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Treating Ulcerative Colitis with Licorice Root

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Updated September 15, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What licorice is:

Licorice is a perennial herb that has been used for medicinal and food purposes for thousands of years. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is found growing wild in parts of Europe and Asia, and has been cultivated in China, Africa, the Middle East and India. Today licorice root is used in both Eastern and Western medicine. There have only been preliminary studies of the use of licorice root for ulcerative colitis.

How licorice is used:

Licorice is a demulcent, a medication that has a soothing effect, and an expectorant, a medication that helps expel mucus from the respiratory tract. The parts of the licorice plant that are used medicinally are the roots and the underground stems. A compound called glycyrrhizin can be extracted from licorice root, and is the active ingredient in medicinal licorice preparations.

There is animal research and preliminary human trials on the use of licorice preparations to treat stomach ulcers, heart disease, HIV, excess body fat and pre-menstrual syndrome. Glycyrrhizin was shown to be beneficial in treating Helicobacter pylori infections. Glycyrrhizin prevented H. pylori, which causes infection and stomach ulcers, from adhering to the walls of the stomach.

There is some animal research on using glycyrrhizin to treat ulcerative colitis. In one study, rats were induced with ulcerative colitis by being given acetic acid, then given glycyrrhizin, acetic acid, or dexamethasone (a corticosteroid drug). Compared to normal controls and the acetic acid group, the groups receiving the glycyrrhizin or the dexamethasone showed a reduction in inflammation. At this time there is not enough evidence to recommend the routine use of licorice to treat ulcerative colitis in humans.

Usage and preparation:

Licorice typically is found in two forms: standard and de-glycyrrhizinated. The de-glycyrrhizinated version tends to cause fewer problems with adverse effects (see below). Licorice may come in capsules, tablets, extracts, or tea. More than 10 grams of licorice a day should only be taken under the supervision of a qualified health care practitioner. Licorice should only be used for 2 to 3 weeks.

  • Capsules: 5 or 6 grams per day
  • De-glycyrrhizinated tablets: One 200 to 300 mg tablet 20 minutes before meals and at bedtime
  • Standardized extract: 200 to 500 mg taken three times per day
  • De-glycyrrhizinated extract: 400 to 1600 mg three times per day
  • Tea: 1/2 ounce of licorice root boiled in 1 pint (2 cups) of water for 15 minutes

Interactions with other drugs:

Licorice may interact with several medications, including:

Warnings:

Licorice has long been used to treat many conditions, but it can still have adverse effects. Licorice, or any herbal preparation, is best used under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. Moderate amounts of licorice could lead to muscle pain or numbness in the arms and legs or weight gain. Consumption of high doses of glycyrrhizin could lead to headaches, fatigue, water retention (edema), high blood pressure, or possibly a heart attack.

The use of licorice is not advised for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Licorice can cause fluid retention and has been associated with preterm labor.

Licorice should be avoided by anyone who has:

Sources:

A.D.A.M. "Licorice." University of Maryland Medical Center 7 May 2013. 15 Sept 2013.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Licorice Root." NCCAM Apr 2012. 15 Sept 2013.

Wittschier N, Faller G, Hensel A. "Aqueous extracts and polysaccharides from liquorice roots (Glycyrrhiza glabra L.) inhibit adhesion of Helicobacter pylori to human gastric mucosa." J Ethnopharmacol 2009 Sep 7; 125:218-223. 15 Sept 2013.

Yuan H, Ji WS, Wu KX, Jiao JX, Sun LH, Feng YT. "Anti-inflammatory effect of Diammonium Glycyrrhizinate in a rat model of ulcerative colitis." World J Gastroenterol 2006 Jul 28; 12:4578-4581. 15 Sept 2013.

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