Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain

Licorice, Love it or Hate it, it is Still Amazing!

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Well loads of stuff is happening, mostly migraines and holiday stuff, but mostly migraines. I was referred to a new Neurologist in Houston and I met him and really liked him. He gave me a lot of information, and explained to me why I should give taking a few medications a go, to see if they worked. I am not too happy that I am taking more medications, but this hopefully isn’t a “forever” thing. He also explained to me why I would not be a good candidate for a Spinal Stims, and that makes 3 docs that said it was a bad idea. So it just re-confirms my decision to not get any installed (other people may be, and I will go over Spinal Stims in another post in the future). So I am feeling pretty OK on this new medications, and I guess that makes visiting Houston worth it. Houston is a city you either love or hate, and if you hate it, you leave as soon as possible (like I did) to get away from it. So this inspired me to write about something that I personally love, but also has no grey areas when it comes to fans – Licorice.

The wonderful and under appreciated licorice root!

The wonderful and under appreciated licorice root!

Oh delicious licorice! I remember my sisters sorting through their jelly beans anytime we got some to pick out the “icky” black ones to give to me, which I hoarded and consumed with great relish. Licorice, is soooooooooooo good, I have always loved strong flavors, and this one always packs a punch.

I could dive into this and eat my way out!

Sadly, a lot of candies these days are made with anise oil, and licorice is only a background flavor. But you can find older candies made in the traditional ways that will have actual licorice in them.

A History of Licorice

Licorice has been used by humanity for longer than even I knew! I knew that licorice was a frequent offering at the end of Medieval era dinners to help aid in digestion, maybe even help with the meat laden diet since licorice has a mild laxative effect. It is far older though, the Scythians introduced it to the Greeks- Theophrastus, who lived around the time of Aristotle, refers to it as “Scythian root.” It was apparently used by the Scythians, in combination with Mare’s milk cheese, to stave off hunger and thirst during long treks, at least 12 days without water. Later Alexander the Great used it with his troops, telling them to chew licorice root to ease thirst. Even Brahma the Hindu God used it to slake his thirst, and it was well known in ancient India. We know this because of Dioscorides, wrote about it and he also gave the root it’s botanical name glycyrrhiza – from the Greek glykyrrhiza which means “sweet (glykys) root (rhiza).” Dioscorides mentioned that it was good for throat and stomach trouble, and the Greeks often used it in cold remedy preparations. The current name comes from an Anglo-French (basically the dialect of the Normans that invaded England) corruption of the later dialects of Latin liquiritia, which is derived from glychyrrhiza a latinization of the original Greek word. The Latin influence added the “lic,” or “liq” depending on where you live, portion of the word since liquere in Latin means “to become fluid.” Which liquid extraction was a common process for users of this root for many preparations, in fact licorice extract was well known in history, even in the time of Dioscorides. Pliny the Elder also mentions licorice, in a lozenge form (it’s most popular form for medicine) as being good for the throat and to aid with thirst, and aid in healing and reducing inflammation he wrote

“[The] powder of it is often sprinkled on ulcerous sores of the mouth and films on the eyes; it heals, too, excrescences of the bladder pains in the kidneys, condylomata, and ulcerous sores of the genitals”

Galen mentions it as an ingredient in a medicinal wine in which licorice and protropos wine were listed ingredients. Not only is it used to make medicinal wine, but it was also used to doctor “young” wine to make it taste more aged.

Licorice made its way to India, where it was known in Sanskrit as yasthimadhu (translates to sweet stalk), and was a big part of the Ayurvedic pharmacy. In Buddhist ceremonies, an infusion of licorice is used to give the statue of the Buddha a ritual bath on his birthday. In even further east countries licorice was widely used, though it may have been the species Glycyrrhiza uralensisit is one of the most popular ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine and has been recorded in use since the Han dynasty. From China licorice made it to Japan and the oldest specimen of licorice was found in the Imperial storehouse of Shosoin in Nara, it dated to the 8th century AD. Licorice in Chinese medicine is a “guide herb” which means it enhances the effects of other herbs, as well as prolonging life and helping healing. There is a great legend that goes with licorice and how it came to be used in Chinese medicine. From wikipedia:

“A long time ago, there was an old doctor with excellent medicine skills. He opened his medical office in his home with a few students as assistants. One time, he had to leave home for a couple of days, and before the old doctor left, he gave his students several drug packages in order for them to help out with the home patients. The old doctor did not return home on time, and the medicine he left for his students were running out, and there were still many patients to cure. In the backyard, however, there were some chopped and dried grasses used for boiling the water left, so the students administered them to the patients and told them that it was their teacher’s medicine. Magically, the patients who were suffering from spleen and stomach problems, coughing phlegm, or with sore throats and ulcers were cured from this medicine. These dried grasses were liquorice roots. Since then, liquorice roots have been widely used in Chinese medicine and healing.”

The Egyptians were also huge fans of licorice, making a drink called mai sus, now called ir sus in modern Egypt, which we know about since it was important enough to be written about. As well as King Tut’s tomb was found to have a large supply of licorice in it, so he could have it available to him in the afterlife. Licorice is very naturally sweet, and it comes from a different chemical than sugar called glychrrhizin, which has lead to it being used in many confections, as a refreshing sweet drink, or to sweeten bitter medicine. Since sugar was not widely known in the world until it spread outwards from India, it was often used in small amounts usually as medicine. It was the Arabs with their perfection of sugar refining, and the vast amount of medical knowledge they had who first made a lozenge for medicinal use that could be considered close to what we recognize today as a licorice candy. The history of this was they originally used honey, and then when sugar was available the conversion to what we would consider candies was made. In the Middle East, they too knew of its medicinal properties and used it  for colds, coughs, congestion and inflammation, and it was from here that licorice, and licorice lozenges or pastilles, made it to Europe (due to the Crusades as usual).

Pastilles were the more common format in the Middle Ages, and they were generally stamped or cast in molds. Though it was used in the brewing of dark beers, and even was used in ginger breads in its powdered form. Licorice was found in the Wardrobe Accounts of Henry IV, and it was documented that it was kept by apothecaries of Italy, and Frankfurt. Queen Elizabeth I planted it in her gardens, and a tax was placed on licorice imports to help repair the London Bridge during the reign of  Edward I. Licorice was as expensive as the grains of paradise, a spice from Africa resembling, and often used in replacement of, Black Pepper.

A famous version of licorice candy that is still around today is the Pontefract licorice, which according to the history on it’s home page has been produced in that area since the Cluniac (or Benedictines from Spain) monks brought the plant to the area around 1550, when a new monastery was built there. It was generally used as medicine but gained popularity overtime, and eventually the post-feast treat came about (that I mentioned earlier) to help ease noble tummies. Then in the 1700’s a chemist, George Dunhill, mixed a special recipe according to a “very ancient formula” and the Pontefract licorice cake was born! Though they were stopped in the 60’s they have been recently reborn through Haribo.

Pontefract Cakes, with the stamped logo same as was used hundreds of years ago.

Pontefract Cakes, with the stamped logo same as was used hundreds of years ago.

This licorice is so old and so famous, that it was the type of licorice used in the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker to make the fake cable car cable that Jaws had to bite through. The extruded candies, it is believed, first came from Holland in about the 17th century. which then became the standard for most licorice candies. As licorice moved down the history line, Napoleon Bonaparte encountered and became a fan of licorice, He supposedly chewed so much of the root (due to stomach issues, maybe from all the arsenic he ate) that his teeth turned black. From the Old World licorice made it to the New World, and introduced licorice to the Native Americans (which is weird, since it is usually the other way round). During the early colonial years, a colonist brewed a beer with licorice, among other things, for Indians when they had bad colds. It is now added to a variety of products from teas, to cold remedies, to alcohol, to even tobacco.

So licorice has a long and varied history, but it never seems to lose its ties to its medicinal roots, pun intended! If you like licorice, this is one thing that will be fun to eat as well as being good for you.

So what exactly is licorice and what does it do?

Though it tastes a lot like anise, or fennel, licorice is funnily enough a member of the pea family, and has about 18 recognized specie variations. Most of them have the chemicals that are required for it to be medicinal so if you are purchasing licorice roots make sure you know which species it comes from, or they may not be as effective. The most commonly used, and oldest is Glycyrrhiza glabra.

The mug shot – Glycyrrhiza glabra aka Licorice

The chemical that makes licorice so sweet, glycyrrhizin, is also what makes this a great medicinal plant. This chemical tastes 50 times sweeter than sugar, and is actually a glycoside. It can also make you retain salt (hence the issue with high blood pressure from over consumption), but it can also behave like a corticosteroid – specifically mineralocoticoids. You should remember that corticosteroids are those stress chemicals your adrenal glands put out, and are also the basis for cortisone injections. So there are a few studies, not enough yet to claim that it works or doesn’t, that consumption of licorice post cortisone shots, could actually increase their efficacy. The reason being is that it could prolong the action of any injected cortisol because it allows it to stay in the bloodstream for longer. Or that even just the consumption of the tea can help with people suffering from Adrenal fatigue, or over stress/exhaustion in general. With it being the holidays, this is a prime time for stress, and exhaustion, so this is definitely something to have on hand if it starts to seem like the holiday season is just getting to be a little too much. This also means that it acts as an anti-inflammatory as well since cortisol helps reduce inflammation. It is also being looked into for treating variations of Hepatitis as well as treating auto-immune diseases. Another chemical that is important is enoxolone, it also acts like cortisone in the system lending a hand with the anti-inflammatory. That’s right folks. Licorice is a corticosteroid 1-2 punch!

Take that inflammation! I float like a butterfly and sting like a licorice whip. Yes, yes I know, but I can’t help myself.

Both of these, glycyrrhizin and enoxolone, do have a warning that come with them, so I am going to emphasize this as much as possible.

***Over consumption of glycyrrhizin or enoxolone can cause high blood pressure, water retention, or low potassium levels. Licorice should not be consumed regularly without the consultation of a physician.***

Now with that said, if you are feeling exhausted even though you have slept or are particularly inflamed that day, a cup of licorice tea or a bit of licorice in any other way can be a great way to pick you up. It is also great for colds, sore throats, and it also can help add sweetness and strong flavor to other preparations to help cover the taste of other medicines that don’t taste as awesome as licorice does. Even aspirin’s blow on the stomach, which is notoriously hard, is softened considerably when coated in licorice.

Licorice is also fantastic for an upset stomach, and has a long history of being used to treat, and soothe, stomach ulcers. There has been some resaerch into this and it is very promising. Licorice could help reduce the size and number of ulcers, and may help with cell life and/or regeneration. For chronic pain sufferers, this means that it can help out with the constipation that strikes all who are forced to take opiates, soothe upset stomachs from other medications, and even help protect the stomach from damage from the harsh things we are forced to ingest. It could even help people with acid reflux, or other upper GI problems. Heartburn after all the rich food of the holidays is a common issue, as well as constipation, so again licorice is perfect for this time of year!

Unrelated to pain, and side effects, winter colds are common, which licorice is great to help fight. It is a great expectorant, and helps soothe and calm the symptoms of a cold.

If you ever wondered what people used before toothbrushes and toothpaste to clean their teeth, you may be surprised to know that twigs and roots were used and one of them was of course licorice! Combined with oil pulling, chewing licorice has been found to be beneficial, and with dry mouth being an issue using this a great alternative to a toothbrush. Chewing the licorice root can also stimulate saliva which is another way to combat dry mouth. For a how to on licorice root tooth brushing check out this site, I plan to try this in the future but haven’t made the jump to throwing out my toothbrush just yet.

How do you use licorice?

Well the easiest way is to just chew the root! Chewing it helps to clean the teeth as we said, and it releases the oils and all that great stuff that helps your body right into the mucous membranes of the mouth so it is put into the blood stream quickly. Just make sure the root is clean, and if you find it a bit too hard you can soak the root in warm water to soften it a little.

Licorice Tea

  • 2 teaspoon of licorice root, roughly chopped
  • 8 ounces boiling water

Boil the water, and when at a rolling boil, add the licorice and remove from heat. Steep for 5 minutes, you can go longer but more than 10 minutes is not advised. Strain, and drink. If you really love licorice you can go up to a tablespoon per 8 ounces of water, a general rule is 1 tsp per 4 ounces water but you can increase more if you are a fan like I am.

This tea is good for stomach upset, or you can add licorice to other laxatives, or you can take it with a stool softener. You can drink it if you have a cold, or sores in your mouth, or if you have any of the previously discussed ailments. This is also a good tea to drink 1-2 times a day for 3 days after cortisone injections to help with the effects of the cortisone in the body.

Licorice Compress

  • 1 tablespoon of Licorice root
  • 8 ounces Boiling water
  • bowl and cloth/towl

Boil water, add licorice and let steep until cool enough to dip your cloth or towel in it and not scald yourself. Wring out cloth until damp and place on affected area. Since it is great and reducing inflammation as well as fighting infection, with the bonus of soothing heat, this is great for wounds, sprains, swollen limbs (which you get a lot with CRPS), and, surprisingly, skin disorders. Stubborn patches of psoriasis can be combated with this method, or you can even put the roots (shredded roots work best) in the cloth and steep it like a giant tea bag, then place on the skin.

Ir’ sus (or Mai sus, or Egyptian Licorice Juice)

  • 3 tablespoons licorice root, powdered
  • 1 gallon Water
  • Large bowl

Place licorice powder in deep bowl and cover with cold water. With a spoon, rub licorice in the water until it forms a thick paste. Allow to rest for about 20 minutes. Place in cheesecloth bag and hang in jug filled with water (12 glasses). Leave in refrigerator until needed. Pull out bag, squeeze gently in jug, then discard bag.  The serve, raise jug about six inches over the glass and pour the juice. This allows plenty of bubbles to form on top – a very important feature in licorice juice. If you like it sweet, suspend the cheesecloth bag in sweetened water. (recipe slightly modified from Egypt Daily News)

Of course there are plenty of pre-made preparations in tea form, or in pill form. You can make your own licorice powder pills, there is a how to in my turmeric post. If you choose the store bought option, make sure you read the label. Know what species, if its a concentrate/extract of licorice, or if it has had the glycyrrhiain removed known as deglycyrrhizinated or DGL. These have had everything useful removed from it, which means there are no side effects, but it also means there are no effects since the active chemicals are removed. If you are purchasing DGL licorice it should be used to make candy or items where you are using licorice just for flavoring, and nothing else!

Licorice Tincture

  •  Mason Jar (enough to hold all parts)
  • 1 part Licorice root, roughly chopped
  • 2 parts Vodka (or other grain alcohol)

Throw the licorice root in the jar and cover with the alcohol, close the lid tightly. Set in a dark place for 4-6 weeks giving it a shake now and then. Strain, bottle and label. 2-5 ml should be taking a day, and not exceeded, nor should you take this for more than 3 weeks. Again this is good for inflammation, colds, constipation, and fatigue.

Also all of these recipes are good for fatigue and general holiday stresses, well stress in general. Licorice goes well with another stress fighter lemon balm, so if you find the taste too potent for you try adding some lemon balm to soften the blow to your palate.

Licorice may seem safe since it is used in candies, but remember even too much sugar is deadly and the same with licorice. Moderation in all things! Experiment with licorice, see what doses and forms work for you, everyone is different with different body chemistry you need to find your  “sweet spot.” Also since this can have adverse effects if you have high blood pressure or other issues so make sure you check WebMD before you start taking it, and of course if you are in doubt, even in the slightest! Ask a professional!

For coughs and colds – there are a log of recipes out there for syrups, you can check out a few cough remedies herehere, here, and hereIf you would like to read a little more about Pontefract Licorice history check out this siteIf you want to read a really in depth article on licorice go here, and for recipes other than medicinal go here and for interesting Chinese recipes hereFor a shop with the most variety of licorice I have seen, go here. (Seriously, its glorious)

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Author: defeatingpain

I am a Texan and in 2008 I was struck by an SUV while riding my bicycle, I have had C5-C6 and L4-S1 fused. While the surgery did a lot, I was left with Failed Back Syndrome and CRPS. I refuse to sit by and not have a hand in my own recovery, so, this blog documents my trials with finding natural solutions for chronic pain.

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