Whether it is safe to eat licorice in pregnancy depends on the specific product in question. Licorice candy, for example, is typically safe as the product contains anise oil, rather than actual licorice. Anise oil has a taste nearly identical to black licorice and is commonly used to flavor licorice candies. Actual licorice plant, however, is not safe to eat or otherwise consume during pregnancy.
Used for a variety of medicinal purposes, the root of the licorice plant is commonly sold in herbal stores and through holistic healthcare providers. Commonly, licorice is used to treat sore throats and stomach or digestive problems like heartburn. Individuals suffering from coughs and congestion due to colds or the flu may also use licorice as an expectorant. Anecdotal reports suggest people with chronic fatigue syndrome, liver problems, lupus, and osteoarthritis may also gain benefits from consuming licorice.
In terms of licorice in pregnancy, these types of herbal remedies are not recommended for pregnant or nursing women. Although a relatively safe option for shampoos and other topical preparations, ingestion of licorice root or licorice derivatives can cause premature birth or miscarriage. Additional, although milder, concerns include elevated blood pressure, water retention, and hypertonia, a condition that causes a drop in potassium levels.
Not only is use of the root of licorice in pregnancy of concern, but other herbal mixtures that may contain licorice should be avoided. Chinese herbalists, for example, often use licorice root to help blend various other herbs, a practice known as “harmonizing.” While the amount of licorice in such mixtures is typically small, the risks associated with licorice in pregnancy do not rely on dosage. Even a small amount can cause water retention, high blood pressure, or loss of potassium in a pregnant woman.
Natural licorice contains glycyrrhizin, which mimics naturally occurring hormones responsible for controlling blood pressure and potassium levels. Some manufacturers offer deglycyrrhizinated licorice, but this type of licorice does not protect women from the risk of premature birth or miscarriage. Topical treatments, such as ointments for eczema and psoriasis, containing deglycrrhizinated licorice are, however, considered safe during pregnancy.
Known to mimic hormones such as estrogen, licorice is commonly used by some cultures to increase a woman's fertility. It is the same estrogen-like property that makes licorice in pregnancy so unsafe in terms of premature birth and miscarriage. For pregnant women, the increase in estrogen and similar properties creates a wealth of potential hazards, both for the woman and the unborn fetus. Insufficient information on the effects of licorice on breast milk exists, but medical professionals advise against using licorice while nursing.