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What is Glycyrrhiza?

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  • Written By: A. Pasbjerg
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Images By: Hayati Kayhan, Rob3000, Orlando Bellini, Guillaume Baviere, Bruno135_406
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2018
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Glycyrrhiza is the name for a genus of plants commonly referred to as licorice. There are around 20 species within the genus, with varieties native to Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Licorice plants are herbaceous perennials that are part of the legume family. Glycyrrhizin, or glycyrrhizic acid, is one of the main components of the plants in this genus. It is extremely sweet, roughly 50 times more than regular sugar.

The best known and most commonly used variety is Glycyrrhiza glabra, or European licorice. This species is cultivated mainly in Greece, Turkey and Asia. The root of the plant is used to make a sweet extract that can be used to flavor licorice candy, as well as soft drinks, liqueur and tobacco products. It is also sometimes used to mask unpleasant flavors in medications. Licorice root dietary supplements are typically made from this species.

Another well known species is Glycyrrhiza uralensis, or Chinese licorice. This type is cultivated in China and is very common in traditional Chinese medicine. It is typically used in conjunction with other herbs and is considered to enhance their effectiveness.

For thousands of years, glycyrrhiza has been used as a medicinal herb. Several ancient cultures, including Greece, Egypt and China, used it for respiratory issues such as cough, consumption and bronchitis. It was also considered a treatment for gastritis, or inflammation of the stomach lining. In Europe, it is a well known folk remedy for stomach ulcers.

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Research has validated that glycyrrhiza does have medicinal values. It is considered to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is both an expectorant and a demulcent, so it has been used to treat colds, asthma and various other respiratory issues. Licorice is sometimes used to treat peptic ulcers and other digestive problems. Other medical uses include stimulation of the function of the adrenal glands and protection of the cells of the liver.

There are several potentially hazardous side effects tied to the excessive intake of glycyrrhiza. One major risk is an increase in blood pressure, so products containing it are not recommended for people with hypertension. Another possible complication is hypokalemia, or low blood potassium, which can cause problems with the heart. Glychyrrhiza can also cause fluid retention, or edema, headache and abdominal pain. Sometimes supplements are made with deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), where the glycyrrhizin has been removed, in order to avoid some of its negative effects.

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