Is Licorice Root Healthy? Here's What the Science Says
This love-it-or-hate-it ingredient has long been used as an herbal remedy for certain conditions. Here's what you need to know about licorice root and your health.
There's no denying that licorice is one of the strongest and most polarizing flavors out there. Some people hate it, but enough people love it that it's found in everything from sweets to booze. Historically, though, it's been used for so much more than just gummy candy and Jagermeister. In fact, licorice root was used by ancient Egyptians to suppress thirst during battle, and in traditional Chinese medicine to treat digestive, skin, and respiratory issues. While not all ancient uses are backed by hard science, there are plenty of evidence-based health benefits of licorice root. Here's what you need to know about the health benefits, side effects and possible uses of licorice root.
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Things to keep in mind about licorice root
Licorice root is used in dietary supplements, teas, and medicines like throat lozenges. Because it's never eaten by itself, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn't have nutrition facts—calories, carbs, protein, fat, cholesterol, vitamins, minerals—for licorice root. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there isn't a ton of research out there looking at the health effects of licorice root, but there is some evidence supporting potential benefits.
The NIH warns that while licorice root is generally considered safe, consuming large amounts for a long period of time can lead to serious side effects due to glycyrrhizin, a compound in licorice made up of a variety of minerals. Too much glycyrrhizin can cause low potassium levels in the body, which then might lead to heart conditions and muscle weakness, says Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., cofounder of Appetite for Health.
High doses of glycyrrhizin can interfere with a baby's brain development, so pregnant women should avoid licorice root supplements or teas. Glycyrrhizin can also interfere with several common medications, including blood pressure medications, cholesterol medications, diuretics, blood thinners, estrogen-based hormonal birth control, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen.
If you're only consuming licorice root occasionally in the form of tea, candy, or a lozenge, the risk of negative health effects is very low. However, the USDA warns that eating 2 ounces of black licorice candy per day for two weeks or more could lead to heart problems for people over 40. Because of all this, it's best to check with your doctor before adding licorice root (in any form) to your regular routine. (Learn more about black licorice and if it's dangerous for your heart.)
Potential health benefits
"There [may be] some gastrointestinal benefits of consuming licorice root," Upton says. Although more research needs to be done, a few small studies are promising. One small study of 58 adults with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) found that adding glycyrrhizin (an active compound in licorice root) to standard GERD treatments significantly reduced symptoms of reflux, stomach pain, and heartburn. Another small study of 50 adults found that licorice capsules twice a day helped relieve indigestion.
Licorice root isn't just used as a dietary supplement; it's also an active ingredient in certain creams and ointments. "Some research suggests that licorice can be applied topically through skin creams and lotions to help reduce symptoms associated with dermatitis like red and itchy skin," Upton says. One small study of 281 adults found that applying an ointment containing glycyrrhetinic acid (an active compound in licorice root) helped soothe symptoms of dermatitis, including dry, itchy, red, and swollen skin. Another study of 1221 adults with rosacea found that twice-daily application of a cream containing licochalcone A (an active compound in licorice root) significantly reduced redness after 4 weeks. (Try this 7-day meal plan for healthy skin.)
Licorice root teas and lozenges have long been used as alternative medicine remedies for a sore throat. While there hasn't been much research done on humans to prove whether or not this is effective, one lab trial—where licorice-infused water was combined with various bacteria on petri dishes—found that licorice root has antibacterial and other similar properties that might help soothe symptoms of strep throat.
"Licorice has also been used to help prevent or reduce sore throats when taken as part of a throat lozenge," Upton says. While it isn't clear exactly how this works, the Mayo Clinic lists licorice teas, sprays, and lozenges as common herbal remedies that can be used to soothe a sore throat (try these top foods to soothe a sore throat).
Licorice root has been used in alternative medicine for centuries as a remedy for digestive issues, sore throats, and skin problems. While researchers have started to look into these potential health benefits, the truth is that we have so much more to learn about what licorice root can and can't do. If you decide to give licorice root a try, remember that the NIH warns against high doses, especially for pregnant women and people on certain medications. And according to the USDA, even licorice candy isn't safe in huge amounts—eating two ounces or more per day for two weeks or more can lead to serious complications.