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For the Love of Licorice
For the Love of Licorice
When we rave about licorice’s potential health benefits, we’re not talking about Twizzlers. In fact, the swizzled, sugar-packed snack—even the anise-flavored black variety—is as different as can be from its namesake botanical. Real licorice is a Mediterranean plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra) with rapidly spreading roots that have been cultivated for centuries for use in health remedies, foods and beverages.
Despite licorice’s many wellness-promoting properties, the roots contain a compound, glycyrrhizin, that’s 50 times sweeter than sugar (which explains the evolution of licorice candy) but can pose problems for the body, such as raising blood pressure and causing potassium loss. Therefore, most of today’s licorice-based health products have been deglycyrrhizinated, meaning the compound has been removed, allowing the root’s remaining constituents—triterpenoids, polyphenols and polysaccharides—to do their work without side effects. Here’s a look at deglycyrrhizinated licorice’s noteworthy applications.
Commonly known as DGL, deglycyrrhizinated licorice is perhaps best known for its gastrointestinal benefits. Because it works as a demulcent—meaning it creates a slippery film over mucous membranes—it lubricates esophageal and stomach linings to help food pass through smoothly and preempt acid reflux and indigestion. For this reason, DGL is also a go-to natural remedy for gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. To score maximum effectiveness as a demulcent, DGL must mix with saliva, which is why it commonly comes in chewable form.
Research has also long suggested that DGL may help heal and prevent peptic ulcers, because it stimulates mucus secretion in the stomach and duodenum to temper gastric acid’s damaging effects. It’s also an anti-inflammatory. One study dating back to 1969 found that ulcer sufferers given DGL for one month saw significant reduction of ulcer size compared to those given a placebo; many in the DGL group healed up completely. A series of studies in the 1980s support the supplement’s antiulcer effects as being comparable to those of antacids, which work by neutralizing and suppressing gastric acid.
Why no more recent data? A DGL research review published in the November 2009 issue of Natural Medicine Journal attributes the dearth of studies to the fact that “in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the medical management of ulcers changed dramatically, followed by the even more dramatic shift toward use of antibiotics after the widespread acceptance of the role of Helicobacter pylori in ulcers in most patients in the 1990s. DGL was no longer being studied for up-front application in the healing of ulcers, but as maintenance therapy alone.” That said, the review also points to newer, in vitro studies that imply licorice may effectively suppress H. pylori—giving it another antiulcer mechanism. One trial, published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy in January 2004, showed that glycyrrhizinic acid inhibited H. pylori growth, while another, published in Life Sciences in August 2002, found that particular flavonoids of licorice extract also demonstrated H. pylori–suppressing ability. Still, the review author calls for more in-depth research before these effects can be proven.
Beyond its gastrointestinal benefits, soothing DGL is also used to ease sore throats and as an expectorant for deep coughs, since the same coating properties that can help food go down may also help move phlegm up and out. Other preliminary evidence suggests it may help ease muscle cramps, clear up canker sores and promote healthy weight maintenance, although further investigation is needed.
By: Melaina Juntti
Melaina is a freelance writer and editor in Madison, Wis., who focuses on natural health and wellness. Her work has appeared in Men's Journal, Delicious Living, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Natural Solutions, Inside Triathlon and Triathlete magazines.
May 3rd, 2012