Hippocrates named the herb glukos riza, or sweet root. Several species of this member of the Leguminosae, or pea family, are used medicinally. The British adopted the spelling liquorice from the Latin liquiritia and the German name has a similar meaning (süß ‘sweet’ and Holz ‘wood’). The same holds for the Sanskrit name yashti , meaning ‘stem, stalk; and madhu, meaning ‘sweet’. The Latin species name glaber meaning ‘hairless’ refers to the leaves, to distinguish from some related species having hairy leaves. At all times, liquorice was used less as a spice than as a medicine. Its use against the diseases of the upper respiratory tract dates back to ancient Egypt. The main part of the plant used in medicine is the root. This root is a demulcent and gentle relaxant, soothing to mucous irritations, and valued chiefly for its sweet taste and in masking the sharpness / pungency / taste of other remedies. Ayurveda recommends the root as beneficial in the treatment of coughs, colds, and other bronchial irritations. The root may be chewed as throat lozenges; or prepared as infusions by removing the outer bark and boiling for several minutes, to relieve hoarseness and coughs. During Charaka’s period, it was popular among singers as a lozenge.
Liquorice is used mainly as a spice in many countries. Frequently used spices termed “sweet” like anise, fennel and star anise cannot match the sweetness of liquorice. There are many components in liquorice, but the most active is glycyrrhizin. The root, especially the root bark, contains about 4% glycyrrhizin, potassium or calcium salt of glycyrrhizinic acid. Glycyrrhizin is about 50 times sweeter than cane sugar. Its action is similar to hormones produced in the adrenal cortex, especially desoxycorticosterone (DOCA). Glycyrrhizin is changed in the liver to glycyrrhetinic acid. Both these compounds promote the activation of interferon, a potent, naturally produced antiviral compound. Once interferon is activated, white blood cells are also called into play along with killer T.cells to help fight against cold viruses and herpes simplex. Some antibacterial effects that are exhibited are due more to the flavonoids contained, than glycyrrhizin. Other components present are saponins, coumarins, sterols, choline, triterpenoids, lignins, amino acids including asparagine, gums, biotin, folic acid, inositol, lecithin, estrogenic substances, pantothenic acid, para-aminobenzoic acid, phosphorous, pentacyclic terpenes, protein, sugar, a yellow dye, and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and E. Perhaps this is the reason for the broad range of effects liquorice has on the body. Liquorice contains only traces of essential oil; constituents identified include bicyclic monterpenoid ketones (fenchone, thujone) and coumarins (herniarin, umbelliferone).
There are two types of liquorice, “standard” liquorice and “de-glycyrrhizinated” liquorice (DGL). Each type is suitable for different conditions. When glycyrrhizin is removed from liquorice, the product is called deglycyrrhizinated liquorice or DGL. This product is especially useful in treating ulcers of the digestive tract because of the flavonoids, which are not harmed by the removal of glycyrrhizin. For respiratory infections, chronic fatigue syndrome or herpes (topical), the standard liquorice containing glycyrrhizin should be used. Liquorice root powder can be used in the amount of 5–6 grams per day. Concentrated extracts may be used in the amount of 250–500 mg three times a day. Alternatively, a tea can be made by boiling 1/2 ounce of root in 1 pint of water for fifteen minutes, drinking two to three cups of this per day. Liquorice root, particularly deglycyrrhized liquorice, can be a useful adjunct to antibiotic treatment because it accelerates the healing of the stomach lining. Deglycyrrhized liquorice root (DGL) and glutamine have been used to get people off antacids, H2 blockers and Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPI).
In test tubes, the flavonoids have been known to kill Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that cause most ulcers and inflammations of the stomach. Besides treating ulcers along the digestive tract, including the mouth, liquorice may be used for viral infections like a cold, inflammation as in arthritis, menstrual and menopause disorders, herpes, eczema and psoriasis, allergic disorders, asthma, chronic fatigue, depression due to hormonal imbalance, emphysema, and hypoglycemia. Ayurveda recommends liquorice as an effective expectorant, helping to liquefy mucus and facilitate its discharge from the body. In large doses it is a good emetic for cleansing the lungs and stomach from excess Kapha. It is a mild laxative, which soothes and tones the mucous membranes. For colds and respiratory affliction, it can be combined with fresh ginger. The expectorant effect of liquorice benefits people suffering from asthma or chest colds with tight coughs or difficult breathing. Liquorice tea is pleasant tasting and needs no added sugar. It can be made by simmering a few pieces of the root in a pint of water for 15-20 minutes. The root may be reused 2 or 3 times before new pieces are needed.
Powdered liquorice is also considered by Ayurvedic medicine as an excellent remedy for hyperacidity, and clinical tests prove that it is good for relieving pain, discomfort and other symptoms caused by acid matter in the stomach. It removes the irritating effects of acids in a better way than alkalis. Furthermore, liquiritin, a flavonoid glycoside has been identified has the aglycon liquiritigenin and is spontaneously formed when the root is dried. This is responsible for the spasmolytic effects of liquorice. Vatsayana, Kama Sutra recommends equal quantities of clarified butter, honey, sugar and liquorice be mixed with fennel-juice and milk to stimulate sexual vigor, and as a preservative of life. Liquorice is also known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic effects. This is due to the effect it has on the adrenal glands that are responsible for producing cortisol, the body’s own natural corticosteroid. Glycyrrhizin inhibits prostaglandin production, another component of the inflammatory process.
Glycyrrhizin also exhibits adapto-genic properties by stimulating cortisol production when there is not enough and promoting the breakdown of cortisol when there is too much. Because of this, liquorice is useful to take after stopping prescription of corticosteroids to boost the natural production of cortisol. Another adaptogenic effect from liquorice involves estrogen. Liquorice shows mild estrogenic properties similar to other phytoestrogens. It has the ability to promote estrogen production and to interfere with the effects of too much estrogen, especially from external sources. The flavonoid constituents are thought to be responsible for the estrogen-like effects, while glycyrrhetinic acid antagonizes estrogen where there is over-stimulation of estrogen receptors in the body. All this makes liquorice useful in controlling the menstrual cycle and in relieving PMS and menopausal symptoms. One of the drawbacks of liquorice is that it may cause peripheral edema (fluid retention) due to the retention of sodium with a loss of potassium, which disappears when liquorice is stopped. This can cause high blood pressure. But for people with Addison’s disease, however, this is exactly the type of effect needed. In Addison’s disease, the body collects sodium and promotes water loss leading to a serious imbalance of sodium, potassium, and other minerals and water.
Long-term (more than two to three weeks) intake of products containing more than 1 gram of glycyrrhizin, i.e., the amount contained in approximately 10 grams of root, daily is the usual amount required to cause these effects. Consumption of 7 grams liquorice, which approximately contains 500 mg glycyrrhizin, per day for seven days, has been shown to decrease serum testosterone levels in healthy men by blocking enzymes needed to synthesize testosterone. As a result of these possible side effects, long-term intake of high levels of glycyrrhizin is discouraged, and should only be undertaken if prescribed by a qualified healthcare professional. Consumption of plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to increase potassium intake is recommended to help decrease the chance of side effects. Liquorice is contraindicated in pregnant women as well as in people with liver and kidney disorders. De-glycyrrhizinated liquorice extracts do not cause these side effects because there is no glycyrrhizin in them.
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