Spring has finally arrived in Chicago, reigniting my love of gardening and plants. Licorice is an herb I use everyday in my Evanston acupuncture practice. Glycyrrhiza glabra is a member of the pea family and one of the few Chinese herbs we all recognize. In Chinese medicine it is added to most formulas to harmonize the flavor and increase the efficacy. It is a valuable herb in its own right, though in Chinese herbalism we typically use herbs in combination, after careful assessment of a person’s patterns of imbalance. This article is not meant to make you buy a bunch (but maybe try to grow it!) but more, to simply appreciate the diversity and wonderful effects of herbs. I hesitate to call any one herb my favorite because my favorite herb or formula is the one that’s going to be most effective for the person sitting in front of me at any given time.
A note about safety: herbs can be very powerful and you can think of their safety in tiers. The first tier being food therapy (very safe for everyday use), including culinary herbs and some adaptogens (herbs that help the body adapt to stress). The second is safe in appropriate circumstances. The third is safe only for short periods in specific circumstances and the fourth tier is toxic. I don’t recommend that anyone use herbs on a regular basis in any tier other than the first, unless recommended by a qualified herbalist. Chinese herbal certification at the national level requires 3,000 hours of training, 1,000 hours of internship, the passing of a rigorous test, and continuing education. If your acupuncturist has DiplCH or DiplOM after their name, then she is national board certified. It’s worth noting that not everything natural is safe, but let us put this statement in context. Over 100,000 people die each year of adverse effects of properly prescribed drugs and another 100,000 die each year of hospital acquired infections. Herbs have very few side effects in general when used appropriately and there are many ways in which side effects are prevented by combining herbs into the formula to offset possible harsh effects. One example is to include aromatic or carminative digestive herbs into formulas that contain tonics, which sometimes can be cloying or difficult to digest.
Importantly, and unlike with drugs, herbs contain many molecules and may have several beneficial effects on the body, which is why herbs tend to be antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal. Herbs are living organisms, which, like us, need to fight disease and maintain balance in an often stressful environment and use these compounds to do so. When taking herbs, we benefit from this biological intelligence. Also, because of this multifaceted wholeness, some herbs have built in buffers against side effects. One example, willow bark, used by native Americans for pain, contains natural buffers against the harsh effects on the stomach of the salicylic acid it contains. Salicylic acid is a metabolite of aspirin, well known for it’s side effects of ulcers.
But back to licorice. It benefits digestion, moistens the lungs, stops cough and wheezing, moderates spasm and alleviates pain of the legs and abdomen, resolves toxicity and sore throats, moderates and harmonizes herbal formulas. And it’s sweet, fifty times sweeter than sugar. (Of note is that licorice candies seldom contain licorice, but rather anise). Sweet flavored herbs are tonics that strengthen our Qi or vitality and bodily functions. The compound glycyrrhizin is similar in structure to cortisone. This may explain, in part, why it can help when the adrenal function becomes sluggish after prolonged stress. It may also be used topically for eczema and orally for chronic gum infections.
Licorice in a large prolonged dose can raise blood pressure. In Chinese herbal formulas licorice is used in small enough doses not to raise blood pressure. This is another benefit of compound herbal formulas. Using many herbs and capitalizing on synergistic functions allows the herbalist to use smaller doses of each herb and further reduce the potential for side effects. Though it is commonly used in Western herbalism as a single herb for reflux and is phenomenally effective. I have had many patients avoid drugs for reflux by chewing on DGL (deglycyrrhized licorice, in which glycyrrhizin which may raise blood pressure is removed). Unlike antacids, it doesn’t neutralize your stomach acid but helps heal the mucosal lining, has anti-histamine effects and improves digestive function.
Licorice plays a starring role in one Chinese formula in particular: Licorice and Jujube, aka Gan Mai Da Zao Tang, which contains licorice, jujube (Chinese date), and triticale wheat. I’ve had many successes using this formula when appropriate for the individual patient for mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, palpitations and insomnia.
Growing it: I haven’t attempted it yet but here’s info from Rodale’s new herbal written by the ethnobotanist Michael Balick, a great source for the lay herb enthusiast: Licorice grows in full sun, and rich, moist sandy loam. Plant cuttings or divisions in early spring or late fall and water frequently until established. After 3 years roots are ready to harvest. Dry the roots for 6 months in a dark, dry location.