Annabel Ross June 06, 2012
Sweet medicine ... but skip the lollies and go straight to liquorice root for health benefits.
Are you a liquorice lover? In news that will have fans reaching for the allsorts, The Atlantic has published an article suggesting that liquorice root contains anti-diabetic properties.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, Germany identified a group of natural substances within liquorice root called amorfrutins. Testing on mice, the scientists found that the consumption of amorfrutins reduced blood sugar levels and inflammation that would otherwise be present in the mice suffering from Type 2 diabetes. The amorfrutins also prevented the development of a fatty liver - a common side-effect of type 2 diabetes and a high-fat diet.
Type 2 diabetes generally affects people who are already overweight or obese, causing the body to become resistant to insulin. Another action of amorfrutins is to bind to a nuclear receptor called PPARy which activates various genes that reduce fatty acids and glucose in the blood. The reduced glucose level prevents the development of insulin resistance, thereby blocking the cause of Type 2 diabetes.
But before you march off to your nearest Darrell Lea, take note. "The amount of amorfrutin molecules in a piece of licorice available for human consumption is far too low to cause the same beneficial effects that were identified in the diabetic mice." In response, the researchers developed a method of extracting sufficient concentrations of amorfrutins from the Amorpha fruticosa bush in which they are also found, which could be used to produce amorfrutin extracts on an industrial scale.
So is there any benefit to be had in eating liquorice sweets? Well, it depends on the sweet. What you're looking for is products containing liquorice extract or liquorice root. You won't get the same medicinal properties from anise oil, which is what is used to flavour many commercial liquorice products. Even if the sweet does contain extract, the quantity is usually far too small to have any sort of health benefit. As nutritionist Catherine Saxelby notes, Darrell Lea liquorice contains just 3 per cent liquorice extract, coming in after flour, sugar, molasses, and glucose syrup on the ingredient list.
Manufacturers of liquorice sweets are quick to point out that liquorice is a low-fat food. Saxelby says that while liquorice is a healthier snack than milk chocolate, care must be taken with portion size. "There's nothing wrong with having a few pieces of liquorice three or four times a week, so long as it's your only "treat food" that week," says Saxelby. "It's not safe for coeliacs though; the main ingredient of liquorice is wheat flour." Those with high blood pressure should also avoid the salty Dutch variety of liquorice, she says. Liquorice is slightly lower in sugar and carbohydrates than most other lollies, and contains small amounts of protein, iron and calcium.
Real liquorice also contains glycyrrhizin, a substance obtained from the root of the liquorice plant. Glycyrrhizin is the active agent in liquorice that combats illnesses such as upper respiratory infections, and is said to lessen the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. But the amount of real liquorice found in liquorice sweets is not standardised, making it far more safe and effective to take the recommended quantity of liquorice root or extract as a pill or powder. Those with high blood pressure may want to consider the deglycyrrhizinated (DGL) form of the product. In spite of its benefits, continued consumption of large amounts of glycyrrhizin may reduce blood potassium levels, lead to water retention, and increase blood pressure.
Other ailments liquorice is used to treat include:
Hepatitis The anti-inflammatory properties of liquorice is said to help calm hepatitis-associated liver inflammation. Liquorice is also said to fight the hepatitis C virus and supplies valuable antioxidant compounds that help maintain the overall health of the liver. Results from large-scale high quality studies are not available.
Dyspepsia (Heartburn) According to the US National Library of Medicine, liquorice may be an effective treatment for heartburn when used in combination with other herbs. Sold as Iberogast or STW5, research suggests that the formulation significantly reduces severity of acid reflux and associated pain, cramping, nausea, and vomiting.
Eczema In one study, liquorice gel, applied to the skin, helped relieve symptoms of itching, swelling, and redness, reports the University of Maryland Medical Centre. A gel with 2 per cent liquorice worked better than a gel with 1 per cent liquorice.
Cancer Laboratory studies have identified several substances in liquorice that may help prevent DNA mutations, inhibit tumour formation, or even kill cancer cells, says The American Cancer Society. While animal studies suggest some chemicals from liquorice might be useful in preventing or treating some forms of cancer, human clinical trials are yet to be carried out.
Liquorice has also been associated with weight loss. According to the University of Maryland, consumption of liquorice was linked to body fat mass in one study. Another study found that glycyrrhetinic acid (a component of liquorice) reduced the thickness of fat on the thigh in human subjects. A study carried out by Japanese scientists and published in Obesity Research and Clinical Practice linked the consumption of liquorice flavonoid oil to significant decreases in total body fat mass, weight, BMI and LDL ("bad") cholesterol.
Medicinal forms of liquorice include wafers, tinctures, tablets, lozenges, teas, loose dried herbs, creams and capsules. To treat a cough, wholehealthmd.com suggests 1 teaspoon of liquid liquorice extract in 1 cup of hot water 3 times a day. For PMS, 200 mg of standardised extract three times a day for the 10 days preceding your period is recommended.
Last year in Germany, where around 500 tonnes of liquorice are imported each year, liquorice was named "the medicinal plant of 2012". Professor Johannes Mayer, an expert on the history of medicinal botany at the University of Würzburg, noted the myriad indications of liquorice, used medicinally since ancient times. "Liquorice is special because it can quickly soothe sore throats and coughs and was used centuries ago to treat coughing, hoarseness and asthma by Ancient Greek and Egyptian physicians," he said.
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