How does excess licorice consumption cause hypertension and hypokalemia?

The active ingredient of licorice, glycyrrhizic acid or glycyrrhizin, is first converted to glycyrrhetinic acid (GRA) in the bowel which is then absorbed. Once in the circulation, GRA inhibits activation of 11 β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 2 (11 β-HSD2), an enzyme in renal tissue that converts active cortisol to inactive cortisone. Without the full action of this enzyme, proper sodium and potassium homeostasis would be difficult because cortisol is just as effective in stimulating mineralocorticoid receptors as aldosterone but with 100-1000 times higher concentration than that of aldosterone! 1-3

Other ways that GRA may cause hypertension and hypokalemia include inhibition of 5 β-reductase in the liver, an enzyme that metabolizes aldosterone and direct stimulation of mineralocorticoid receptors, though overall these mechanisms may not be as important as the effect of GRA on cortisol metabolism in renal tissue.1,2

Besides causing fluid retention, licorice ingestion has also been found to increase systemic vascular resistance possibly by increasing vascular tone and remodeling of the vascular wall, potentiating the vasoconstrictor actions of angiotensin II and catecholamines in smooth muscle, and suppressing vasodilatory systems, including endothelial nitric oxide synthase and prostacyclin synthesis.

It’s no wonder that the FDA issued a statement in 2017: “If you’re 40 or older, eating 2 ounces of black licorice a day for a day for at least two weeks could land you in the hospital with an irregular heart rhythm or arrhythmia.” 5

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that as early as 1951, extract of licorice was reported for treatment of Addison’s disease, a combination of licorice and soy sauce has been reported to be “life-saving” in a patient with Addison’s disease (2007), and GRA food supplementation may lower serum potassium in chronic hemodialysis patients (2009)? 6,7

 

References

  1. Sontia B, Mooney J, Gaudet L, et al. Pseudohyperaldosteronism, liquorice and hypertension. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich) 2008; 10:153-57. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18256580
  2. Omar HR, Komarova I, El-Ghonemi M, et al. Licorice abuse: time to send a warning message. The Adv Endocrinol Metab 2012;3:125-138. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3498851/
  3. Penninkilampi R, Eslick EM, Eslick GD. The association between consistent licorice ingestion, hypertension and hypokalaemia: as systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Human Hypertension 2017;31:699-707. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28660884
  4. Black licorice: trik or treat? https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm 277152.htm
  5. Hautaniemi EJ, Tahvanainen AM, Koskela JK, et al. Voluntary liquorice ingestion increases blood pressure via increased volume load, elevated peripheral arterial resistance, and decreased aortic compliance. Sci Rep 2017;7:10947. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5591274/
  6. Groen J, Pelser H, Willebrands AF, et al. Extract of licorice for the treatment of Addison’s disease. N Engl J Med 1951;244:471-75. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14806786
  7. Cooper H, Bhattacharya B, Verma V, et al. Liquorice and soy sauce, a life-saving concoction in a patient with Addison’s disease. Ann Clin Biochem 2007;44:397-99. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17594790
  8. Farese S, Kruse Anja, Pasch A, et al. Glycyrrhetinic acid food supplementation lowers serum potassium concentration in chronic hemodialysis patients. Kidney International 2009;76:877-84. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19641483
How does excess licorice consumption cause hypertension and hypokalemia?

Can I rule out primary adrenal insufficiency by obtaining a single morning serum cortisol level in my hospitalized patient with unexplained hyponatremia?

Primary adrenal insufficiency (PAI) can be confidently ruled out when the morning (eg, 6 AM) serum cortisol level is greater than 17 ug/dl. Lower cut-off values are associated with lower probability of excluding PAI: > 10 ug/dl, 62%-67% and ≥5 ug/dl, 36%. 1,2 Conversely, PAI is highly likely when the morning serum cortisol level is less than 3 ug/dl. 3

Since many patients may have serum cortisol levels between 3 ug/dl and 17 ug/dl (ie, in the “indeterminate” range), confirmatory testing commonly performed through cosyntropin stimulation test (CST) is often necessary.

Although the standard CST involves measuring serum cortisol levels at baseline, 30 min, and 60 min with peak cortisol level <18 ug/dl indicative of PAI, several studies have reported that a single post-CST cortisol level obtained at 60 min may also be diagnostic. 3

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References

  1. Erturk E, Jaffe CA, Barkan AL. Evaluation of the integrity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis by insulin hypoglycemia test. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 83;2350-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9661607
  2. Bornstein SR, Allolio B, Arlt W, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of primary adrenal insufficiency: An Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2016;101:364-89. https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/101/2/364/2810222
  3. Odom DC, Gronowski AM, Odom E, et al. A single, post-ACTH cortisol measurement to screen for adrenal insufficiency in the hospitalized patient. J Hosp Med 2018;13: E1-E5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29444197
Can I rule out primary adrenal insufficiency by obtaining a single morning serum cortisol level in my hospitalized patient with unexplained hyponatremia?