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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 5, 2003

Licorice root could raise blood pressure

By Laurie Steelsmith

Q. I've heard that if you take licorice root, it can have side effects — is this true? Can it also be good for you?

A. Yes and yes.

Taking licorice root can have undesirable side effects, but it can also have many health benefits. For most people, when it is used correctly, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Licorice root is a classic plant medicine that has long been used by naturopathic physicians for treating a variety of conditions including heartburn, stomach ulcers, and canker sores. Among its many potential benefits, studies show that it has anti-inflammatory properties.

However, when used in excess, licorice root can cause leg cramps, water retention and potassium loss (so it shouldn't be used if you are taking diuretics). Many people are unaware that licorice root can also increase blood pressure.

Over the years I've had many patients who were having difficulty keeping their blood pressure down, even though they were on pharmaceutical medications to lower their blood pressure. In many cases, it became clear after careful questioning that they were taking Chinese herbal formulas containing licorice, or drinking herbal teas with licorice in them. (Licorice root is often found in herbal teas because it contains a compound that is 50 times sweeter than table sugar.)

There is good news if you have high blood pressure and you want to use licorice root for its beneficial effects.

You can purchase a processed form of the herb that doesn't contain the constituent that increases blood pressure and causes potassium loss.

For centuries the Chinese have used licorice root to strengthen the digestive system, eliminate toxins from the body, and moisten the lungs to treat a dry cough.

Chinese herbs are usually prescribed as formulas consisting of one or two primary herbs in combination with other supporting herbs.

In Chinese medicine, herbs are classified as hot, cold, or neutral. Licorice root is considered neutral, and is frequently used in formulas as a supporting herb to moderate the effects of hot or cold herbs.

In Chinese herbal formulas, licorice is usually referred to in the list of ingredients by its Mandarin name, gan cao.

Other herbal formulas may list it by its botanical name, glycyrrhiza, its Japanese name, kanzo, or its Korean name, kamch'o. Many herbal formulas are perfectly safe to use if you have high blood pressure, but be sure to avoid ingesting any containing licorice root.

Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu. Send questions to: Prescriptions, Island Life, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802, or to islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com. This column is for information only. Consult your health provider for medical advice.