Sweet Breath

Known for its unique flavor, licorice can also allow your lungs to breathe easier.

May 2013

by Lisa James


In forms that range from laces to wheels to whips, licorice is mostly thought of as a sweet treat in the United States. However, Asian healers have long prized this herb’s roots for their medicinal properties (which aren’t present in the candy version). In fact, licorice may be the most widely used herbal remedy after ginger (another Eastern medicine favorite). Ancient records show that it was used in a range of cultures stretching from China to Egypt as a remedy for stomach and lung ailments.

Traditional practitioners still use licorice for respiratory and digestive well-being, now with the backing of scientific studies. And researchers have learned how to combine licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) with other herbs and nutritional factors to help keep lungs healthier.

Breathing Easier

The lungs are a marvel of engineering, with a total surface area of approximately 750 square feet—roughly the same area as one side of a tennis court—and 616 miles of capillaries to facilitate gas exchange. Their progressively smaller airways end in alveoli, tiny sacs where oxygen is taken into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

As tough and durable as they are, though, the lungs are subject to many threats. Some, such as microbes and pollutants, come from the outside. Others, including free radicals
(cell-damaging molecules) and inflammation, arise from within. Such insults can cause airway narrowing, excessive mucus production and other impediments to free breathing.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, licorice is seen as a energizing, detoxifying agent that harmonizes and enhances the activity of other herbs in TCM’s standardized remedies. It has been used for centuries to help reduce coughing and fever, calm spasms, expel phlegm and ease pain.
Scientists have found that licorice appears to fight inflammation, promote hormonal activity and enhance immunity by supporting production of interferon, a crucial antiviral immune-system component. Licorice has also demonstrated the ability to protect the liver against toxins and promote healthy bile flow.

Optimal Formulation

One of the compounds found in licorice, glycyrrhizin, is a double-edged sword. While it does provide health benefits glycyrrhizin can also promote increases in blood pressure by causing the body to retain water and sodium, and long-term use of whole licorice is best left to trained professionals.
Fortunately, this herb contains hundreds of other health-promoting compounds. These substances are available in deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL). DGL supports lung health (and protects the digestive system to boot) without the potential side effects associated with glycyrrhizin.

The best way to promote respiratory well-being is to combine licorice with other herbs and nutrients. Because inflammation plays a significant role in many breathing problems, lemon bioflavonoids are useful because they help the body modulate the inflammatory process in addition to quenching the free radicals that can cause cell damage within the lungs. Andro­graphis, bilberry, elderberry and eleuthero also fight free radicals. Andrographis and elderberry are employed by herbalists to fight upper respiratory infections, as is olive leaf.

If you want to revisit your childhood, have a licorice wheel. But if you want to enjoy this herb’s sweet respiratory benefits, use licorice as part of a formulation designed for lung support.

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