Other Names Gan Cao, Liquorice, Sweet Root
Edible Parts The leguminous plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra, contains a substance, glycyrrhizin, which is 50 times sweeter than sugar. Sugar, as we know it today, is a relatively new development; 400 years ago, the only sweet tastes came from fruit and honey. The extreme sweetness of licorice made it a real oddity, and people loved it. Due to its peculiar sweetness, licorice was used in many medicines to mask the unpleasant taste of the other ingredients. This is still a common practice in China today.
There are two kinds of licorice used in medicine, G. glabra, which is the European variety, and G. uralensis, which is the Chinese variety. Licorice has been used in domestic medicine for centuries. It seems that the Greeks first got their hands on the sweet roots from the Scythians. Theophrastus, a Greek writer in the third century B.C., noted the Scythian root’s value in treating asthma, dry coughs, and anything else troubling the respiratory system. King Tut’s tomb was said to be loaded with licorice (perhaps he was an asthmatic and didn’t want to spend eternity coughing and wheezing!).
History - Dioscorides, another ancient writer on herbal medicine, called the plant glycyrrhiza. This means "sweet root," which indeed licorice is. The Romans called the plant liquiritia, which became the English word, ‘licorice.’ The Roman writers Celsus, Scribonius, and Largus all mention the plant; like the Greeks, they found the root to be amazingly effective in quieting an irritating cough.
It seems likely that the Romans carried licorice with them on their moves northward to countries where coughs and colds due to harsh weather were so common. Licorice was used in Germany during the Middle Ages. The English King Henry IV kept a good supply in his pharmacy, as records dating to 1424 indicate. An Italian medical writer named Saladinus states that licorice could be found in all the pharmacies in 15th-century Italy. Though other European countries grew the plant, the Italian root was said to be the best for both medicine and candy. As a cough treatment, licorice has been in active use for at least 2,300 years, and that's because it works.
On the Chinese front, we see a similarly long historyof licorice's used for much the same purpose – healing the chest and quieting the dreaded cough. The root is mentioned in the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica, written in 206 B.C. during the Han Dynasty. Licorice is one of the most popular medicinal herbs in China; in fact, few traditional Chinese formulas give it a miss.
Medicinal - The Chinese found at least ten anti-inflammatory flavonoids in licorice, along with an acid, glycyrrhetic acid, that has been proven to be both antibacterial and antitussive. Licorice’s anti-inflammatory abilities are so strong that they are used to heal all manner of irritated tissues be they inside or outside the body. The action is very much like that of a steroid such as cortisone. The Chinese consider it to be antitussive, demulcent, emollient, expectorant, and a mild laxative. In the chest department, it is used to treat coughs, consumption, laryngitis, sore throat, bronchitis, and chronic bronchitis.
Therapeutic Uses - The reason so many coughs are unproductive, and by that we can assume not really necessary is that the nerve endings placed in the lungs to detect when coughing is necessary become irritated in the process. The initial, productive coughing inflames the lung tissue. This inflammation compresses the nerve endings that send messages to the brain indicating that more coughs are in order. The coughing that first served to get mucus out of the lungs eventually serves only to further irritate the lung tissue in a vicious cycle.
Indications - Tea: Add one teaspoon ground or whole root to two cups water, boil until one cup has evaporated, and strain. Drink four times per day.
Tincture: Add 4ml tincture to one cup water. Drink three times per day.
Side Effects and Cautions - In large amounts, licorice containing glycyrrhizin can cause high blood pressure, salt and water retention, and low potassium levels, which could lead to heart problems. DGL products are thought to cause fewer side effects.
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