So what are some of the health benefits? Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is used to treat indigestion, hepatitis C, memory loss, cancer and skin infections. Traditionally it was used as treatment for stomach ulcers, heartburn, indigestion, toothache, fever, asthma, bronchitis and coughs, too.
For a time, licorice was considered a natural and effective remedy for stomach ulcers, after Dutch physician FE Revers used it to treat his patients. Intrigued, researchers in the 1950s discovered that licorice compounds worked by triggering the release of stomach-protecting mucus and by protecting the stomach’s lining from the ravages of pepsin, a powerful digestive enzyme.
It has since been shown, however, that long-term exposure to the glycyrrhizin in licorice can boost blood pressure, cause water and sodium retention and lower levels of potassium in the body, making it unsafe for extended use. And although researchers in India have experimented successfully with a safer, glycyrrhizin- free licorice to ease ulcer pain, today most people take antibiotics to wipe out the bacteria that cause stomach ulcers, and most scientists have switched their attention to other exciting healing possibilities in licorice.
Can licorice stand up to cancer? A lab study conducted at India’s Roland Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2011 says yes. The compounds licochalcone-A, glabridin and licocoumarone halted the growth of or killed, breast cancer, prostate cancer and leukemia cells. Glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhizic acid also put the brakes on the formation of tumours in skin, colon, liver, uterine and breast cancers.
This use of licorice has not been widely tested in humans, but one herbal prostate-cancer formula that contained licorice, PC-SPES (which is no longer available), was shown in human studies to slow the progression of some prostate cancers. Certainly, licorice is no substitute for conventional cancer therapy, but scientists think it has potential.
There are other health benefits being looked at into the future, too. It looks like licorice could be a mainstay in medicine’s arsenal of infection-fighters. A 2010 University of Texas study revealed that glycyrrhizin helps damaged skin create bacteria-fighting proteins called antimicrobial peptides, which are an important defense against infection. This could lead to treatments to counter antibiotic-resistant infections, such as those that sometimes occur in severe burns and can be fatal.
Perhaps most surprisingly, this sweet root could even be a dentist’s dream. Two licorice compounds, licoricidin and licorisoflavan A, have been shown, in lab studies, to kill off 2 major types of cavity-causing bacteria and 3 types of bacteria that fuel gum disease.
Licorice may be good for the brain, too. During a 2004 study at the University of Edinburgh, older men took a licorice extract containing the compound carbenoxolone and their verbal memory and fluency (the ability to put thoughts into words), improved. Why is that? Carbenoxolone seems to help by inhibiting a brain enzyme that helps make stress hormones, which contribute to age-related brain changes. Scientists say more research is needed but that a growing stack of lab research backs licorice’s potential for memory enhancement. In a mouse study, for example, animals that received licorice extract excelled at learning and memory tests.