Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is more than the sweet candy that might first come to mind for many. This perennial herb, native to the Mediterranean region, central to southern Russia, and Asia Minor to Iran, is now widely cultivated throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It’s one of the most widely used medicinal herbs and is found in numerous traditional formulas, including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda, the ancient medicinal system of India. In fact, Licorice root has been used therapeutically for several thousand years in both Western and Eastern systems of medicine, with documented use including ancient Egypt, Arabia, Greece and China.
The roots and rhizomes are the main medicinal parts of Licorice. Many active compounds have been isolated from this super-herb, and in addition to the traditional uses of Licorice described below, studies have shown that these compounds demonstrate many pharmacological activities, including antiviral, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
When a person is under stress, an increased amount of stress hormones are produced and released by the adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenals can’t meet the demands of chronic stress, affecting every organ and bodily system. Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants, helping the adrenals respond more effectively and efficiently to the excess hormones, and in turn, helping to balance, restore and protect the body. Licorice is an herb widely recognized as an adaptogen that provides adrenal support. It can also help control inflammation and as a result, reduce the pain associated with arthritic conditions.
In herbal medicine texts, one reason provided for Licorice’s marked effect on the endocrine system is that it contains compounds (glycosides) which have a structure similar to that of the body’s natural steroids, and which are natural precursors to adrenal hormones. Similarly, according to the Chinese pharmacopeia, Licorice shows action similar to desoxycorticosterone (a steroid adrenal hormone).
In herbal medicine, long-term use of Licorice is considered beneficial for those in very stressful conditions, and the herb is also indicated for revitalizing the adrenal glands. The Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia also classifies Licorice as an adrenal agent, and in TCM, it is indicated to tonify Qi (vital energy or life force) and is used for the treatment of Qi deficiency with symptoms of chronic fatigue and weakness as a result of physical exertion or stress.
When it comes to treating respiratory concerns, Licorice has very similar uses across a number of traditional medicinal practices, including herbal medicine, TCM and Ayurveda. It’s traditionally used in herbal medicine to help relieve chest complaints such as coughs and bronchitis, and as an expectorant to help loosen mucous buildup. In TCM, Licorice is believed to have an affinity for the lungs (as well as the spleen and stomach - see “Gut Support” below), and is indicated for coughs, sore throat, chronic bronchitis, colds, flu and upper respiratory tract infections. According to the Chinese pharmacopeia, Licorice has soothing qualities, and is often used to diminish irritation of the mucous membrane behind the nasal cavity, and the Ayurvedic and Indian Pharmacopoeias similarly describe Licorice as an expectorant and soothing agent.
A number of traditional systems of medicine around the world use Licorice to provide relief for various complaints and conditions in the gut. It’s traditionally used in herbal medicine to help relieve inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract, such as gastritis and abdominal spasms, and is also used as a mild laxative in both herbal medicine and Ayurveda. In TCM, Licorice is believed to have an affinity for the spleen and stomach (as well as the lungs - see “Respiratory support” above), and is indicated for abdominal pain and indigestion. According to the Chinese pharmacopeia, Licorice is also used to relieve spasms of the smooth muscle in the gut.