycyrrhetinic acid, but taking too much licorice might lead to toxic glycyrrhetinic acid buildup .
Licochalcone A (LicoA) is a polyphenol. It has antiparasitic, antibacterial and anti-cancer properties .
Isoliquiritigenin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antitumor effects. It has a high affinity for the liver, kidneys, and small and large intestines .
It is absorbed well in rats but has a bioavailability of 12%, likely because the liver and gut break most of it down .
Glabrene is an isoflavonoid in licorice root extract. It binds to estrogen receptors and activates estrogen-regulated genes .
Glabrene can mimic estrogen , suggesting that it might slow down the bone loss and cardiovascular decline in menopausal women. However, additional clinical studies need to determine whether glabrene is safe and effective.
- Formononetin 
- Glisoflavone 
- Hispaglabridins A and B 
- Rutin 
- Isoangustone A 
- Prunetin 
- Dehydroglyasperin C 
Health Benefits of Licorice Root
1) Lowers Inflammation
In an analysis of 93 papers, licorice extract was observed to have anti-inflammatory activities .
Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) activity, TNF-α production, and NF-kB activity all lead to inflammation in the brain. Treatment with dehydroglyasperin C (a licorice flavonoid) stops the pro-inflammatory activity in the brain and helps prevent neuron cell death .
Ethanol extract of licorice also reduced alcohol-induced liver injury in mice by reducing key liver inflammation markers .
2) Reduces Heart Disease Risk
In a mouse model of heart attack, the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects of licorice help mitigate damage to the heart tissue and also facilitate faster recovery .
However, regular licorice that contains glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhizic acid can cause the body to excrete more potassium and increase blood pressure, which can worsen heart conditions .
3) May Help with Weight Loss
Licorice root powder was also effective in reducing body weight gain and fat deposition in mice .
4) Protects the Brain
Glabridin, a major flavonoid of Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice), can help protect the brain from stroke-related injuries .
In stroke-induced rats, glabridin injection (at 25mg/kg) significantly decreased brain damage, prevented nerve cell death, and lowered DNA damage. It also increased antioxidant levels in the brain .
Licorice flavonoids can also prevent oxidative damage in the brain. Its antioxidant effects help decrease seizure-induced brain cell death in mice .
Diabetes can cause memory and learning problems. In diabetic mice, glabridin extract from licorice helps preserve cognitive function .
Oral glabridin administration at 25 and 50 mg/kg reversed learning and memory deficits in diabetic rats. Additionally, it helped improve brain function in non-diabetic rats .
Treatment with dehydroglyasperin C (a licorice flavonoid) prevented LPS (a bacterial toxin) from inducing TNF-α production in a cell-based study. It also reduced NF-kB activity, which helps stop neuron cell death and inflammation .
5) May Help Prevent Cancer
Components of licorice are effective against several hallmarks of cancer, including cell proliferation, inflammation, cell death resistance, and making its own blood vessels. Most studies that evaluate anti-cancer activities of licorice are cell-based studies. Additional clinical studies are necessary to confirm its safety and effectiveness as a cancer treatment.
In an oral cancer cell line, a polysaccharide from licorice promotes apoptosis and prevents cancer cells from growing .
Licochalcone A also inhibits cancer cells from generating its own blood vessels (angiogenesis) by blocking the VEGF receptor .
Licorice flavonoids prevented colitis-associated cancer and reduced tumor formation in mice .
Bad estrogens can cause cancer. Liquiritigenin may act like good estrogen and prevent cancer by binding to estrogen receptor beta .
6) Helps Heal Gut Inflammation & Ulcers
Licorice is a good adjunctive treatment (RCT) to standard clarithromycin triple therapy in the treatment of Helicobacter pylori as it increases the eradication rate of H. pylori by about 20% .
In patients with dyspepsia, licorice helped symptoms of nausea, indigestion, and stomach pains (DB-RCT) .
In rats with stomach ulcers caused by aspirin, licorice decreased the number and size of the ulcers .
7) Helps with Menopausal Symptoms
In menopausal women, licorice is more effective than hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by reducing hot flash duration, but not hot flash severity . In a phase II clinical trial, liquiritigenin is part of MF101, an herbal extract formula that helped with menopausal hot flashes .
Glabridin has a similar effect on human cell culture as estradiol-17beta (the most potent form of estrogen) . Glabrene can bind to estrogen receptors and also stimulate muscle cell formation .
8) Helps with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
Treatment with spironolactone (a mineralocorticoid and androgen receptor antagonist) and licorice can help reduce polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) symptoms in women .
In women with PCOS, glycyrrhetinic acid can reduce testosterone levels while inducing regular ovulation. Two other licorice metabolites (glabridin and glabrene) have estrogen-like effects that can help treat PCOS .
9) May Help Fight Infections
Licorice stimulates the immune system and has antioxidant properties .
Licorice has antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-fungal properties .
In a cell-based study, glycyrrhizic acid (from licorice extract) was effective in controlling the growth of bacteria . Alcoholic licorice root extract inhibited two types of bacteria in cell culture (S. mutans and L. acidophilus). These two types of bacteria can damage teeth .
10) May Reduce Fatigue
Licorice increases cortisol levels and activity by inhibiting 11-beta-HSD (the enzyme that converts cortisol to the less active cortisone) and SULT2A1 (the enzyme that tags steroid hormones, including cortisol, for elimination) . The increase in cortisol may help with energy levels. In addition, it also increases DHEA and testosterone levels .
Glabridin, a polyphenolic flavonoid from licorice extract, reduced exercise-induced fatigue in mice. Mice treated with glabridin swam for a longer period of time compared to control mice. The larger the dose of glabridin, the longer the mice could swim . In comparison to untreated mice, swimming mice treated with glabridin had lower markers of fatigue, including significantly lower blood lactic acid levels and blood nitrogen urea, and higher glycogen levels .
However, clinical trials are needed to determine glabridin’s effects on humans.
11) Helps You Sleep
The GABA receptor is an important target for inducing sleep. Gabrol and liquiritigenin induce sleep in mice via the GABA receptor. This decreased the time required to fall asleep and increased the length of non-REM sleep without decreasing deep sleep .
12) May Improve Male Infertility
In mice, licorice extract increased sperm production, which may benefit male infertility .
Side Effects & Precautions
Although licorice may have its benefits, chronic or excess consumption can cause unwanted complications and health problems. Since these side effects mostly come from glycyrrhizic acid, using DGL can help avoid these side effects , except when the desired benefit is directly associated with glycyrrhizic acid itself.
1) Increases Cortisol
In large doses, licorice can increase cortisol levels.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone and is also known as the “stress hormone.” It can increase or decrease blood pressure, glucose levels, immune responses, etc. in response to stress .
Glycyrrhizic acid and glycyrrhetinic acid, active metabolites (products of metabolism) of licorice extract, act like aldosterone. It inhibits the 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (11β-HSD2) enzyme and stops it from converting cortisol to cortisone. This causes an increase in cortisol half-life and an increase in cortisol activity [2, 49].
The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is an important response system to stress. Normal cortisol levels help maintain the HPA axis. However, excess cortisol can cause HPA axis dysfunction and lead to chronic stress, depression, alcoholism, and other disorders .
2) Causes High Blood Pressure
A longer half-life of cortisol means that it takes longer for the concentration of cortisol in the blood to decrease. Excess cortisol can contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure). These effects of glycyrrhizic acid are greater in women than in men (Intervention study) .
The increase in cortisol locally in the adrenals can increase mineralocorticoids, which can increase blood pressure . Among non-hypertensive people, the increase in blood pressure (3.1 – 14.4 mgHg) is dependent on the amount of licorice consumed .
The increase in cortisol can also cause pseudo-hyperaldosteronism. This condition is characterized by elevated blood pressure, decreased blood potassium concentration, and the retention of water and sodium [2, 51].
3) Slows Down Drug Metabolism
Multiple components of licorice, including liquiritigenin and isoliquiritigenin, inhibit the CYP3A4 gene and cytochrome P450 enzymes. Inactivation of P450 enzymes could also slow down drug metabolism, enhance their concentration in the blood, and increase the risk of drug side effects .
4) Lowers Potassium Levels
When licorice metabolites inhibit the 11-βHSD2 enzyme, it also causes excess mineralocorticoid production and a decrease in potassium levels. In multiple case studies, excess licorice consumption caused hypokalemia (low potassium) and muscle weakness .
Licorice-induced hypokalemia can lead to arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and cause heart problems .
Still, this effect seems to vary among patients. The full effect of licorice on potassium depends on the person’s health, the medication they are taking, and other factors (Retrospective study) .
Glycyrrhetic acid can also bind to mineralocorticoid receptors, but its affinity is less than that of aldosterone .
5) Can Cause Problems During Pregnancy
In a survey of Finnish women who gave birth to premature babies, heavy licorice consumption was significantly associated with shorter pregnancy terms. The glycyrrhizic acid from licorice increases cortisol levels, which can cause an increase in prostaglandin levels in the uterus. This may lead to contractions .
However, these results may not necessarily be caused solely by licorice consumption. Because this information was collected retrospectively, other factors may also have contributed to the premature delivery .
The inactivation of 11β-HSD2 by licorice can cause HPA axis dysfunction. In one review, pregnant women who consumed licorice had lower placental 11β-HSD2 levels. Their children had behavioral problems associated with HPA axis dysfunction .
6) Other Rare Side Effects
Some rare side effects include heart attack and stroke, but few studies have shown these results .
Some compounds in licorice can interact with drugs, so talk to your doctor before supplementing.
Glabridin, for example, inhibits cytochromes 3A4 and 2B6–P450 enzymes that help metabolize drugs. This means that it could affect how your prescription drugs work.
Licorice Root Supplements
Both licorice root and DGL are available. DGL is safer and a better choice for most people.
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