Are you interested in learning about natural remedies for acid reflux? If so, you’re not alone. Many people seek alternatives to conventional medicine when they’re looking for a solution to a long-term health issue like reflux disease. We’ve had a few questions recently about one remedy, in particular, so I thought I’d address it here: licorice.
First, the roots from the licorice plant have been used for a variety of things for centuries: as a flavoring in food and candies, as a breath freshener, as a flavoring in tobacco products, and as a medicine.
When people refer to taking licorice for heartburn relief, they’re usually talking about an herbal supplement and not the candy. In fact, most of the licorice candies you find in the grocery store aisle don’t contain any licorice extract at all (and if they do, it’s usually clearly marked on the label).
So, does it work? Licorice is marketed as a remedy for a variety of gastrointestinal issues, including ulcers, heartburn, and gastritis. Like most herbal remedies, there hasn’t been much clinical research into the effectiveness of licorice. According to the National Medicines Comprehensive Database, licorice has been rated as “possibly effective” for heartburn relief based on the study of a supplement that included licorice and a variety of other herbs.
Like anything for which there is no scientific study, it is possible that taking licorice or other herbs may have a positive effect on heartburn that has little to do with what you are taking. For example, if you chew on licorice and swallow it and your heartburn gets better, it may be the saliva that you are swallowing with the licorice that works. Actually, when I get heartburn (rarely), I swallow saliva a few times and it usually works. If you take the licorice as an herbal tablet, it may be the water that you take with it that stops the heartburn. In fact, my second line of defense when I get heartburn is to drink some water, or better, sip some milk.
When licorice was first brought up, a flag went up immediately for me because I thought I remembered a study from my medical school days that showed serious metabolic complications from even modest licorice consumption. I did a little digging and found that that my memory hadn’t failed me. Sure enough, the excessive consumption of licorice can be toxic. Licorice contains a substance called glycyrrhizic acid, which has been linked to headaches, swelling, sodium retention, loss of potassium, and high blood pressure. MedlinePlus includes a complete list of safety concerns related to the use of licorice: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/881.html.
Because of the documented side effects of glycyrrhizic acid, an herbal product known as DGL Licorice (de-glycyrrhizinated licorice) was developed for the treatment for gastrointestinal problems. Unfortunately, there’s not much research into the effectiveness of DGL for heartburn relief.
Sometimes people think that just because something is natural that it is harmless. This is a great example of an herbal remedy that is unsafe when used excessively or in conjunction with other medications. Always talk to your doctor before trying an herbal remedy to make sure what you’re trying is safe for you.