We all know licorice as the delicious candy, but the actual licorice herb (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is much different. Most commonly found in Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean, licorice root has had a multitude of uses for several millennia. But if licorice is truly that valuable, why is it that we only think of the candy variety? Do you know what DGL licorice root is and when you might need to buy licorice supplements?
In order to answer these questions, we need to take a quick stroll through the history of licorice. Licorice root has many benefits and it's time that this herb is recognized for more than just candy.
The History of Licorice Root
There are many different species of licorice, several of which grow in the U.S., but Glycyrrhiza glabra is mostly found in Europe and Asia. Sometimes, however, you will see “Chinese licorice” advertised. This is most likely Glycyrrhiza uralensis. The benefits are basically the same for both. (1) It is important to note, however, that glabra is the most common variety and typically what people talk about when discussing licorice.
Glycyrrhiza translates to “sweet root,” and can be 30 to 50 times sweeter than white cane sugar. (2) It’s no wonder this delicious treat has made its way to the candy industry. The Chinese have been using licorice root medicinally for centuries and for many of the same ailments modern research has confirmed – female reproductive issues, gut health issues, coughs and colds.
Interestingly, licorice was actually used by the Chinese as a “guide drug.” A 2013 study conducted by the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine observed that this herb is used together with other remedies, including other herbs and spices, to further improve the impacts of the drugs and also help get them to where they will be most effective. (3) Both this purpose and the fact that licorice root is highly beneficial, made it the most used herb in Chinese medicine. (4)
But that doesn’t mean the benefits of licorice are lost on other cultures. Licorice root is popular in Europe, too, and has been used by every civilization from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Middle Ages. (5)
It wasn’t until the 20th century when technology allowed the root to be stripped and extracted that the candy industry caught on. (6) Today, that sweet licorice flavor is typically mimicked by anise seed, but it is still possible to find authentic licorice – more commonly known as “black licorice.”
In fact, licorice is so powerful that the FDA has actually issued a warning to consumers on the effects of black licorice because it’s much more than just candy. (7) Even though the root extract is being used as a sweetener, the herb is still powerful and shouldn’t be ignored.
While the root is most commonly used in supplements and other remedies, the leaves are also known for their antimicrobial benefits. In fact, licorice leaves proved effective in fighting off bacteria like Candida and staph. (8)
With all the long, complicated names associated with licorice, reading licorice labels can be difficult. If you fully want to understand deglycyrrhized (DGL) licorice, it is important to distill some of its central compounds.
In fact, licorice root is so multifaceted that scientists have highlighted 134 various compounds in the glabra variety and an additional 170 in the Chinese variety. Since we don’t have time to discuss them all here, and more and more about the herb is being discovered every day, I will go over the four main compounds: (9)
While there are numerous variations within a particular category, we can narrow in on a compound by its type. For instance, flavonoids help maintain a plant’s pigments (think of the black in licorice or the blue in blueberries). Flavonoids tend to be rich with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents.
Stilbenoids and Coumarins can be both antibiotic and anti-inflammatory. Triterpenoids tend to be stronger by nature and often contain steroidal substances. (10)
A noticeable illustration of the pros found in these compounds is the flavonoid glabradin, which plays a key role in copious licorice root benefits. This particular compound was first discussed in the 1970s and has been found to be an anti-inflammatory, to improve metabolism and to help women’s health by functioning as a phytoestrogen. (11)
One compound that is removed routinely from standardized licorice supplements is triterpenoid glycyrrhizin, the plant’s namesake. Triterpenoid glycyrrhizin is a strong anti-inflammatory, an expectorant and a mild laxative, among other health benefits. Triterpenoid glycyrrhizin is often removed because, with exteneded use, it has been said to increase blood pressure, cause swelling and reduce potassium. (12)
All these problems can have harmful effects on people with high blood pressure, kidney or liver problems and pregnant women. Removing the compound from the supplements makes the licorice product generally safer to market to the masses.
For all other healthy adults, glycyrrhizin has many benefits as noted above. But as a general rule, licorice should not be used extensively or taken long term, in order to reduce any potential risks. (13)
Benefits of Licorice Root
All it takes is a glance at the various compounds of licorice to understand why this root has lasted the test of time. Here are just a few important benefits of licorice root:
- Pain relief
- Cough/Sore throat
- Immune system help
- Adrenal fatigue
- Leaky gut
- Heartburn and acid reflux
All these conditions plague our society so much that it’s nearly impossible to find someone not suffering from at least one. Americans spend $90 billion a year on heartburn and other gastrointestinal issues alone. (14) Here’s a quick glance at how licorice root can help with the above-mentioned conditions:
We live in a relatively simple era. However, our society is still plagued by physical, environmental and mental stress disorders. We have put our adrenal glands in overdrive like we’re being chased by an African lion when we’re really just trying to balance our checkbooks. Enter licorice. The herb is great at helping to regulate cortisol levels – the stress hormone – giving our adrenal glands a much needed vacation. (15)
As an expectorant, licorice helps to loosen and expel mucus, making the root a real player is fighting coughs and sore throats. Irritated throats will welcome licorice’s anti-inflammatory soothing relief. Demulcents must make contact with the area of the body that requires soothing, so taking extracts in cough drops and syrups, as well as tea, is your best bet. (16)
One extract of Glycyrrhiza glabra is known to fight heartburn, indigestion, stomach pain and nausea, a collection of ailments known in the medical world as functional dyspepsia. (17) DGL licorice was used in the study, leaving study participants with zero side effects. This form of licorice can be bought in tablet form, making it easy to take with a meal.
When it comes to fighting and preventing prominent diseases, such as HIV, influenza and Hepatitis, licorice root is becoming a viable resource. Now that we have confirmed that licorice’s triterpenoid content is anti-viral, we know the herb has a tremendous impact on the immune system. (18) One report labeled licorice as “antioxidant, free-radical scavenging, immunostimulating.” (19)
Because it is associated with systemic diseases, leaky gut syndrome is hard to manage. Since licorice is a soothing herb and is also anti-inflammatory, it helps fight against ulcerative illnesses and works well in managing gut health issues. (20)
Licorice can help with both muscle and abdominal cramping due to its antispasmodic nature. (21) The herb can be used topically to sooth pain related to eczema and acne and can act as a hydrocortisone replacement. (22) Its anti-inflammatory nature helps to ease joint pain as well.
Science has shown that licorice root has an estrogen-like effect in women, meaning it could be a viable option for fertility related concerns. (23) For menopausal hot flashes, research has found that licorice is better than hormone replacement therapy at treating the root cause. (24)
Side Effects of Licorice Root
As discussed above, the side effects of licorice are limited to the glycyrrhizin, so it is important to know your body before starting a regimen. If you do have concerns, DGL is your best bet. You should never consume licorice root if you have any of the following conditions:
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
When you do take licorice, it is recommended that the average person only take 6 grams a day in order to limit the amount of glycyrrhizin. (25)
Major side effects to be on the lookout for include chronic fatigue, reduced potassium levels, high blood pressure and edema. Your licorice regimen should only last about four weeks. (26) DGL licorice, however, can be taken for an extended period of time but a break now and then is important.
And it is very important to consider the root cause of the problem when using licorice as a treatment. Using a holistic approach rather than simply treating the symptoms will help limit your licorice use.