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Licorice Root: Candy For The West, Legendary “Guide Herb” In The Orient

licorice root

One thing many people have missed dearly in 2020, and thus far early in 2021, is going to the movies, sitting enthralled for two hours, escaping the pressures of modern life, with popcorn and licorice candy in hand, the latter of which was doing brisk business until the pandemic struck. 

In fact, sales of the leading licorice candy brands exceeded $400 million in 2019. But there’s a dirty little secret about licorice candy: most brands are not sweetened with licorice root; they’re sweetened with anise oil. You may also be surprised to learn that licorice is a legume, a member of the humble pea family. Then, of course, there’s all that teeth-rotting, blood-glucose-spiking sugar in licorice candy. 

If you have a sweet tooth and want a far more healthier way to enjoy licorice, you can always drink instant hot licorice root tea. Used for over two thousand years in Oriental medicine, licorice root goes by the name “Gan Cao” in China. The name Gan Cao is appropriate, meaning “sweet root.” 

But the use of licorice root in traditional Chinese medicine goes far beyond the herb’s potential to sweeten things up. Gan Cao is perhaps the most widely-used herb in TCM formulas, making an appearance in nearly half of the 300-odd most commonly-prescribed formulations. 

Gan Cao is perhaps the most widely-used herb in TCM formulas, making an appearance in nearly half of the 300-odd most commonly-prescribed formulations.

What Is Licorice Root (Gan Cao) Used For?

In TCM theory, the body contains 12 meridians. Think of meridians as super highways. Instead of cars zipping about, Qi, Blood and other bodily fluids cruise along this energy network. When there’s Yin/Yang balance, substances and energy flow unobstructed. Gan Cao’s actions affect all 12 super highways. In particular, there are four meridians licorice root benefits: Heart, Lung, Spleen and Stomach. 

More specifically, the main benefits of taking licorice root (or formulas that contain it) may include: clearing excess heat from the body (which may support the skin); and supporting vital energy; digestion and metabolism; respiratory health and the muscles. 

Beyond these individual actions, the main reason Gan Cao features so prominently and is considered one of the fundamental herbs in TCM is that it harmonizes other herbs in formulas in which it appears. 

What Is A Harmonizing Herb?

When you think of Mary Poppins, what comes to mind? Hint: think candy. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the medicine go down….” 

Likewise, Gan Cao, by dampening the bitterness of other herbs, helps people be able to swallow TCM formulas. Remember, up until relatively recently, people didn’t have the convenience of taking safe and efficacious TCM formulas in tablet or capsule form. 

For millennia, medicine was crafted from raw, harsh-tasting herbs that were decocted for hours and hours. 

A harmonizing herb, from the perspective of modern pharmacology (the study of drug action), would be considered a “guide drug.” Guide drugs enhance the effectiveness of other ingredients. 

Another way to describe this harmonizing effect is “synergistic action.” It’s well-established that plant compounds interact with each other in a cooperative fashion. Through this synergistic effect, which is also called “the entourage effect,” the physiological effect of herbs in a formula is greater than the sum of their individual actions. 

When it comes to maximizing the actions of other herbs in a formula, none is sweeter than Gan Cao!

Licorice Root: Ancient Herb, Backed By Modern Research

Out of the at least 300 documented compounds in Gan Cao, the most studied are glycyrrhizin, glycyrrhizic acid and liquiritin. According to the pharmaceutical sciences, peer-reviewed journal, Acta Pharmaceutica Sinica, these metabolites in licorice root, and others, possess many pharmacological activities, such as supporting immune function and the inflammatory response. 

For at least 2,000 years, people in the Far East have used Gan Cao to clear phlegm from the lungs and among several other uses. 

Two of our best-selling formulas contain licorice root: AllTonic, which you can think of as an all-around TCM support formula, and EaseTonic, which may help you feel more easy going and less bothered by external stressors. 

Although watching a movie and eating licorice candy is one of the great pleasures in life, you can enjoy a nice relaxing cup of Gan Cao tea—without the added sugars. No spoonful of sugar needed to make this sweet root go down.


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