Licorice is a widely researched root; it provides health benefits, and these have been applied in herbal medicine for thousands of years. Its main active ingredient is glycyrrhizin, it exerts a cortisone-like effect, and it’s 50 times sweeter than sugar. In ancient years licorice was used to treat coughs, reduce intestinal and gastric ulcers. Today licorice is used against liver toxicity.
I fact, licorice medicinal use has been reported in texts such as Assyrian Herbal (2000 BC) and Eber Papyrus (1600 BC). In traditional medicine, licorices has been used in the treatment against kidney diseases, flatulence, sexual debility, fluid retention, Addison’s disease, pancreatic disorders, mouth ulcers, allergies, viral infections, and recently COVID-19.
The real licorice
You might associate the work licorice with candy. I guess that you can also remember the taste of this type of candy from 20 years ago. It was different from what it is today. In fact, licorice or liquorice derives from Old Greek glykyrrhiza, glykys means “sweet,” and rhiza is “root.” Commercial licorice candy is made from corn syrup, wheat flour, cornstarch, and licorice root is no longer part of its constituents. Therefore, commercial licorice candy should not be used as a treatment.
Licorice comes from the genus Glycyrrhiza, which comes from the family Leguminosae. Nevertheless, the genus Glycyrrhiza has around 30 different species. This is why the clinical applications of Licorice and its action may vary. The plant from which licorice comes from can grow 1-2m tall. Its leaves are oval-shaped and comprised of four to eight leaflets. Licorice roots are dark reddish, while the insides are bright yellow, they are described as fibrous, soft, and flexible. It is believed that licorice might have originated in Iraq. However, Glycyrrhiza glabra species have expanded to Spain, Italy, Turkey, Central Asia, and China’s western part. Meanwhile, Glycyrrhiza uralensis is distributed from Central Asia to Mongolia and China. Besides, different Glycyrrhiza studies are currently cultivated worldwide.
The different species of Glycyrrhiza have a broad range of biological reactions. In fact, these reactions depend on the specific species applied to each study. The different pharmacological applications include anti glycemic effects, cholesterol reduction, anxiolytic, antiviral, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and hepatoprotective.
G. glabra and G. uralensis antimicrobial effects:
Antimicrobial effects of plants are attributed to their alkaloids, saponins, flavonoids, glycosides, and phenol content. Consequently, different authors have reported antimicrobial activity of G. glabra against Bacillus subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, and one fungal strain, Candida albicans. Adding to these effects, G. glabra can act against Mycobacterium tuberculosis. These beneficial effects are linked to G. glabra’s ethanolic extract.
Besides, antibacterial action against Bacillus subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus epidermidis, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa has been reported concerning ethanol, acetone, and chloroform extracts of G. glabra.
Intervention with licorice against several viruses was used in ancient times; it was formerly used as a potential therapeutic agent in hepatitis B and C. Besides this, the glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhizic acid components in licorices have clinical applications in treating the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Also, derivates from glycyrrhizin can reduce the hepatocellular damage associated with hepatitis A and C and protect against SARS-related coronavirus.
Despite this, the bioactive compound 18β-Glycyrrhetinic acid has exerted positive effects on vulvovaginal candidiasis. In fact, the underlying action depends on the inhibition of viral membrane binding and signal transduction mechanisms.
The licorice effects are similar to the action of hydrocortisone. Indeed, the effects of glycyrol (benzofuran coumarin) isolated from G. uralensis has proven to have potent anti-inflammatory effects that could potentially treat allergies and other inflammatory conditions. Besides, glycyrrhizic acid, glycyrrhizic acid, clabridin, and licochalcone have attributed anti-inflammatory effects that can be applied in inflammation-induced edema with positive outcomes.
Licorice has been found to reduce the progress of inflammation by inhibiting Tumor necrosis factor (TNF-a). Indeed, TNF-a’s upregulation can induce the pro-inflammatory mediator such as IL-1, IL-6, IL-8, and granulocyte-macrophage colony-simulating factor, contributing to an increased inflammatory response. However, licorice and G. glabra extracts have been used in ulcerative colitis studies, showing a potent action against TNF-a-induced pro-inflammatory cascade reactions.
Besides, GLD an anti-inflammatory compound found in licorice, and its supplementation has been linked to loss of body weight, attenuated mortality, and overall promotion of gut health. However, licorice supplementation should be followed closely since it has multiple interactions with different drugs. Also, a complete body composition assessment should be part of the treatment. Read more below:
Licorice and ROS scavenging
Several licorice components could potentially facilitate the inhibition of ROS-induced hepatic fibrosis. In fact, licorice’s metabolites, polyphenols, and flavonoids can scavenge ROS as well as induce anti-inflammatory relief. The licorice’s ROS scavenging properties show inhibition of the production of free radicals in the LPS-treated Raw264.7 macrophages model. Also, this same positive result was shown in reduced concentrations of prostaglandins.
The application of licorice as a potential treatment for multiple conditions was introduced in ancient times. Also, the high concentration and variety of phenolic compounds, the different species of the Glycyrrhiza plant can partially explain why Licorice has so many applications. Furthermore, it is safe to mention that it is the most studied plant and has such a rich history.
Nowadays, technology has been able to link the benefits of licorice, its history, and applications in Traditional Chinese Medicine with the metabolic pathways that are suppressed by its presence. These findings place licorice as an alternative treatment for inflammation-induced conditions, and for acute conditions. – Ana Paola Rodríguez Arciniega. Master in Clinical Nutrition
Yang, Rui et al. “The anti-inflammatory activity of licorice, a widely used Chinese herb.” Pharmaceutical biology vol. 55,1 (2017): 5-18. doi:10.1080/13880209.2016.1225775
Mamedov N.A., Egamberdieva D. Phytochemical Constituents and Pharmacological Effects of Licorice: A Review. In: Ozturk M., Hakeem K. (eds) Plant and Human Health, Volume 3. Springer, Cham. (2019) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04408-4_1
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Dr. Alex Jimenez DC, MSACP, CCST, IFMCP*, CIFM*, CTG*
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