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?

Does erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) have diagnostic utility in my patient with chronic renal failure?

Short answer: No! This is because most studies have shown frequently high ESR’s in stable “uninflamed” patients with chronic renal failure (CRF) (including those on dialysis) at levels often associated with infection, connective tissue disease, or malignancy in normal renal function. 1-4  

In fact, in a study involving patients with CRF, 57% of patients had markedly elevation of ESR (greater than 60 mm/h), with 20% having ESR greater than 100 mm/h; type or duration of dialysis had no significant effect on ESR levels.1 Another study reported a specificity for abnormal ESR of only 35% for commonly considered inflammatory conditions (eg, infections or malignancy) among patients with CRF. 2

But is it the chronic inflammation in diseased kidneys or the uremic environment that elevates ESR? A cool study compared ESR in CRF in patients who had undergone bilateral nephrectomies with those with retained kidneys and found no significant difference in the ESR between the 2 groups. 4  So it looks like it’s the uremic environment, not diseased kidneys themselves that result in elevated ESR in these patients.

The mechanism behind these observations seem to reside entirely within the patients’ plasma, not the erythrocytes. Within the plasma, fibrinogen (not gammaglobulins) seem to be the most likely factor explaining elevated ESR among patients with CRF. 1,2

Bonus pearl:  Did you know that ESR is nearly 100 years old, first described in 1921? 5

References

  1. Barthon J, Graves J, Jens P, et al. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate in end-stage renal failure. Am J Kidney Dis 1987;10: 34-40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3605082
  2. Shusterman N, Morrison G, Singer I. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate and chronic renal failure. Ann Intern Med 1986;105:801. http://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/700910
  3. Arik N, Bedir A, Gunaydin M, et al. Do erythrocyte sedimentation rate and C-reactive protein levels have diagnostic usefulness in patients with renal failure? Nephron 2000;86:224. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11015011
  4. Warner DM, George CRP. Erythrocyte sedimentation rate and related factors in end-stage renal failure. Nephron 1991;57:248. https://www.karger.com/Article/PDF/186266
  5. Fahraeus R. The suspension stability of the blood. Acta Med Scan 1921;55:70-92. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0954-6820.1921.tb15200.x

 

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Does erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) have diagnostic utility in my patient with chronic renal failure?