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Herbal Spotlight: Licorice and Thyroid Health

Published January 21 2013

Licorice is an herb that is commonly used by many natural healthcare professionals.  Glycyrrhizic acid, or Glycyrrhizin, is the main compound in licorice root.  This isn’t an herb that I recommend to all of my patients, but if someone has depressed cortisol levels then I frequently will recommend this herb.  So licorice can help greatly with weakened adrenals.  And those who have read some of my previous articles and blog posts realize that problems with the adrenals can directly or indirectly affect thyroid health.  But in addition to helping with the adrenals, this herb has other benefits, some of which I will discuss in this article.

Adrenal support. As I just mentioned, I usually will recommend licorice for someone who has depressed cortisol levels.  So this herb will help to increase the cortisol levels by extending the life of this hormone.  But how does licorice specifically increase cortisol levels?  Licorice inhibits 11 beta-dehydrogenase 2 (11 beta-HSD2), which is an enzyme responsible for the conversion of cortisol to cortisone.  So this herb essentially disrupts cortisol metabolism.

This is one of the reasons why I recommend testing the adrenals before giving an herb such as licorice, as while a lot of people have cortisol levels that are low, this isn’t always the case.  While licorice probably shouldn’t be given alone in a disease state such as Addison’s Disease, which is one of the few situations when giving bioidentical cortisol might be necessary, giving this herb can help many people with compromised adrenal glands.

Gastrointestinal problems. Licorice can also help with inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.  In addition, clinical trials have shown that this herb can help heal gastric and duodenal ulcers.  These trials actually show that licorice can be just as effective as certain medications in healing these ulcers.  Of course diet also plays a big role in correcting these gastrointestinal problems.  So when someone has a condition such as leaky gut syndrome, while L-glutamine is the primary supplement I’ll recommend for gut repair, licorice can also help with this as well.

Inflammatory conditions. As I just mentioned, licorice can help to reduce the inflammation of the digestive tract.  However, it can also help with other inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammation of the urinary tract.  Of course autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis have an inflammatory component.  And while at times it might be beneficial to give licorice to help with the inflammation, I usually turn to other herbs for this, and of course also try to find out what’s triggering the inflammation.  After all, while taking herbs can help greatly, the inflammatory process isn’t due to a deficiency in licorice, Boswellia, or any other herb.  So while I do give herbs to help with the inflammation, I also try to address the cause of the problem.

Female reproductive disorders. Licorice can also be beneficial for certain female reproductive disorders such as polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, and dysmenorrhea.  However, in order for it to help with these conditions it usually needs to be combined with other herbs, such as white peony.  The combination of licorice and white peony can help to decrease the excess testosterone that is being produced by the ovaries in PCOS.

Other conditions. Licorice can help with conditions besides the ones I listed above.  It has been used in respiratory tract conditions, such as bronchitis.  It also has been used as a topical treatment for eczema, as well as canker sores.  It has even been successfully used as a mouth wash to help prevent tooth decay.

How Does Licorice Benefit People With Thyroid And Autoimmune Thyroid Conditions?

Many people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions have one or more of the health issues I discussed in this article.  So for example, if someone has adrenal fatigue, then this can directly affect the thyroid gland, resulting in a hypothyroid condition.  Or by compromising the health of the immune system it can potentially lead to the development of a condition such as Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  A condition such as leaky gut syndrome can also trigger an autoimmune response.  So while licorice alone isn’t necessarily a cure for these conditions, this herb can benefit many people and aid in their recovery.

Contraindications and Interactions of Licorice

Some of the contraindications of this herb include liver cirrhosis, high blood pressure, and severe kidney insufficiency.  For women taking oral contraceptives, there is a very small chance that this can counteract the effects of this medication.  Some sources claim that it’s contraindicated during pregnancy, while other sources state that it’s safe as long as the dosage doesn’t exceed 3 grams per day.   Dr. Thomas Hale, who has done a lot of research about the safety of medications and herbs during pregnancy and lactation and is considered to be an expert in this area thinks that there is some risk of giving licorice during pregnancy.  On the other hand, Kerry Bone, who is an herbalist with over 25 years of experience and author of the book “The Essential Guide To Herbal Safety”, lists licorice as a Pregnancy classification A, which means “there is no proven increase in the frequency of malformation or other harmful effects on the fetus despite consumption by a large number of women”.  As for high blood pressure, I have given this herb to some patients with mild to moderate high blood pressure without a problem, although if you have high blood pressure I’d be very cautious about taking licorice unless if you’re under the guidance of a competent healthcare professional.

One does need to be careful about taking high dosages of licorice for a prolonged period time (more than two months).  The reason for this is because it can lower the potassium levels.  And so people who take licorice for a prolonged period of time want to make sure they’re getting enough potassium in their diet.

So hopefully you have a better understanding of the benefits of licorice.  This herb has many different benefits, although I primarily use it for adrenal and gastrointestinal support.  One thing I didn’t mention is that licorice is a tonic, and works well when combined with an adaptogenic herb.  So I commonly will combine it with the herb Eleuthero, which I have discussed previously in a different article.  If you take licorice, keep in mind that the dosage will differ from person-to-person, and also remember there are a few contraindications and interactions.  For these reasons it’s a good idea to take this or any other herb under the guidance of a competent natural healthcare professional.