Updated: Jan 14, 2020
The scientific name for licorice root, Glycyrrhiza, comes from "glukos" (sweet) and "riza" (root). This "sweet root" contains glycyrrhizin, a compound that can be up to 50 times sweeter than sugar. So it's not surprising that when many people think of licorice, they think of the confectionery by the same the name.
However, licorice is a perennial herb native to the Mediterranean that's been prized for its medicinal properties for centuries. In fact, its use is documented in Assyrian clay tablets and Egyptian papyri.
It was valued in ancient Arabia for treating coughs, while in ancient Greece it was also used for coughs along with asthma. The herb also has a history of use in China, where it was used to relieve irritation of the mucous membranes and spasms in the gastrointestinal tract.
Virtually all Chinese herbal formulas contain licorice because it assists in gastrointestinal absorption and "harmonizes" the herbal blends.1 In other words, it helps to enhance the effects of the other herbs.
In India, traditional Ayurvedic medicine regards licorice root as an expectorant, spasm-relieving, and anti-inflammatory, demulcent (relieves irritation of the mucous membranes) that also affects the function of the adrenal glands.
The Many Versatile Uses of Licorice Root
Licorice is said to be one of the most extensively researched medicinal plants, and it has a lengthy list of versatile uses to match. Here are some of its claims to fame:
1. Relieve Stomach Ulcers
Licorice has antibacterial properties and has been found to help relieve stomach ulcers (many of which are caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria). Germany's Commission E approved the use of licorice root for treating ulcers.
2. Sore Throat, Cough and Cold Remedy
One of licorice root's most well-known uses is to ease congestion from coughs and colds. It acts as an expectorant, helping to loosen and expel phlegm, and it also has a soothing effect on irritated mucous membranes.
The German Standard License approves licorice root infusions for loosening mucus and alleviating discharge in bronchitis, while the British Herbal Compendium indicates the use of licorice root for bronchitis.3
3. Acid Reflux and Digestive Support
Licorice root is beneficial for digestion and helps soothe irritation and inflammation of your digestive tract.
It is approved for treating painful spasms associated with chronic gastritis by the German Standard License, and in France licorice root may be used to treat bloating, impaired digestion and gas.4
An extract of licorice was also found to alleviate symptoms of functional dyspepsia (upset stomach),5 and a combination of extracts from licorice, chamomile, silverweed, angelica, blessed thistle and wormwood is effective in relieving indigestion and mild gastrointestinal complaints, including vomiting.6
4. Anti-Inflammatory and Immune System Support
More than 400 compounds have been isolated from licorice, including isoliquiritigenin and naringenin. These constituents promote regulatory T cell induction, which plays a critical role in controlling immune responses and preventing autoimmunity.7
According to research published in Scientific Reports, licorice exhibits a number of beneficial properties for immune system support:
"It [licorice] is known as a well-recognized medicine against peptic ulcer disease, constipation, cough and viral infection. Glycyrrhizin and flavonoids such as liquiritin, isoliquiritin, and their aglycones have been reported as the major constituents of licorice …
Glycyrrhizin inhibits tissue inflammation by reducing reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation … licorice has a significant anti-inflammatory properties in vitro and in vivo through multiple mechanisms.
… In recent years, licorice flavonoid are more and more popular because of their significant bio-activity in antimicrobial, antioxidative, and anti-inflammatory function."
5. Relieve Constipation
Licorice has a natural laxative effect that promotes peristalsis (the contractions in your colon that help move waste through).
In one study, a traditional Iranian herbal preparation containing licorice and other herbs was found to significantly improve chronic constipation compared to a placebo.8
6. Fight Viral Infections
Licorice has broad-spectrum anti-viral activity and may be effective against herpes, HIV, hepatitis, SARS and influenza.
According to one study published in the Chinese Journal of Virology, "The triterpenoids of licorice have the potential to become a novel broad-spectrum antiviral medicine and will be widely used in the clinical treatment."9
7. Adrenal Support
Licorice is an adaptogenic herb, which means it helps your body deal with stress. It turns out licorice helps your body to regulate the stress hormone cortisol,10 which takes a load off your adrenal glands.
8. PMS and Menopausal Support
Licorice has estrogen-like effects and has been found to reduce the number and duration of hot flashes as well as hormone therapy in postmenopausal women.11 It may also be useful in relieving the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Too Much Licorice Can Be Dangerous
While licorice root has many beneficial properties, be careful not to overdo it (both by taking too high of a dose or by taking it for too long). The active ingredient, glycyrrhiza, if taken in excess, can lead to pseudoaldosteronism, which makes you overly sensitive to a hormone in your adrenal cortex.
The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends using licorice for no longer than a week before seeking the advice of a health care provider, and not using any licorice preparation for longer than four to six weeks.
This herb should not be taken by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you want the benefits of licorice without the risks of overdosing on glycyrrhiza, deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), which is licorice without glycyrrhizin, is available.
However, you can also chew on a piece of licorice root or drink licorice root tea. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends the following forms and dosages:
•Dried root: 1 to 5 g as an infusion or decoction (boiled), three times daily
•Standardized extract: 250 to 500 mg, three times daily, standardized to contain 20 percent glycyrrhizinic acid
•DGL extract 4:1: chew 300 to 400 mg, three times daily 20 minutes before meals, for peptic ulcer
•Licorice 1:5 tincture: 2 to 5 mL, three times daily
•DGL extract: 0.4 to 1.6 g, three times daily, for peptic ulcer
•Mouthwash: Mix 1/2 teaspoon licorice extract with 1/4 cup water, swish, gargle, and expel the mouthwash four times daily for canker sores