Any licorice product, including candies, beverages, supplements and extracts, that contains real licorice ingredients can give rise to licorice side effects. They usually can be attributed to the licorice component glycyrrhizin, which is present in many licorice products but is not present in candy that is known as "red licorice." Licorice side effects can seem harmless, but they also can be similar to extreme health problems such as congestive heart failure.
Some common licorice side effects include headaches, high blood pressure, hypertension, upset stomach, diarrhea, lethargy, facial puffiness, ankle swelling, fluid retention, muscle weakness, muscle pain, arrhythmia and grogginess. The body's electrolyte balance also can be effected, because licorice can cause the body to deplete its storage of potassium but retain sodium. When taking licorice, users should consider increasing their intakes of potassium, monitoring blood pressure and regularly checking electrolytes for imbalances.
The side effects of licorice can be similar to other diseases or disorders such as congestive heart failure, hormonal imbalances and allergic reactions. Users can experience symptoms that resemble congestive heart failure, such as water retention, weight gain, swelling of the hands or feet and shortness of breath. Hormonal symptoms such as skipped menstrual periods, low libido and impotence can be effects of licorice consumption. Rashes, itches, hives, wheezing, breathing difficulties and swelling of the mouth or throat might be suffered as well.
People who have histories of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, edema, glaucoma, kidney or liver diseases, menstrual problems or strokes should not take licorice. Licorice should not be used during pregnancy, because it can increase blood pressure and levels of the hormone aldosterone. It also can result in premature delivery. Women who experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) should avoid taking licorice root, because it can compound PMS symptoms such as fluid retention and bloating.
Though different from licorice root, licorice candy also can cause side effects. It's not uncommon for someone who ingests licorice candy to experience an increase in blood pressure. All licorice side effects should be considered serious and should be reported to a health care professional if they are experienced.
To avoid suffering from licorice side effects, users should avoid taking it for more than a week. Licorice is best consumed under the supervision of a physician. The best physicians to oversee licorice consumption are, arguably, those who have been trained in botanical medicine or natural remedies. These physicians are more likely to be familiar with the medicinal uses of licorice and its side effects. Consumers who want to reduce their risk of experiencing side effects should seek to purchase licorice products that are deglycyrrhizinated, which means that they have had the glycyrrhizin removed from them.
How Much Licorice Is Safe?
Before learning about safe levels of licorice consumption, it's important to understand what is — and is not — actual licorice. As mentioned previously, the red stuff is definitely not licorice. However, you may be surprised to discover that many products labeled as "licorice" do not contain licorice at all.
Licorice gets its distinct aroma and flavor from anethole. This organic compound is also found in anise, fennel and star anise. Some herbs and vegetables, like wild celery and coriander, also contain a very small amount of anethole. It's also a natural pesticide and insect repellant, but it's safe for human consumption in normal quantities.
If you've eaten at some Indian restaurants, you may have noticed some strange-looking green seeds that smell and taste like licorice. These are anise seeds, which come from a flowering herb native to the Mediterranean and southern Asia. It belongs to the Apiaceae family, a large group of plants that also includes coriander, cumin, dill, carrots, celery and fennel.
Anise seed has a similar smell and flavor to licorice, but it's sweeter and spicier in taste. This seed is one component of Mukhwas, often chewed as a breath freshener of after-meal snack in South Asia. Because anise tastes a lot like licorice, it's sometimes used to flavor some licorice-style candies.
Another food commonly mistaken for licorice is fennel seed. Closely related to carrot plants, fennel has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its seeds, roots and leaves are all edible. You may encounter fennel in a wide range of foods, including sausages and breads. It's another popular component of the Mukhwas found in many Indian restaurants.
Star anise is a popular spice in many East and South Asian cuisines. It comes from the fruit of an evergreen tree native to Vietnam and southern China. This star-shaped spice appears in dishes such as biryani, pho and Lanzhou noodle soup. It's also a key component of Chinese five-spice powder and many masala chai recipes.
Safety Precautions With Licorice
Experts advise consuming no more than 4.5 grams of licorice at one time. While some people take it for medicinal purposes, it's wise to monitor one's intake and stop immediately if symptoms appear. Before buying anything that's licorice-flavored or claims to contain licorice, read the product label. Some items may contain both licorice and anise oil.
What Medications Should Not Be Taken With Licorice?
The unique nature of glycyrrhizin in licorice necessitates caution. That's especially true considering its potential interactions with common medications. Several pharmaceuticals become less effective when taken with licorice:
Licorice also reduces benefits delivered by other classes of drugs: estrogens, diuretics, blood pressure medications and corticosteroids. It can also speed up how the liver breaks down other kinds of drugs. Consult your physician or pharmacists for more details about licorice interactions with your medications.
Why Is Licorice Not Good for You?
The glycyrrhizin contained in licorice impacts potassium levels for one key reason. It interferes with 11β-HSD, an enzyme that converts cortisol into cortisone. Why is this important? To answer this question, we need to understand what cortisol is and does.
Cortisol in the Human Body
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that plays a big role in your body's response to stress. As part of your fight-or-flight response, the adrenal glands produce cortisol. This hormone's job is to get you ready to either fight back or run away, so it reduces non-essential functions: immune system responses, digestion and reproductive system activity. To provide extra energy, cortisol also increases blood glucose levels and helps your brain use that glucose more easily.
When stressful and dangerous situations have passed, your adrenal glands stop producing cortisol. The 11β-HSD enzyme also helps reduce existing cortisol levels by changing them into cortisone. The resulting cortisone can reduce inflammation in your body. But glycyrrhizin gets in the way of this process. As a result, your body ends up with an overabundance of cortisol. People experience side effects from excessive licorice consumption because of all that excess cortisol.
Glycyrrhizin and Aldosterone
Meanwhile, glycyrrhizin also affects how aldosterone works in the body. Aldosterone is another important hormone that controls sodium levels. When it's active, this hormone triggers the kidneys to reabsorb more sodium. In turn, sodium in the blood absorbs water and can cause blood pressure levels to rise.
Aldosterone also regulars the body's potassium levels. Under its influence, the kidneys excrete more potassium from the body. Ingesting too much licorice prevents the body from lowering aldosterone levels, which leads to dangerous side effects.