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The Effects of Licorice: A Look at this Natural Remedy for Stress

written by: BStone • edited by: Lisa Lambson • updated: 1/13/2011

Licorice root was used by ancient cultures as a natural remedy for stress and fatigue. How does it work? Can the effects of licorice be useful today to help us cope with the sometimes constant stress of modern day life? What are the health benefits of licorice?

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    History of Licorice

    licorice LIcorice is a small shrub, native to Southern Europe and Asia. The two most prevalent species are European licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis). The roots and rhizomes of the licorice plant have been used for thousands of years for their medicinal properties, as well as their characteristic sweetness and flavor — some varieties of licorice root are fifty times sweeter than sugar. The health benefits of licorice have traditionally been used to treat respiratory problems, inflammation, and ulcers, but licorice also has a long-standing reputation for supporting the body during stressful or challenging times.

    The history of this herb dates back to the world of the ancients. It was used throughout advanced cultures, by the Brahmans of India, the Greek and Roman naturalists, the Babylonians, the Chinese, and the Egyptians. The Egyptians prized licorice as a panacea. They drank a sweet licorice drink, called mai sus. It was even found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, to be taken with him on his journey to the afterlife. In ancient Indian, it was used to increase stamina and endurance. The Greek herbal physician, Dioscorides, gave licorice root its name — glukos riza, sweet root. He introduced the strengthening effects of licorice root to the armies of Alexander the Great. While traveling with them, Dioscorides told the troops to chew on licorice root to increase their ability to cope with hunger, thirst, and the stress of long marches.

    Chinese licorice root is a central part of Chinese medicine, and has been for more than five thousand years. Sometimes called the 'grandfather of herbs', licorice, or gan cao, is the second most prescribed herb in traditional Chinese medicine. Used for its ability to build and sustain the body's energy, licorice is used to regulate blood sugar, sharpen concentration, clear meridians, allowing a free flow of chi, and to purify the blood of toxins. It is viewed as a rejuvenating herb.

    Licorice has survived for millennia as a natural remedy for stress, but how is sweet root able to support the body in its hour of need?

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    Licorice and the Adrenals

    Proper adrenal function is paramount for total health. The adrenal glands, located directly above the kidneys, are made up of the inner medulla and the outer cortex. The medulla is responsible for releasing the most crucial hormones for stress — adrenalin and nor-adrenalin. These chemical messengers are the body's answer to extreme stress; they are in charge of the 'fight or flight' response. The cortex releases several hormones, most importantly cortisol. When faced with trouble, whether it be physical danger, fear of losing your job, or even chemical toxins, the adrenals put these hormones into the bloodstream, increasing blood pressure, protecting the immune system, boosting energy, and normalizing blood sugar levels.

    We face stressful situations all the time, sometimes several times a day — driving in traffic, making deadlines, trying to balance multiple responsibilities, and worrying about everything. When the adrenals prepare us for these situations, instead of acting externally, either running from or fighting the stressful situation, we turn around and suppress the energy, forcing it to react internally. Over time, this cycle leads to adrenal exhaustion, and opens the pathway for chronic illnesses. Symptoms of adrenal exhaustion include chronic fatigue, anxiety, sensitivity to allergens, poor immune function, and hypoglycemia.

    Licorice root acts to support the body in times of stress by nourishing and balancing the adrenal glands. It improves both physical and mental stamina. The primary constituent of licorice, glycyrrhizic acid, stimulates adrenal secretion. Licorice root is 24% glycyrrhizic acid by weight. This phytochemical has a similar structure to corticosteroids, which are naturally released by the adrenal glands. When the adrenals are worn, they are not able to release the necessary hormones. By directly stimulating exhausted adrenals, the health benefits of licorice include restoring balance, and potentially preventing disease in the long run.

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    Managing Stress Naturally with Licorice Root

    The effects of licorice on the adrenal glands are profound. Drinking just one cup of licorice tea a day is enough to restore adrenal function so the body is capable of coping with stress, whether it be physical, emotional, or chemical. Common stressors that effect the adrenals include emotional trauma, anxiety, depression, lack of nutrition, lack of sleep, pregnancy, toxins, and prescription drugs.

    Most of us face one or more of these factors on a regular basis. Licorice can be taken in capsule or tablet form, as an herbal infusion, or tincture as a therapy for stress. To make an infusion with fresh licorice root, steep one teaspoon of sliced licorice in one cup of water for five minutes. Also, be sure to eat foods rich in vitamin C and pantothenic acid (a B vitamin) as both nutrients support the adrenal glands.

    Like many herbal supplements, licorice should only be used in moderation. One dose of licorice per day is plenty, and only for a short period of time. In Germany, where herbal remedies are used on a regular basis, health authorities warn against taking licorice root for more than four to six weeks at a time without consulting a physician.

    Some side effects of prolonged licorice root include elevated blood pressure, water retention, and sodium retention. Be sure to eat plenty of potassium rich foods, such as bananas and avocados while taking licorice to normalize the body's sodium-potassium balance. It is recommended to avoid licorice if you have hypertension, diabetes, or cirrhosis of the liver.

    In today's world, stress can be perceived almost anywhere. While a bag of licorice candy won't solve all of your problems, a cup of licorice tea and a moment to ourselves will certainly help.

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    Resources

    Hoffman, David. The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies. (Element Books, 1996).

    Steven Foster Group

    Dr. Christopher's Herbal Legacy <http://www.herballegacy.com/>

    photo by My flickr account 2010

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