When I was a kid, my family celebrated Easter in a big way. My siblings and I woke up at an ungodly hour to check out what the Easter bunny had left us the night before. The usual fare was a colorful basket for each of us filled with chocolate bunnies, peeps, and best of all, lots of jelly beans. We would sample an alarming amount of candy well before breakfast, church, and Easter egg hunting.
While I loved all the different kinds of candy that showed up in my Easter basket, I clearly remember picking out all of the black jelly beans. I tried to pawn them off on my brothers and sisters, to no avail. It seems like nobody was very interested in black licorice back then.
My taste for licorice has changed over the years. Now I actually like black licorice, and think that the only good thing about getting a cold is drinking licorice-flavored tea to soothe my sore throat. And while I don’t eat jelly beans very often, I no longer pick out the black ones to give away.
As a practitioner of Chinese medicine and an herbalist, licorice is back in my life in a bigger way than tea and candy. Licorice root is an ingredient in many Chinese herbal formulas. Called Gan Cao, (sweet herb), or Zhi Gan Cao, which is honey fried, licorice root is considered a sweet and harmonizing addition to a variety of formulas.
Licorice may be added to an herbal formula for a number of reasons. It strengthens the Spleen and boosts Qi (energy), effectively enhancing the digestive process to help you extract more energy and nutrients from the food you eat. It also moistens your Lungs and can be used as an expectorant for congested Lungs or to calm your cough. The neutral and sweet properties of licorice make it a good choice to add to a formula to balance its temperature, and when needed, to soften the overly powerful properties of the other herbs in the formula. In addition, adding licorice to an herbal formula makes it a little more appetizing.
While licorice is a commonly used herb in the Chinese Materia Medica, its use isn’t limited to just the Chinese. The ancient Egyptians also used licorice, which found in King Tut’s tomb, most likely so he would have sweetness in the afterlife. During the middle ages in Europe, licorice was used for its digestive properties, and was taken to alleviate the effects of spoiled foods. In the New World, licorice was introduced to Native Americans by the English as a treatment for respiratory infections. It was used for its soothing, expectorant and anti-inflammatory properties and often brewed with other herbs like sassafras, fennel, and aniseed. Today, licorice is consumed worldwide in candy, teas, and as a flavoring for tobacco.
The sweetness in licorice is from glycyrrhizin, which is about 50 times sweeter than sugar, but it is also the ingredient that may be responsible for some unwanted side effects. If taken in high enough doses for a long time, licorice can raise your blood pressure, cause edema (water swelling), upset your potassium balance, and negatively affect your Kidneys and Liver. Toxic doses are somewhere between 100 to 200 mg of glycyrrhizin a day (somewhere between 50 to 150 grams of licorice daily). The good news is that glycyrrhizin can be removed from licorice products and still offer up its healing properties.
In general, if you plan to take fairly large doses of licorice for digestive issues, look for products that contain deglycyrrhizinated licorice, or DGL. However, if you are drinking tea that contains licorice for the occasional cold or sore throat, you’re fine with the regular kind.
As a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I prescribe herbal formulas regularly that contain licorice, as it harmonizes the other herbs in the formula and tastes good. That said, the amount of licorice in a Chinese herbal formula is low and usually not taken for long periods of time. Personally, when I get a sore throat or a chest cold, I look for teas that contain licorice, as it’s soothing and speeds up the healing process. And when I come across jelly beans, I no longer reject the black ones!