Pharmaceutical Name: Radix Glycyrrhizae
The name “licorice” comes from the Latin word “liquere,” which means “to become fluid”. The scientific name “glycyrrhizae” comes from Greek: “Glykys” means “sweet,” (this is also the origin of the English word “glucose”), and “rhiza,” meaning “root”
Chinese Name: Gan Cao
Literally means “sweet grass” in Mandarin.
Properties: Sweet, Neutral, Moist
Constitutions: Phlegmatic, Melancholic, Vata, Pitta, Taiyin
LifeWorld: Licorice is a perennial shrub that thrives in dry, stony soil, with full sunlight. Licorice is such a great moistening herb because it has to retain that quality to thrive in it’s relatively harsh, dry and hot habitat.
The plant’s stems present alternate pinnate leaves, with three to seven pairs of dark green oval leaflets. Its pale lavender or yellow flowers blossom throughout the summer.
The ideal planting time frame for licorice is late February to early March. Licorice plants fare best in warm, sub-tropical or tropical climates. It grows wild in Asia Minor, Greece, Spain, southern Italy, Iraq, Syria, Russia, and northern China. It takes between two to four years for the plant to mature before it can be harvested.
When eaten directly, raw licorice root has a woody quality. When the root is chewed its sweet and earthy flavor is released. As a tea it smells sweet and slightly pungent, also tasting sweet, feeling slippery and soft as it coats the throat.
Licorice is one of the most commonly used herbs throughout the world, not only for its own numerous beneficial health qualities, but also to mitigate the harsher qualities of other herbs.
In Chinese medicine, prepared licorice is considered a Spleen tonic, aiding in digestion, nutrient absorption, shortness of breath, lassitude, and loose stools. The unprepared herb is used to drain fire and resolve toxicity through its sweetness. It’s main use in formulas is to moderate urgency such as acute pain and spasm.
In all herbal traditions licorice is well known for its anti-inflammatory and immune enhancing qualities as well as its beneficial effects on the lungs, aiding in expectoration of stagnant phlegm in addition to soothing and moistening. This makes it an excellent choice for bronchitis, coughs, and throat inflammation.
Its anti-inflammatory and soothing effects also help when treating ulcers, urinary tract irritations, herpes, and allergies, and also immune-compromised conditions such as mononucleosis and HIV.
Nevertheless, in Western herbalism licorice is probably best known for it’s positive effects on the adrenals, helping stressed-out folks feel less run-down and burnt-out. The licorice constituent called triterpenes is metabolized in the body to molecules with a structure similar to that of adrenal cortex hormones, helping the adrenals work less hard in response to stress. In fact, this may also be the basis of anti-inflammatory action.
Drinking a cup of licorice tea every day is an excellent idea for anyone who is feeling over-worked or worried, especially if they have digestive issues such as loose-stools and poor nutrient absorption to boot.
In Ayurveda licorice is commonly used for all three constitutions, though it may be wise to limit its use for Kapha individuals as its water-increasing quality can lead to Kapha excess.
Licorice should also be used with cautionin pregnant women, as it may increase the risk of premature labor when used too much. People who have liver issues, hypertension, sever kidney issues, edema, frequent bloating, and/or high blood-pressure due to water retention should avoid licorice. People taking diuretics and cardiac glycosides, spironolactone or amiloride, cardiac glycosides, hypotensive agents, corticoids, diuretic drugs, or monoamine oxidase inhibitors should also look for alternatives to licorice. As with all herbs, check with your health-care provider before taking licorice regularly.
Despite these contraindications however, licorice is one of the safest herbs out there, being regularly recommended for children, the elderly, and everyone in-between. And it’s so yummy and gentle that it can easily be incorporated into many recipes and teas.
Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica by Dan Bensky, Steven Clavey, Eric Stoger, with Andrew Gamble
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman
Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health by Rosemary Gladstar
Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Sharol Marie Tilger
Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health by Aviva Romm
The Energetics of Western Herbs by Peter Holmes