Native to Asia, the Middle East, and Southern Europe, the licorice plant has a long history as both a medicine and a flavor. Licorice was a favored sweet drink in ancient Egypt, and used medicinally across Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures to treat inflammation, soothe upset stomachs, and more.
Modern studies are finding more evidence for the many traditional uses of licorice root, especially for women’s health. This versatile anti-inflammatory plant can benefit digestive issues, hormone health, and skin health as well as helping ease problems with menstruation and menopause. The benefits of licorice root can be enjoyed as a tea, supplement, tincture, or topical treatment, and even as candies.
Let’s take a look at the forms, uses, and side effects of licorice root, with a focus on its benefits for women's health.
What is Licorice Root?
Licorice root (that’s liquorice root, for the Brits) is the common name for the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra, a perennial legume known as Gan Cao in Chinese herbalism. Its latin name literally means “sweet root,” and its extract has been used as a flavoring for thousands of years.
The sweetness of licorice root stems from glycyrrhizin, a compound sweeter than sugar that is responsible for many of the health benefits of licorice root.
Benefits of Licorice Root for Women
The sweetness of licorice goes further than its flavor: licorice may be a powerful herb for women’s health. Traditional Chinese Medicine has long used licorice root to treat symptoms of menopause, and its many active compounds have unique effects on several hormones.
Studies even show that licorice can help reduce cramps and ease period poops, even better that you can take it as a candy to soothe those cravings!
Licorice Root Effects on Estrogen
During menopause, dropping estrogen levels lead to uncomfortable symptoms such as hot flashes. In several studies, menopausal women given licorice supplements reported a reduction in hot flash severity or duration.
Many compounds found in licorice root are also estrogenic, and can activate estrogen receptors in the body. One interesting study looked at a compound called liquiritigenin, and found that its estrogenic properties has the added benefit of selectively triggering beta estrogen receptors without stimulating the alpha estrogen receptors that are linked to increased breast tumor formation. The researchers believe that further experiments with liquiritigenin could lead to a safer alternative to traditional estradiol hormone therapy for treating menopause symptoms.
A separate study looked specifically at the impacts of another licorice compound isoliquiritigenin, which instead reduces estrogen. Researchers found that exposure of ovarian follicle cells to isoliquiritigenin actually leads to a decrease in the expression of the genes needed to produce sex hormones. While animal trials are still needed, it’s possible that in reproductive organs, this reduction in estrogen could have impacts on fertility. Keep in mind, both of these studies were looking at isolated compounds, not at the whole licorice root.
Licorice Root for PCOS
Licorice root is also used as a treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Research reports that licorice root can help balance irregular ovarian follicles, and decrease ovarian cysts.
Studies also show that in women, licorice can reduce testosterone production from the adrenal glands, and help improve the anti-androgen effect of other PCOS treatments like spironolactone while minimizing side effects.
Licorice Root and Breast Cancer
Researchers found that isoliquiritigenin isolated from licorice root had protective effects when it comes to breast cancer. Exposure of breast cancer cells in the lab to this antioxidant inhibited further cancer growth, and increased apoptosis (cell death) among cancerous cells. This goes to show that different compounds can have varying effects on different body systems.
Licorice Root for Adrenal Health
Licorice is also a key player in adrenal health, helping to support healthy energy levels throughout the day. One factor in what’s commonly called “adrenal fatigue” are your body’s levels of cortisol and cortisone. Your body naturally produces cortisol in the morning and in some people experiencing issues it quickly begins converting it to cortisone, causing a sharp drop. We commonly think of cortisol as the “stress hormone”, but if your body converts all your cortisol too quickly, you can actually have trouble regulating crucial functions like metabolism, inflammation and energy.
Licorice partially inhibits the enzyme 11-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, slowing this conversion so that your cortisol levels can stick around just a little longer to help boost fatigued energy levels.
Additional Benefits of Licorice Root
Licorice root isn’t just a women’s supplement. This versatile anti-inflammatory herb has a wide range of health benefits, some of which have been used for years in Chinese, Ayurvedic and folk medicine. While glycyrrhizin is the most studied, licorice root contains over 300 known active compounds, and just about as many uses!
Soothing Sore Throats
Some of licorice’s best known attributes are its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, behind its popular application soothing sore throats. Licorice possesses antiviral and anti-microbial properties, and is specifically shown to battle the bacterial and biofilms behind strep throat, and effectively soothe symptoms of asthma.
Oral Health and Preventing Cavities
It’s anti-inflammatory benefits may also help oral health by soothing gums and ulcers in the mouth. A 2019 study giving children lollipops made with licorice glycyrrhizin showed that the compound reduced the populations of cavity-forming bacteria, without affecting the total bacterial biodiversity.
Indigestion and Gastric Ulcers
Further down the digestive tract, licorice is a popular remedy for indigestion. For patients with gastric ulcers, licorice extracts were effective in protecting against ulcers, and in fighting off H pylori, the bacteria known for damaging the stomach lining, and causing stomach ulcers.
The form of licorice used for gut health is known as DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice), which does not have the same blood pressure concerns because it is without glycyrrhizin.
DGL may help with mucus production in the digestive tract, which creates a protective barrier between acid and the lining of the intestines. This may be the reason DGL has been shown to be beneficial for those with acid reflux.
Licorice for Healthy Skin
Licorice’s anti-inflammatory properties extend to skin health as well. Traditional medicines recognize the use of licorice root to speed healing, and a 2018 study using rats confirmed that skin wounds healed faster and cleaner in rats treated with a topical application of licorice root.
Several other studies showed that licorice and its extracts were useful in treating the common skin complaints dermatitis and rosacea. Licorice also helped by boosting the skin’s defense against harmful UV rays from sun exposure.
More on UV protection here: Choosing Hormone Safe Sunscreen
Other Benefits of Licorice
Licorice root possesses many other medical uses, and researchers continue to uncover more. One growing research topic is the use of glycyrrhizin to support liver health, and treat liver diseases such as hepatitis. Further studies are revealing more about the potential anticancer properties of licorice root, with studies showing promising effects treating melanoma cells, and colon cancer in mice.
How to Use Licorice Root
Licorice root is one of those wonderful supplements that not only packs incredible health benefits, but still tastes delicious too. Licorice can be taken as an herbal tea, tincture, powder, or used in candies or lozenges. Just be sure to keep an eye on the ingredients, as many “licorice flavored” products actually use anise oil instead, which provides a similar taste and smell, but not the same properties as licorice.
If the taste of licorice isn’t your cup of tea, you can also reap the benefits without the flavor through supplements. For topical uses, some skincare products and ointments also use licorice root.
Precautions of Licorice Root
Like any good thing, too much licorice has its risks. While there is no standard accepted dosage for licorice or compounds made from licorice, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends you limit your glycyrrhizin intake to 100 milligrams a day or less.
Research has linked too much glycyrrhizin to low potassium levels, increased blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms or arrhythmia. Especially in those with histories of heart disease, consuming excessive licorice can lead to dangerous complications. For those who are truly in love with the licorice flavor, you can still enjoy the taste without the risk (or many of the benefits) by finding deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) products.
Licorice root is also known to interact with some medications. Avoid licorice, or talk to your doctor first, if you take diuretics, corticosteroids, or medications for blood pressure or cholesterol.
Licorice is not safe to take during pregnancy. Heavy consumption of licorice during pregnancy is linked to premature birth and developmental problems. Until we know more, I recommend avoiding licorice root while breastfeeding as well.
It’s always fascinating to find a natural compound with so many incredible uses, and exciting active research on the way. Both as a sweet treat, and powerful traditional medicine, licorice root is a useful herb to understand, with promising benefits throughout the body.
Learn more about some of my favorite herbal supplements: 7 Adaptogenic Herbs to Heal Adrenals Naturally
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