Chinese Herbs: Licorice


Chinese herbs have been used for centuries. The first traditionally recognized herbalist, Shénnóng, is said to have lived around 2800 BC. There are roughly 13,000 medicinals used in China and over 100,000 medicinal recipes recorded in the ancient literature. In this blog post series, I highlight one Chinese herb and its healing properties: Licorice (Gan Cao).

You may be familiar with licorice candy, but did you know that licorice is more than just a sweet treat? Licorice is one of the most popular herbs in Chinese medicine. As Herbal Beginnings magazine states:

“Licorice is a popular medicinal herb, having been so since the times of the ancient Assyrians. Its’ roots were valued by citizens of the Roman Empire, and it was commonly used in Chinese herbal formulas. It is most often used to soothe sore throats and coughs. Licorice soothes the chest and helps to break up phlegm. It is still found in many cough syrups and drops. It has been used to treat ulcers, relieve rheumatism and arthritis, and to help induce menstruation. It is sometimes taken in powder form, as a laxative. In China, it is called the “great detoxifier,” and often referred to as “the grandfather of herbs.”

The characteristically sweet flavor of licorice also makes it a useful tool for masking unpleasant flavors in other Chinese herbal medicines, so small amounts of Licorice are a popular addition to many herbal remedies. However, licorice isn’t simply a flavoring. Licorice is used in many traditional Chinese formulas as a “harmonizer.” What is a harmonizer? A harmonizer is an herb that helps other herbs work together and to minimize possible adverse effects linked to the stronger herbs in a formula. Licorice is truly a useful and versatile herb.

Although licorice is a safe herb when used correctly, you should not attempt to self-administer this herb.  Licorice needs to be used carefully by a knowledgeable herbalist or acupuncturist, because it has a mineralocorticoid effect, not unlike aldosterone. It can reduce urine output, decrease sodium excretion, and increase potassium excretion, which could cause complications when used in large amounts. In practice, this is very rare, because the amount of licorice in Chinese formulations is usually very small.

If you have questions about licorice, or any other Chinese herb, call our Wilmington, NC office today at 910-798-8181.


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