The Lowdown on Licorice

Most of us know licorice as a tasty treat. But true licorice, officially known as Glycyrrhiza glabra, is actually a European plant belonging to the pulse family called Leguminosae. When pounded or pressed, the root of the licorice plant manufactures the sweet substance it’s famous for. Since ancient times, licorice root has been revered for its medicinal purposes. The root has been used as a laxative and trusted as a cure for coughs. Of course, licorice is also brewed for candy and for flavoring tobacco and other substances.

The Licorice Plant

The licorice plant is perennial, with blue, pea-shaped blossoms. True licorice is cultivated primarily in the Middle East, however there is a subspecies known as glycyrrhiza lepidota, or “wild licorice” that is native to North America. Most types of licorice are found in Persia, Southeast Europe and several Asiatic regions, and there are currently fourteen known varieties.

The licorice plant has long graceful stems and lightly spreading, pinnate leaves. From a distance, they display an almost feathery appearance because of their tiny leaflets which resemble those of the False Acacia. At night, the leaves hang down on each side of the midrib. The flowers are little, growing from the axils of the leaves. Licorice flowers are purplish in color and occasionally pale-blue, violet, or yellowish-white. At the peak of maturity, small pods are formed which somewhat resemble a partly grown peapod.

Health Benefits of Licorice

You can find licorice in the histories of herbal medicine and folk healing. There are long and varied legends on the use of licorice. For example, Ancient Chinese healers considered licorice to be one of the important herbs in traditional medicine. Chinese folk healers primarily used licorice as a demulcent for its soothing and coating effects in the digestive and urinary tracts, as well as a cure for diseases including diabetes and tuberculosis.

More recently, the licorice plant has mostly been used to treat coughs and sore throats. Of course, licorice is also favored as a flavoring. “Licorice” is a word derived from the Greek word meaning “sweet root”.

More up-to-date studies have shown that licorice contains compounds, called glycyrrhizin and flavonoids. Glyccyrrhizin, according to some studies, has anti-inflammatory properties and may have inhibiting actions that hinder the breakdown of cortisol, an important substance produced by the body.

Although it has yet to be proven to work in humans, licorice may also have anti-viral properties. The flavonoids found in this herb are powerful antioxidants that work to protect several organs of the body, most importantly the liver. Chalcones, which are closely related to flavonoids may also help treat digestive tract cells. Preliminary studies on the results of licorice have shown that the flavonoids can kill the ulcer-causing bacteria, Helicobacter pylori. These bacteria are responsible for most stomach inflammations as well.

Liquiritin, an extract made from licorice, has been used as a treatment for melasma, a pigmentation disorder of the skin. According to a study conducted by medical researchers, 70 percent improvement is observed on melasma patients after a twice daily topical application of liquiritin cream for a duration of four weeks.

Purchasing Information

If you’re looking for licorice at the health food store, there are two main types on the shelves. “Standard” glycyrrhizin is the type of licorice used to treat chronic fatigue, respiratory conditions and herpes. De-glycyrrhizinated licorice is taken to relieve ulcers and other digestive concerns.

Licorice can be purchased in tablets or in capsule form. If you need to treat canker sores, you can also find de-glycyrrhizinated licorice in powder form.