| What is it?
In herbal medicine we use the dried roots of Licorice, a graceful, long lived plant that grows to about one meter in warm climates. Licorice spreads its lance shaped leaves out during the day to catch the sun and then lets them hang down at night to rest. The roots of licorice are brown, long and cylinder shaped. They have lengthwise corky fibres, are coloured from white to yellow and are profoundly sweet to taste.
How has it been used?
Licorice features prominently in the first great Chinese herbal, the Pen Tsao Ching (Classic of Herbs) and
Chinese medicine has used Licorice as a remedy for strength and long life for thousands of years. Today it is still found in most Chinese formulas, in large part because it is seen as the ‘ambassador’, the herb that helps the other herbs to harmonise with each other and within the body.
Licorice was carried by the armies of Alexander the Great to allay thirst and provide endurance. It was similarly carried by Roman soldiers all over Europe.
German abbess/herbalist St Hildegard of Bingen prescribed Licorice for stomach and heart problems and it was frequently mentioned in German and Italian herbals from the 14th and 15th century as a cough and respiratory remedy.
Nicolas Culpeper wrote 'Licorice is a fine medicine, for those that have a dry cough or hoarseness, wheezing or shortness of breath, phthisis (tuberculosis), heat of urine and griefs of the breasts of lungs'.
Medicinal Licorice has been used for many centuries as an agent to soothe, heal and tonify. It is probably the most important herbal medicine for ulcers of the mouth, stomach or duodenum and it is hard to imagine a herbal cough medicine without at least some Licorice in it.
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Science notes on Licorice
~ There have been numerous clinical and laboratory studies into Licorice, the majority of them focusing on a substance called glycyrrhizin that is about 50 times sweeter than sugar and has a powerful cortisone-type action in the body.
~ In recent decades an increase in understanding licorice, both how it works and what it does, has seen it being recommended for people that are recovering from overuse of steroids. Licorice has ingredients in it called steroidal saponins that appear to be able to nourish adrenal glands back to health, effectively helping our bodies to rebuild our own production of steroidal hormones (Whorwood CB, Sheppard MC, Stewart PM, Endocrinology 1993; 132(6):2287-2292)
~ Back in 1946 a Dutch pharmacist noticed that licorice candies and cough remedies were unusually popular in patients who had gastro-intestinal ulcers. They told him that the Licorice gave them better and longer lasting relief than the actual ulcer medications they had tried. Intrigued he published a report since which Licorice has been the subject of a number of clinical trials which have shown to it to a highly effective medicine for peptic, gastric and duodenal ulcers, so long as it used wisely (Morgan AG, McAdam WA, Pacsoo C et al. Gut 1982; 23(6):545-551)
~ Licorice extract in quite high doses demonstrated a dramatic effect in maintaining electrolyte balance in patients with Addison's disease. (Borst JGG de Vries LA, Holt SP et al. Lancet 1953; 657-663). Licorice extract may also be of benefit in the treatment of Parkinsons disease and Graves disease although this has not been scientifically investigated so this recommendation is based on anecdotal evidence of benefit.
~ An ointment containing Licorice extract showed good results in treating chronic eczema and the steroidal type nature of glycchizin means that it has been likewise widely used for inflammatory joint conditions such as arthritis (Loewy E. Ars Medici 1956;46(1):483)
~ Licorice stimulates the body's own natural anti-viral compound interferon and a study published in Microbiology and Immunology showed that it made a significant positive difference to the treatment of the common infection Herpes simplex. Numerous other laboratory studies have shown that Licorice helps fight disease causing bacteria and fungi (Csonka GW, Tyrell DA. Br J Ven Dis 1984; 60(3):178-181)
Safety of Licorice
I have found Licorice to be a much-maligned herb! However despite several key areas of caution, much of the worry in the medical literature about this plant is excessive and unnecessary and I believe that, used with care and respect, Licorice is an extremely safe herb to use for the young and old, during pregnancy or whilst breast-feeding.
What I mean by 'use with care' is that if someone is known to have a propensity to high blood pressure then you must monitor whether their taking Licorice in a herbal medicine causes it to rise. For some people it can be seen that even small amounts will increase blood pressure but for others it clearly makes no difference (in fact I have much more often observed people's blood pressure to drop when they are taking a medicine with licorice in it! I assume that is because they are feeling generally better and less stressed in themselves). Don't assume it will or it won't, try and see. If it does cause your blood pressure to rise then don't for a moment think it will do any lasting harm but it's not the herb for you.
When excess consumption of Licorice has really caused harm has been when people have eaten huge amounts of it as a confectionary. Something in the order of 50grams a day of the concentrated Licorice lollies, which is just so much higher than anything we get anywhere near prescribing in herbal medicine…
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I use a very great deal of Licorice in my work. This is at least in part because formulas will often work better when there is a little bit of licorice in them. You could say that this is simply because people tolerate the taste better and you won't be wrong, but there is more to this than just that...
There is something about Licorice that helps other herbs to blend together in the body and get to where they need to go. The Chinese appreciation of it as the 'Ambassador' herb is not just a whimsical folk-tale. What I am talking about is called ' synergy' and it's not something that you can easily describe let alone prove but you can literally see it in action when you make a mixture in a glass cylinder and then add the Licorice last. All the other herbs suddenly blend together; it's quite uncanny!
I use Licorice as a harmonising herb in formula but I also very much use it as a tonic in its own right. Those ancient Greeks and Romans marching all over Europe whilst munching Licorice roots we're really on to something. This is a herb that has been shown in modern times to act as a tonic to the adrenal glands but I think this is still only a partial explanation...
If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or if you just want to understand this great plant ally at a much deeper level for your own reasons then I warmly encourage you to undergo the ancient way of learning the 'action' of Licorice by taking a small dose of it and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observing how it feels within your body. Doing this for myself and also with my family and many others I see that Licorice actually has a deep calming effect. I have often given a few drops of Licorice extract to my children when they are agitated and upset and the relaxing action is almost immediate. You could say that this was simply the effect of the sweetness of it and you would be right, but only partly right. If you do this experiment I think you will be able to feel for yourself how the action of Licorice really does go all the way to the centre of our stress response; our adrenals, and that the experiential understanding of that will give you a very practical rationale for why it truly does belong in so many of our formulae for those many people who are working through the stress that comes with being unwell.
Licorice has a whole body tonic effect, the immune system, the energy levels, the nerves, the digestion, the liver function, all improve, often significantly, with a little bit of Licorice root extract every day.
Someone taking Licorice as a herb for the first time should know that it does tend to have a gentle cleansing action on the liver and consequently, whilst it is not a laxative, people often notice increased elimination when they take Licorice extracts.
Licorice combines perfectly with any of Echinacea, Ginseng, Hawthorn or Withania to make strengthening tonics for the immune system, the heart, the adrenal glands and the nerves.
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Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Licorice is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?
The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.
There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Licorice can particularly offer its benefits when a nourishing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.
Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898.
Liquorice root is emollient, demulcent, and nutritive. It acts upon mucous surfaces, lessening irritation, and is consequently useful in coughs, catarrhs, irritation of the urinary organs, and pain of the intestines in diarrhoea. It is commonly administered in decoction, sometimes alone, at other times with the addition of other agents, and which is the preferable mode of using it.
As a general rule, the acrid bark should be removed previous to forming a decoction. When boiled for some time the water becomes impregnated with its acrid resin ; hence, in preparing a decoction for the purpose of sweetening diet drinks, or covering the taste of nauseous drugs, it should not be boiled over 5 minutes. The efficiency of the root in old bronchial affections may be due to this acrid resin.
The bitterness of quinine, quassia, aloes, and the acrid taste of senega, guaiacum, mezereon and ammonium chloride are masked by liquorice.
Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas
on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!
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