While many people associate licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) with the chewy, black candy we knew as children, the licorice plant has a much broader therapeutic appeal and widespread historical fame. Sure, licorice has fifty times the natural sweetness of sugar1 making it a powerful confectionary flavoring, but it’s not all about the sweet taste with this incredible herb.
A Little History
The Latin genus name for this plant, Glycyrrhiza, is derived from the Greek word “glukurrhiza.” Dioscorides, a Greek herbal physician, gave the plant its botanical name: “glukos,” meaning “sweet,” and “riza,” meaning “root.” Similarly, the Sanskrit name for licorice is yasthimadhu, which means “sweet stick.”2 It’s not surprising to see why this sweet root got its name.
Licorice also belongs to the Fabaceae family, the same family as peas and beans. Like its leguminous relatives, this woody shrub grows 3–7 feet tall and has leaflets arranged on either side of its stems, distinctive blue-purple flowers, and fruits that resemble miniature pea pods. The plant grows rampantly in dry, open areas in Southern and Eastern Europe where it has been cultivated and naturalized.3
No one knows who first discovered that the fleshy roots of licorice possess such an intense sweetness, but licorice has been long-treasured by cultures and communities around the world. Archaeologists have found licorice root sealed inside the tomb of Tutankhamen in great quantities among his other treasures, presumably so he could brew “mai sus” in the afterlife, a traditional herbal beverage still enjoyed in Egypt today.4 In the third century B.C., licorice was mentioned by the Greek physician Theophrastus, who learned of its uses from the Scythians (Eurasian nomads). Around 80 A.D., Roman physician Pliny the Elder recommended it to clear the voice and to alleviate thirst and hunger. Greek and Roman soldiers were issued sticks of licorice root to quench thirst and improve stamina when water was scarce.5 It was even chewed by Napoleon Bonaparte centuries later, purportedly turning his teeth black. With evidence of licorice used for thousands of years across Asia, Europe, the Mediterranean, and North America, it’s safe to say this plant is a timeless favorite.
Health Benefits of Licorice
So why has this particularly sweet herb been revered for so long? Apart from its aforementioned use in clearing the voice and quenching thirst, traditionally licorice has been used to help mobilize secretions in the respiratory system. With its sweet taste and cooling effect, one might not anticipate its value in liquefying kapha, but its loosening and mobilizing qualities outweigh its potential kapha-augmenting effects.6 The heavy sweetness of licorice balances and moistens vata, while its cooling influence balances aggravated pitta.7 In addition to its excellent support for healthy lungs, licorice is a strong adrenal tonic, providing enduring strength to the whole body and nourishment to the nervous system. Sattvic in quality, it calms the mind and promotes contentment and harmony.8 Not bad for a plant that’s famous for its associations with candy!
How to Use Licorice
One of the most unique qualities of licorice is its ability to make herbal formulas more effective, a bit like putting a pinch of salt in your food to bring out the best flavors. Because of this quality, licorice enhances the power of synergy between the different herbs in a blend and is used in many classic Ayurvedic formulas as a harmonizing herb (it’s included in twelve Banyan formulas and counting!).
Need a little boost for your immune system during the kapha-heavy seasons? Licorice plays a leading role in our Lung and Immune Support formulas, our Bronchial Support herbal syrup, and our Throat Soother herbal spray. Looking to calm stomach discomfort? Utilize its natural demulcent properties in our Pitta Digest tablets or Easy Digest liquid extract. Licorice is even used as an ingredient in our Men’s Support formula to support the male reproductive system.
Prefer to use licorice powder? On its own, licorice can be added to hot water to make a tea, added to milk, or used to make an herbal ghee. Many people like to combine it with ginger alone to enhance its support for the respiratory system and ease digestive complaints.9 Or combine it with ginger and cardamom to use as a tonic for the teeth.10 It also pairs well with rejuvenative herbs such as ashwagandha and shatavari to bolster strength and energy. Or simply use a small amount of licorice in combinations to make bitter herbs more palatable. Licorice powder can even be used topically to create a brightening face mask using honey, rosewater, and plain yogurt.
Whether you choose to use licorice on its own or in a formula, please use caution in the case of long-term use. Licorice is contraindicated for those with high kapha imbalances. Therefore, we suggest consulting your practitioner before incorporating it into your practice, particularly if you are pregnant or nursing, taking medications, or have a medical condition.
Used cautiously and with respect, licorice can nourish, soothe, rejuvenate, strengthen, and calm. Licorice is quite an invaluable herbal ally to support you on your path to wellness and balance.