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
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- 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
- 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/
- 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
- Black licorice: trik or treat? https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm 277152.htm
- 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/
- 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
- 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
- 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
Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Mercy Hospital-St. Louis or its affiliate healthcare centers, Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School or its affiliated institutions. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!