Licorice, or Glycyrrhiza glabra, has been used medically for centuries as well used for the plant's flavor and sweetness. In addition to being the generic name for licorice, glycyrrhiza, which is derived from a Greek word for "sweet root," is the component of licorice that makes the plant taste so sweet — 50 times more than regular refined table sugar. Glycyrrhiza may be responsible for some of the side effects that licorice consumption induces in human beings. People who take deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) don't seem to suffer the same side effects.
Glycyrrhiza glabra, native to China and the Mediterranean area, has a long history. Licorice users included Egyptian Pharaoh King Tutankhamen (1341 BC to c. 1323 BC), who had licorice stored in his tomb for use in his afterlife. Other historical licorice supporters were Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BC), Julius Caesar (100 BC to 44 BC) and Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 to 1821). Traditional uses of licorice include treating digestive problems, coughs, urinary tract problems, and sore throats. In addition, licorice was used to prolong life, to treat coughs and to treat diabetes.
Licorice contains several healthful ingredients, such as vitamin B complex, vitamin E and lecithin. In addition, licorice may have antiviral and anti-bacterial characteristics. Glycyrrhizin itself may be able to reduce inflammation.
Science does not completely support licorice health claims, though there is relatively good evidence that licorice can treat infections. Evidence that licorice can treat viral infections, Addison’s disease, and HIV and that deglycyrrhizinated licorice can treat canker sores, gastrointestinal bleeding, or gastroesophageal reflux disease is contradictory or insufficient. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice may not have any true effect on indigestion or heartburn. In addition, licorice may not have an impact on asthma, shingles, or menopause.
Licorice side effects can include increased blood pressure and water retention and licorice may have an effect on serum testosterone levels. Other side effects can include electrolyte imbalances and temporary vision loss. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice does not cause many of the side effects that "regular" licorice has. People who are interested in taking licorice or deglycyrrhizinated licorice should consult with their physicians before trying this substance. In addition to possible side effects, licorice can interact with drugs and other herbal or natural medications.
In addition to consulting with their physicians, people should read the packaging labels carefully before making a purchase. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate licorice medications. There are no industry standards for the quality and strength of these products.