What Is Licorice Root?

This age-old ulcer remedy may be risky if overused

The root of the licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra or Glycyrrhiza uralensis) has a long history of use in Eastern and Western medicine. The plant is native to the Middle East and parts of Asia and India.

Some traditional healthcare providers believe licorice root can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, including eczema, bronchitis, constipation, heartburn, stomach ulcers, and menstrual cramps. Although licorice is generally safe to use, consuming too much can lead to severe side effects.

This article looks at some of these uses and the limited research about the effects of licorice root. It also talks about what to look for if you're thinking of using it.

Licorice root capsules, powder, tincture, tea, and chewable tablets

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

In traditional Chinese medicine, licorice root is called gan zao. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is called either mulethi or its Sanskrit name, yashtimadhu.

What Is Licorice Root Used For?

The research is quite limited, but some studies suggest that licorice may offer certain potential health benefits. Many of them are related to digestive health, among other uses.

Canker Sores

Some past studies found that licorice root acted as an anti-inflammatory agent that speeds up the healing of aphthous ulcers (canker sores).

Chronic Bronchitis

There is some evidence that licorice root may slow the advance of chronic bronchitis in people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Chronic bronchitis causes long-term inflammation of the airways.

Scientists at Chung Shan Medical University in Taiwan have done test tube studies on licorice root. Their results suggest that the glycyrrhizic, asiatic, and oleanolic acids found in licorice root have an antioxidant effect that may be protective of cells in the bronchi that lead to the lungs.

These results could mean that licorice may help slow the progression of COPD when used along with standard treatments. Further human research is needed to support these results.

Colorectal Cancer

Some scientists believe that the antioxidant effects of licorice may help to lower the risk of certain cancers, primarily colorectal cancer. While the bulk of research has been limited to animal or test-tube studies, some results have been promising.

That includes a study in mice that found licorice root may offer possible benefits in preventing tumors related to colitis.

Functional Dyspepsia

Licorice root may help ease the pain of functional dyspepsia (FD). This is a disorder marked by bouts of upper abdominal discomfort.

In one study, 50 people in India were given either a placebo (inactive "sugar pill") or a product based on licorice root extract at a dose of 75 milligrams (mg) twice a day. The group who took the licorice reported greater relief of their symptoms than participants in the control group.

Menopause and Menstrual Symptoms

Licorice root has been studied in women with menstrual cramps due to its anti-inflammatory properties. It also is believed to help relieve many of the symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes.

Licorice contains phytoestrogens. These are plant-based compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. While there is some evidence of their benefits, it is still unclear how well these compounds in licorice root will help in relieving symptoms.

In one case, a 2012 study looked at 90 women with hot flashes. Authors reported that a daily, 330-milligram dose of licorice root gave some modest relief, compared to a placebo. Once treatment stopped, the symptoms returned.

Peptic Ulcers

The role of licorice in treating peptic ulcer disease has gained increasing interest in the scientific community. Notably, researchers have wanted to know its effect on bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). It is the primary cause of peptic ulcers and it is a difficult infection to treat.

A 2016 study of 120 people in Iran found that licorice root, added to standard triple antibiotic therapy, eliminated H. pylori 83.3% of the time. In a group that received antibiotic therapy plus placebo, treatment was successful in just 62.5% of cases.

Lab tests suggest licorice root appears to have antimicrobial effects. This means it may offer benefits in treating some fungal infections, like Candida albicans, and other hard-to-treat bacterial infections like Staphylococcus aureus.

Possible Side Effects

When taken as a supplement or tea, licorice root is considered safe. It is tolerated well in adults.

Licorice root supplements are only intended for short-term use. Consuming licorice daily for several weeks or longer can cause severe and potentially life-threatening side effects.

However, some side effects can occur if licorice root is taken in large amounts. This is likely due to an excessive buildup of glycyrrhizinic acid in the body. It triggers an abnormal increase in the stress hormone cortisol. This can lead to a severe imbalance in the body's fluids and electrolytes.

Possible symptoms would include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Edema (fluid retention and swelling)
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness or cramping

Extreme cases can cause licorice poisoning. This can lead to kidney failure, paralysis, congestive heart failure, and pulmonary edema.

Consuming DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice) forms of licorice can help avoid these effects.

Precautions

Research suggests that using licorice root while pregnant or breastfeeding can have neurological effects on children later in life. It should not be consumed by children, pregnant women, or nursing mothers. Licorice also should be avoided in people with hypertension, low potassium, edema, and kidney or liver problems.

Drug Interactions

Licorice can interact with a number of drugs. Interactions include lowering the effectiveness or making the side effects worse.

These medications include:

  • Heart arrhythmia drugs like Lanoxin (digoxin)
  • High blood pressure drugs like Cozaar (losartan)
  • Blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin)
  • Estrogen-based contraceptives
  • Celebrex (celecoxib), and Voltaren (diclofenac)
  • Cholesterol drugs like Lescol (fluvastatin)
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen)
  • Diuretics like Lasix (furosemide)

Be sure to tell your healthcare provider if you are taking licorice root or any other natural or herbal supplement. This will help you to avoid potential drug interactions.

Dosage and Preparation

Licorice root products come in many forms available in most health food stores or online.

These forms may include:

  • Chewable tablets
  • Capsules
  • Extracts
  • Teas
  • Lozenges
  • Tinctures
  • Powders

There are no universal guidelines for the proper use of licorice root. Doses of 5 to 15 grams a day are considered safe for short-term use.

Look for licorice products that contain no more than 10% glycyrrhizin, or advertised as DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice) .As a general rule, you should never exceed the recommended dosage on the product label. You also should not take licorice supplements for more than three to six weeks.

In addition to dietary supplements, dried licorice root can be found through a traditional Chinese medicine distributor. Whole licorice root is harder to use, given that you are less able to control the dose. It's easy to make shaved root into tea, though. Just steep a tablespoon of the shavings in a cup of boiling water.

Licorice teabags can be found at many grocery stores. Some are mixed with black, green, or rooibos tea.

For best results, talk with your healthcare provider before using any licorice root product.

What to Look For

Licorice root is classified as a dietary supplement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For this reason, licorice root products are not required to undergo the rigorous testing that pharmaceutical drugs do.

This means that the quality can vary widely from one brand to the next. To ensure quality and safety, only buy brands that are certified by an independent body such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International.

Only buy supplements that state the amount of glycyrrhizin on the product label. If you buy dried licorice root, choose a product that has been certified organic whenever possible.

Eating Licorice Candy

Eating too much licorice candy from time to time will likely cause you nothing more than an upset stomach and heartburn. The same may not be true if you consume licorice habitually.

In 2017, the FDA issued a warning advisory that said adults over 40 who eat 2 ounces of natural black licorice per day for at least two weeks could end up in the hospital with cardiac arrhythmia and other serious symptoms.

Summary

Traditional Chinese medicine has long used licorice root to treat a number of health conditions. It's used in the modern era too, with some research support for its benefits. Much remains unknown about its effects, but it is thought to be safe to use in appropriate amounts.

People use licorice root to ease symptoms of menopause, as well as treat a number of digestive ailments. It can be toxic if you take too much and there can be side effects, especially among those with a history of liver or kidney problems. It also can interact with some of the medications you may already take. It's a good idea to talk with your healthcare provider about licorice root before taking it.

Licorice root comes in a variety of forms. The amount of active ingredient also can differ from one product to the next. Be sure that you have good information about the product before taking it so that you know it is both safe and effective.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to keep your use of licorice root (and any licorice candy) at safe levels. If you use large amounts and start to feel your heart beating wildly or your muscles going weak, call your healthcare provider right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much licorice root is too much?

    The amounts of licorice root in different products can vary, so it's difficult to say an exact amount that's unsafe. In general, eating large amounts or consuming it over an extended period of time can cause serious health issues like increased blood pressure and decreased potassium levels. Check with your healthcare provider before taking licorice root, particularly if you have a condition like high blood pressure or heart or kidney disease.

  • Where can you buy licorice root?

    You can get licorice root capsules, tablets, powders, teas, lozenges, and extracts in health stores and online where supplements are sold.

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