Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is not just a healthy sweetener for your candies. Licorice flavonoids fight reactive molecules called free radicals from damaging nerve cells and inhibit inflammation. Besides deactivating cortisol, the stress hormone, licorice also increases the levels of happiness hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine. Licorice is also good for your digestion. It helps prevent muscle spasms in the intestines. It also protects the heart by balancing the cholesterol levels.
A regular for those nurturing a sweet tooth through candies, chewing gums, and beverages, licorice root is popular for being just that – sweet. However, it has so much more to offer than flavor alone. Packed into its root are compounds that travel to your liver, kidneys, lungs, and heart and can do you a world of good.
Before getting into the details of how exactly it helps, let’s address a common concern about its consumption. There’s some speculation that glycyrrhizin, the chief sweet-tasting component of licorice, can interfere with potassium regulation by the kidneys, lowering blood potassium to unhealthy levels and causing muscle weakness. Others say it may also reduce testosterone and increase blood pressure.
- You won’t have to worry about this if you consume licorice as part of a food (making it a functional food) and in moderation.
- If you’re still unsure, opt for licorice supplements that do not have glycyrrhizin – you’ll find them as deglycyrrhizinated licorice or DGL. They only contain the fat-soluble portions from which you can still benefit because of the health-promoting flavonoids.
Why It’s So Great
1. Promotes Mental Well-being
The brain is a mass of nerve cells constantly in conversation with each other to get things done. Some things you do (like exercising or solving puzzles) and some things you eat (foods like fatty fish and walnuts; herbs like bacopa and licorice) can keep this conversation going.
The flavonoids glabridin, liquiritigenin, and isoliquiritigenin in licorice are thought to be the main players. Here are the areas where they help the most:
By preserving the hardware of your brain, licorice helps preserve your memories.
Nerve cells are particularly vulnerable to damaging molecules called free radicals. Illness or aging can cause a surge of free radicals, overwhelming resident defenses called antioxidants.
Licorice’s flavonoids double as antioxidants, offering backup protection. They also inhibit the enzyme cholinesterase that destroys chemical messengers involved in nerve talk, keeping the conversation going.
Further ensuring brain cell safety, they inhibit cell suicide (apoptosis) and keep inflammation as far away as possible. In scientific parlance, this involves the inhibition of the extrasynaptic NMDA receptor and pro-inflammatory transcription factors AP-1 and NF-kB.
As much as your mood, happy or sad, is a reflection of your situation, it is also a reflection of the chemicals in your brain. Dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine are three such chemicals that are mostly associated with a happier state of mind.
Licorice helps maintain the optimum levels of these chemicals by inhibiting monoamine oxidases, enzymes that destroy these chemicals, thus increasing your chances of staying in a better mood.
If you’re constantly on the move, working your body round the clock, your nervous system becomes hyperactive. Unfortunately, this doubles or triples the stress hormone cortisol, keeping your body on the edge all the time. This is why reserving some time to unwind every day is so essential. You could also add licorice to the de-stressing routine. It can help inactivate cortisol and relax your body better.
2. Soothes the Digestive Tract
Licorice root can be of assistance to your digestive system. Here’s how.
Your intestinal cells are connected by tiny tunnels called gap junctions, which allow ions to pass through, creating electrical currents. These currents generate muscle contraction to help pass food along the digestive tract. The contractions need to be regular and controlled. Otherwise, they could give rise to spasms and cramps and even cause acid reflux.
Licorice root keeps the contractions regular by disconnecting gap junctions when required, so that food passes along easily without causing muscle spasms in the lower intestines. The flavonoid isoliquiritigenin appears to be at work here.
3. Protects the Heart
Cholesterol is both a blessing and a curse. Most cells in the body need cholesterol, but if the balance between “bad” LDL cholesterol and the “good” HDLs goes awry, the heart takes a beating. LDLs are vulnerable to oxidation (modification) by highly reactive cell-damaging molecules called free radicals. The oxidized cholesterol can clog up arteries. Naturally, then, your body does its best to maintain this crucial cholesterol balance. Licorice offers help.
Licorice’s flavonoids, particularly glabridin, work as antioxidants and prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
They also reduce lipid absorption in the intestines, reducing overall cholesterol in your system.
4. Limits Inflammation
Inflammation is an immune system reaction to infection, injury, and stress. Usually it subsides when the problem is resolved. But as we grow older, or when we don’t maintain a healthy lifestyle, the anti-inflammatory agents in the body function below par, and are unable to check inflammation in the body. This type of inflammation is usually low-grade – that is it doesn’t immediately manifest as tell-tale symptoms – but rather harmful. Foods that have anti-inflammatory compounds are a big help. Licorice is among those.
It suppresses or inhibits the production of key players of inflammation:
- TNF-α: TNF-α is a chemical involved in systemic inflammation, which is inflammation all over the body like a fever.
- MMPs: MMPs are molecules involved in tissue destruction, leading to swelling.
- PGE2: PGE2 helps sensitize pain receptors and induces a fever.
- Free radicals: Free radicals are “shot” at disease-causing agents to get rid of them but may begin to cause harm to the body’s own cells if not controlled.
To make the most of what this sweet root has to offer, have about 1–5 gm of deglycyrrhizinated licorice (up to a teaspoon) daily or, like we said, as part of a food item like a tea. It is not advisable to have pure licorice daily or over long periods of time.
Importantly, you should not be having licorice in any form if you suffer from high blood pressure.