Licorice Root Soothes AND Heals
Use this safe, versatile herb topically or internally (it tastes good, too!).
As in nature itself, there are no absolutes in natural medicine. The “silver bullet remedy” and “miracle cure” are only myths. A derma-tological shampoo does not cure chronic eczema that stems from liver dysfunction; nor does an herb that contains aspirin-like compounds (i.e., salicylates) cure the underlying cause of a headache – they only suppress the uncomfortable symptoms of what may be a deeper problem.
Such “miracle remedies” allow us to temporarily push disease from consciousness during times when complete healing seems out of practical or philosophical reach. However, when opting to alleviate your dog’s pain and suffering, it is important to realize that suppression of symptoms will seldom constitute a complete cure – especially when the effectiveness of an anti-inflammatory or analgesic drug prompts us to forget the real problems. Of course, our decisions to use such remedies are based largely on personal freedom of choice.
But what about our animals? They don’t enjoy such freedom of choice. Instead they must rely upon us to make weighty decisions on their behalf, and as caring guardians who are tormented by the sight of a suffering companion, we sometimes find ourselves with the difficult choice of providing comfort over cure.
Of course we wish for our companion animals to have a long, healthy life, without the liver-damaging effects of anti-inflammatory drug therapies or the immunosuppressive results of corticosteroid drugs – but we also wish for them to be comfortable.
Fortunately, there are a few herbs that stand out from all others in their ability to address both sides of this difficult issue. Some herbs can provide not only a holistic therapeutic approach, but also a measure of comfort and relief during periods of crisis. In fact, one of the best of these “near-miracle herbs” is easy to find, grows like a weed, and tastes like candy.
I am referring to the Glycyrrhizza species, licorice, an ancient medicine with a multitude of modern applications.
The ethnobotanical use of licorice dates back thousands of years, and its history in veterinary applications is probably just as ancient. In Europe it has been considered a valued medicine and trade commodity for at least a thousand years. By the 13th century licorice was already being cultivated for international trade. And in China, licorice is still used in more applications than any other herb – even more than ginseng.
Licorice root is useful for maladies ranging from stomach upset and ulcers to the treatment of cancer. And unlike many botanical medicines that are seen by science as anecdotal curiosities, contemporary herbalists and modern researchers continue to validate the effectiveness of licorice with modern science. Literal libraries of information have been compiled on the attributes of Glycyrrhizza – and it appears that we have only begun to scratch the surface of what this wonderful herb has to offer.
Most people who have taken their animals to a conventional veterinarian for treatment of a chronic inflammatory disorder have witnessed the bittersweet use of hydrocortisone and other corticosteroid drugs (such as prednisone). In many ways these drugs are close to “miracle medicines” in their ability to relieve inflammation, itchiness, and even the symptoms of cancer and nervous diseases.
But almost as quickly as we embrace the wonders of steroid therapies we are forced to recognize that they are seldom a “cure” for anything. The side effects associated with steroid drugs may be worse that the disease we wish to combat; almost immediately we can expect to see acute water retention and weight gain, and as time passes (often within two weeks), side effects may also include hypertension, altered mood and personality, heart attack, osteoporosis, and chronic illness due to depressed immune function. In many cases, antibiotics, strong diuretics, and mineral supplements become necessary just to antidote the corticosteroids.
To illustrate the implications of corticosteroid therapies all we need to do is look at how cortisone-like drugs actually work: they suppress the immune system functions and inflammatory responses that are responsible for an animal’s discomfort. By decreasing natural production of lymphocytes and antibodies, and by altering normal defensive functions of the body, corticosteroids can often make disease symptoms disappear very quickly. However, continued use of corticosteroids will eventually induce a serious state of immune deficiency that can be very difficult to reverse, and can even be fatal.
Fortunately, licorice root may provide us with some safer options. Several studies have confirmed its usefulness as an effective, fast-acting, anti-inflammatory agent. In fact, many holistic practitioners use licorice as a substitute for anti-inflammatory drugs or to reduce an animal’s need for cortico-steroids.
The anti-inflammatory activity of licorice root is primarily attributable to a chemical called “glycyrrhizin” present in the plant. Glycyrrhizin is similar to the natural cortisone that is released by the body’s adrenal glands. Glycyrrhizin effectively stimulates the adrenals into action, while introducing its own anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, immune-supporting corticosteroid-like actions to the body. As a result, licorice helps relieve pain, itching, and inflammation without completely bypassing normal anti-inflammatory functions, and without seriously compromising the immune system.
All of this makes licorice useful against a wide variety of inflammatory diseases. In a study where arthritis was induced into rats through injections of formaldehyde (I know this is terrible!), a by-product of glycyrrhizin called glycyrretic acid was produced in the body and was shown to have obvious anti-arthritic actions that are comparable to those of hydrocortisone.
Glycyrrhizin has also been shown to potentiate the effects of cortisone-like drugs in the body. This makes the herb a useful adjunct in corticosteroid therapies, as the drug-strengthening effect of licorice will allow for lower drug dosages without comprising therapeutic effectiveness. When used in this capacity licorice may help reduce the debilitating side effects of steroid drugs in long term therapies, and may also be useful in assuring safe withdrawal when the patient is weaned off of the steroids.
The anti-inflammatory properties of licorice root are also useful when topically applied. Licorice tea, salve, or oil infusion can be used to relieve the uncomfortable symptoms of various skin disorders, such as psoriasis, eczema, contact dermatitis, and flea-bite allergies.
In this capacity, licorice provides a degree of relief while long-term holistic therapies are under way. For example, licorice may help alleviate a dog’s itching while a detox/allergy therapy consisting of internal doses of burdock, dandelion, alfalfa, or other alterative (blood-cleansing) herbs address the underlying metabolic causes through tonification of the involved body systems.
To make a simple oil infusion all you need is some chopped, dried licorice root (available at any good herb retailer) and some olive oil. Put the root into a glass jar and cover it with enough oil to leave a half-inch layer of liquid above the herb. Cover the jar tightly, put it a warm place (55° - 75°F), away from sunlight, and forget about it for one month. After a month, strain the oil through a sieve, and then squeeze what you can from the herb by wrapping it in unbleached muslin or cheesecloth. You now have sweet-tasting licorice oil that will keep for several months if refrigerated. Apply it topically to his skin as needed, but expect your companion to lick it off; it tastes like candy!
In addition to its powerful anti-inflammatory actions, licorice root is also useful in the treatment and prevention of many forms of liver disease. Over the past two decades, medical researchers in China and Japan have found (through animal studies) that extracts of licorice root are useful in the treatment of chronic and chemically induced hepatitis, and that the herb has liver-protectant qualities that are no less significant than those offered by the popular liver herb, milk thistle (Silybum marianum).
However, the mechanisms by which licorice root works in the liver are quite different from those of milk thistle. While milk thistle has been shown to resist liver cell destruction largely through protection of the cell walls and by antioxidant actions, licorice works through a broader diversity of effects.
In addition to a protectant action that glycyrrhizin has upon the liver cells, licorice also enhances interferon and T-cell production, two natural actions that are critical to liver repair and general resistance to disease.
In Chinese medicine, licorice is commonly used as a “liver detoxifier” in the treatment of obstructive jaundice. And in several studies licorice has been shown to benefit animals who are suffering from liver damage due to absorbed or ingested toxins, such as carbon tetrachloride.
Immune system benefits
In a very recent study, the root of Glycyrrhizza uralensis (an Asian species of licorice) was found to have a potentiating effect on the reticuloendothelial system; the body’s first line of defense against infection. In essence, the reticulo-endothelial system is comprised of specialized cells whose jobs are to seek out and eliminate invading microbes and dead blood cells, and licorice helps to stimulate these little bloodstream warriors into action.
Like all herbal medicines, a major problem with the use of licorice in animals is getting it into them, or keeping it on them. Here licorice affords us another comfort; it’s naturally sweet! In fact the sweet flavor of licorice is often used to mask the unpleasant flavor of other herbs.
The next time you give your dog an herb she hates, try adding a small percentage of low-alcohol licorice root extract (say 5 - 10 percent) to the total volume of the dose. You may find that the sweet flavor makes the administration experience more pleasant for both of you, and even if the “taste test” fails, you have potentiated your other herbs with the healing benefits of licorice!
In therapeutic applications involving animals, you are likely to find the best results when using liquid extracts (tinctures). Feeding dried, chopped roots to herbivores is fine if tolerated, but dogs and cats have very short digestive tracts that may not absorb the active constituents quickly and completely.
Herb tinctures are free-form medicines, with active constituents that are readily available and quickly assimilated early in the digestive process. This means that less active material will be lost during digestion, and more will end up in your dog instead of her waste.
Dosage is entirely dependent upon individual needs and circumstances and should be determined by a trained practitioner, but 12-20 drops per 20 lbs. of body weight, two times daily, of low-alcohol licorice extract is a conservative starting point for those who insist on proceeding without professional advice. You can double this amount if you are using a cooled tea (1 tsp. of the root to a cup of water).
Like all herbal medicines, the primary rule is moderation and insight when using licorice. Most herbalists and practitioners will agree that the risks of adverse side effects from licorice are limited to those who recklessly abuse it.
I have never seen a case of licorice-induced toxicity – but if used in large, highly concentrated doses (especially over long periods of time), it is conceivable that corticosteroid-like side effects could occur, including water retention, hypertension, and loss of potassium, sodium retention and other symptoms of adrenal hyperactivity. In human studies, the large majority of these side effects have been observed following the excessive consumption of European licorice candy, which is made from a very concentrated, pressed extract of the root. (Most licorice candy produced in America contains absolutely no real licorice, but instead an artificial flavoring or the extracts of other plants that taste similar). Nevertheless, licorice should not be used with reckless abandon or in normal doses for periods exceeding two weeks without the instructions of a qualified practitioner.
If a licorice therapy does exceed two weeks, then diet should be adjusted to accommodate increased needs for potassium, and to eliminate excess sodium. Dandelion would be well indicated here, as it works as an effective diuretic to prevent water retention while providing an excellent source of supplemental potassium. Animals with pre-existing cardiovascular conditions should not be given licorice without professional guidance.
Licorice has also been shown to have estrogenic properties that may affect uterine functions. Therefore, licorice should not be used in pregnant or nursing animals.
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-by Greg Tilford
A well-known lecturer and teacher of veterinarians and pet owners worldwide, Greg Tilford is considered a leading herbalist in the field of veterinary botanical medicine. He is the formulator and CEO for Animals’ Apawthecary, a company that produces low-alcohol herb extracts for use in animals. He has written four books on herbs and holistic healing, including All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets (Bowtie, 1999), which he co-authored with his wife, Mary Wulff-Tilford.