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Soothes sore throats, relieves coughs, heals peptic ulcers

Say "licorice," and most people think of candy. But licorice is actually a potent and controversial herb. Just to confuse matters, not all licorice-flavored candy contains real licorice (some is artificially flavored).

Traditionally used to soothe sore throat and cough, real licorice comes from the roots of a tall plant that has been cultivated in both China and Europe since ancient times. Ancient herbalists, both Western and Chinese, used the sweet-tasting root to treat ulcers, respiratory problems and many other ailments. In fact, licorice is still found in about one-third of all Chinese herbal prescriptions.

Today, licorice is most widely used as flavoring in tobacco products. It may also be found in some throat lozenges, in European licorice candies and in some American candies.

Licorice owes its sweetness to glycyrrhizin, a compound 50 times sweeter than sugar. Every so often, a medical journal will report serious illness from an "overdose" of real licorice. The overdose isn't from taking the herb, however. Usually it's from eating literally pounds of the candy or from swallowing saliva from licorice-laced chewing tobacco. Overdose symptoms include high blood pressure, weakness and water retention. The substance responsible for the herb's sweetness is also the culprit in overdose symptoms. Medical experts report that glycyrrhizin mimics a naturally occurring hormone that affects the body's metabolism and water content.

Powerful Ingredients

What about the positive side of the herb? Few people, after all, consume licorice candy by the pound.

During World War II, a Dutch doctor observed that licorice extract helped heal peptic ulcers but also caused swelling of the face and limbs. This discovery led to the widespread use of a licorice-based compound — carbenoxolone — to treat ulcers. In the 1970s, the discovery of safer and more effective anti-ulcer drugs knocked carbenoxolone, with its potentially dangerous side effects, out of the running.

Licorice as an ulcer remedy has refused to stay in the dustbin of medical history, however. When researchers removed glycyrrhizin from licorice root and then tested it again, they found that the root still healed ulcers. Clearly, there was healing power in some other component of licorice.

Today, some herbal practitioners remain enthusiastic about the anti-ulcer powers of this "safe," or deglycyrrhizinated, licorice, called DGL. "This product is wonderful for healing peptic ulcers," says Alan R. Gaby, M.D., a Baltimore physician who practices nutritional and natural medicine and is president of the American Holistic Medical Association. "In some studies it has worked about as well as standard anti-ulcer therapies like Tagamet and Zantac, for a lower cost and with virtually no risk."

Putting the herb to work

Because licorice — the real stuff, with glycyrrhizin — can cause such serious side effects in high doses, consume only modest amounts of any product labeled "real licorice." Limit your enjoyment to a few pieces. And, to be on the safe side, avoid all licorice products if you have high blood pressure, heart disease or glaucoma.

Ulcer treatment is not something you should undertake on your own. If you have ulcer symptoms, you should see your doctor, says Dr. Gaby, "but DGL is worth a try." If you'd like to use DGL, discuss it with your doctor.

And if you'd like to give the herb's traditional ability to soothe a sore throat a try, simply sprinkle a pinch of the powdered herb into hot water or tea.

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