Licorice always brings to mind the red or black confection by that name. However, the candy actually contains little or no real licorice. However, the licorice root is rich in value. The name licorice actually comes from two Greek words meaning 'sweet root.' It is also called Chinese Licorice, Sweet Licorice, Sweet Wood, Kan-ts'ao, Gan Cao, Kuo-lao, and Yasti Madhu, and others. Used in proper doses, licorice is one of the most powerful herbs available today.
The licorice plant is obtained mainly from the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The dried plants can grow to over four feet. The plant has bluish purple and white flowers that resemble the blooms of the sweet pea. The licorice roots are cleaned, ground, and then boiled. The curdled, very strong tasting extract is dried again. This is again, along with natural flavors, dissolved in water and formed in molds.
Licorice has been used medicinally for centuries, even millennia. The ancient Hindus believed it increased sexual vigor when prepared as a beverage with milk and sugar. Licorice has been discovered in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, including that of Tutankhamen. In ancient Greece and Rome, licorice was employed as a tonic and also as a remedy for colds, sore throats, and coughs. As much as 3000 year ago the Chinese maintained that licorice root tea would give them strength and endurance. On this side of the ocean, in North American folk medicine, licorice was used as a cough suppressant, laxative, expectorant, and treatment for various cancers. Native Americans also used it to help with the pain in childbirth. Early pharmacists used licorice as a flavoring and sweetening agent in many of their syrups and lozenges. Today, licorice extracts are used in sugar free sweeteners for diabetics and those suffering from hypoglycemia. Recently a licorice sample dating from 756 A.D. was analyzed and found to still be potent. In Pontefract, Great Britain, local residents still celebrate a licorice harvest festival.
Generally, licorice is an immune system stimulant that is antibacterial. It not only has value in itself, but it causes other herbs to reach their full potential as well. Licorice contains glycyrrhizin, a substance that is 50 times sweeter than sugar. Glycyrrhizinic acid is more than just a sweetener though. It also seems to stop the growth of many bacteria and of viruses such as influenza A. It is especially useful for any mucous membrane infection, cancer, radiation treatment, general fatigue, or immune suppression.
Licorice extracts are used extensively as ingredients in cough drops, cough syrups, anti-smoking lozenges, tonics, laxatives, and other preparations. They are also used as flavoring agents to mask bad tastes in certain medicines. For this reason alone it is good to have around when children are sick.
Licorice is best known to some for its estrogenic effects, which make is a useful herb for menopause. Its anti-ulcer activity make it an herb of choice for both stomach and duodenal ulcer problems. Because it stimulates expectoration and heals mucous membrane systems, it has a long history of use for upper respiratory infections. Licorice is used in treating many ailments, including (in alphabetical order) arthritis, asthma, athlete's foot, baldness, body odor, bursitis, canker sores, chronic fatigue, depression, colds and flu, coughs, dandruff, emphysema, fungal infections, gingivitis and tooth decay, gout, heartburn, HIV, liver problems, Lyme disease, menopause, prostate enlargement, psoriasis, shingles, sore throat, tendonitis, tuberculosis, ulcers, viral infections, and yeast infections.
Besides glycyrrhizin, hundreds of other potentially healing substances have been identified in licorice as well, including compounds called flavonoids and various plant estrogens (phytoestrogens). Along this line, it is used to stimulate and regulate the adrenal glands and the pancreas. These work together because adrenalin helps control insulin. It acts as a natural cortisone or as a hormone that takes the place of cortisone. It helps injured voice muscles and helps voice improvement, either for hoarseness or throat damage. Licorice is a tonic for the intestinal tract. It acts as a mild laxative, and strengthens the heart and circulatory system.
Licorice makes an excellent tea and can be used as a tincture as well. Of course, it can be used in many other forms. For instance, it can easily be ground up, and used in capsules. It can also make other treatments more palatable. You can also add it to dishes in small amounts so as to add nutritional value to the dish without changing the flavor.
Licorice is a powerful bulk dried herb. Therefore, it should be taken with caution. Licorice interacts with many prescription drugs. Therefore, if you are on other medication, consult your doctor before taking licorice. The best way to take licorice is combined with other herbs. Licorice could cause water retention and, especially with prolonged use, could raise the blood pressure. It also can cause adrenal stimulation when you don't want it. Finally, avoid using larger amounts of licorice internally during pregnancy or nursing.