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Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Photo © Steven Foster
Licorice Glycyrrhiza glabra L.) in the pea family (Fabaceae) is a small shrub with blue to violet flowers,1 native to the Mediterranean, Asia Minor to Iran, and now widely cultivated throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.2 Licorice is one of the most widely used medicinal herbs worldwide, and it is the single most used herb in Chinese medicine today.3
History and Traditional Use
Licorice was used in Arabia to treat coughs and to relieve the unwanted side effects of laxatives.4 Theophrastus, the Greek natural scientist (ca. 300 BCE), reported its use for dry cough, asthma, and all chest diseases.5 Pliny the Elder reported that licorice cleared the voice and acted as an expectorant (promotes discharge of mucous from the lungs and throat) and a carminative (induces the expulsion of gas from the stomach).1 Chinese medicine used licorice to relieve spasms of the gastrointestinal smooth muscle.2 Licorice has been commonly used as a demulcent (to relieve pain of irritated mucous membranes), antitussive (to relieve or suppress cough), and as a mild laxative.6 Traditionally, it is used to treat ulcers, abscesses, sores, sore throat, malaria, insomnia, abdominal pain, tuberculosis, and food poisoning.
Modern Medicinal Use
The German Commission E approved the internal use of licorice root for catarrhs (inflammation of mucous membranes, especially nose and throat) of the upper respiratory tract (the most common use of licorice) and gastric or duodenal ulcers.2 The modern Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia lists licorice as an expectorant, demulcent, spasmolytic (anti-spasmic), anti-inflammatory, adrenal agent, and a mild laxative. In Germany, licorice is licensed as a standard medicinal tea for loosening mucus, alleviating discharge in bronchitis, and as a method of treating spasmodic pains of chronic gastritis. In France, licorice preparations may be used to treat epigastric (abdominal wall) bloating, impaired digestion, and flatulence. Licorice extracts are used extensively as ingredients in cough drops and syrups, tonics, laxatives, and antismoking lozenges.6 They are also used as flavoring agents to mask bitter, nauseous, or other undesirable tastes in certain medicines. Licorice has also been used in many countries to treat cancer.6
Modern Consumer Use
Licorice root extract is used extensively in cough drops and syrups.6 It is also a major flavoring agent to mask bitter flavors in medicines. The root, powered, is widely used as a tea ingredient and in capsules, tablets, and other dietary supplement formulations, and is also used in flavoring tobacco. Most "licorice" candy sold in the US is actually flavored with the oil of anise and contains no actual licorice (Wizard, 2004, Leung and Foster, 1996).6 ,7
1 DerMarderosian A, Beutler JA. The Review of Natural Products, 3rd edition. St. Louis (MO): Facts and Comparisons; 2002.
2 Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, editors. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin (TX): American Botanical Council; Newton (MA): Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
3 Blumenthal M, Hall T, Goldberg A, Kunz T, Dinda K, Brinckmann J, et al, editors. The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs. Austin (TX): American Botanical Council; 2003.
4 Bruneton J. Pharmacognosy, Phytochemistry, Medicinal Plants. Paris: Lavoisier Publishing; 1995.
5 Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.; 1971.
6 Leung AY., Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley-Interscience; 1996.
7 Wizard Mariann Garner. Licorice and its potential risk of preterm births. HerbalGram 2004;61:26.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Disclaimer: These pages are presented solely as a source of INFORMATION and ENTERTAINMENT and to provide stern warnings against use where appropriate. No claims are made for the efficacy of any herb nor for any historical herbal treatment. In no way can the information provided here take the place of the standard, legal, medical practice of any country. Additionally, some of these plants are extremely toxic and should be used only by licensed professionals who have the means to process them properly into appropriate pharmaceuticals. One final note: many plants were used for a wide range of illnesses in the past, but be aware that many of the historical uses have proven to be ineffective for the problems to which they were applied.