Licorice extract is a natural ingredient often found in both food and herbal medicine supplements. While the full medicinal effectiveness of licorice has not been completely tested, some benefits have been proven and others have enough support to warrant its inclusion in a number of supplements. Often found in teas and used in a number of different products as a flavoring ingredient, licorice extract can provide help in treating stomach issues such as heartburn, but does have some noteworthy side effects that should be considered.
Used by ancient cultures including the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese, licorice extract comes from the licorice plant. The root of the plant is primarily used in preparing the extract, and the hard woody plant is pulped then boiled to further extract and refine the contents. This extract is used in a number of applications, commonly used to enhance the flavors of sweet foods and to sweeten tobacco and alcohol.
The medicinal uses of licorice extract have been noted and utilized for thousands of years, though modern science has not found sufficient evidence to support every use. There is evidence to show that when licorice is combined with certain herbs, including peppermint, German chamomile, and milk thistle, the resulting combination can be used to treat heartburn. This treatment has been commercially available as STW 5 for more than 40 years and can reduce the severity of acid reflux and associated nausea and vomiting.
Less evidence exists, however, to support the use of licorice extract in treating other conditions, such as muscle cramps, hepatitis, and stomach ulcers. Some research has found that a combination of licorice and peony may reduce muscle cramps in people with liver disease or for people going through treatment for kidney failure. There is also some research to support the use of certain chemicals in licorice administered intravenously to treat hepatitis B and hepatitis C, though such treatment likely requires further study. Licorice extract that has been specially prepared may help in the healing of stomach ulcers by lining the stomach with a protective coating. There is also some evidence to show it may help reduce body fat, though it also increases water retention that offsets such weight loss.
While licorice is typically safe in the amounts an average person will eat, it can have certain potential side effects if taken in a large quantity over a long period of time. These side effects include high blood pressure, reduced potassium in the blood, and even sexual side effects in men. Licorice extract seems to reduce testosterone in men and can act like estrogen in women, so it should not be taken by men or women undergoing hormone therapy or with conditions such as ovarian cancer or erectile dysfunction. There may also be a risk of premature birth for pregnant women. Like any herbal supplement, a physician should be consulted before anyone starts taking a licorice treatment.