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



  1. Sontia B, Mooney J, Gaudet L, et al. Pseudohyperaldosteronism, liquorice and hypertension. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich) 2008; 10:153-57.
  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.
  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.
  4. Black licorice: trik or treat? 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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
How does excess licorice consumption cause hypertension and hypokalemia?

Could constipation contribute to hyperkalemia in my patient with chronic kidney disease?

Yes! Constipation may be an important contributor to hyperkalemia in some patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD).

 Under normal conditions, 80-90% of excess dietary potassium (K+) is excreted by the kidneys, with the remainder excreted through the GI tract.1 However, in advanced CKD, particularly in the setting of end-stage kidney disease (ESKD), the GI tract assumes a much more important role in maintaining K+ balance. 

As early as 1960’s, the daily fecal excretion of K+ was found to be directly related to the wet stool weight, irrespective of creatinine clearance. Furthermore, K+ excretion in stool was as high as ~80% of dietary intake (average 37%) in some hemodialysis (HD) patients compared to normal controls (average 12%). 2

Such increase in K+ excretion in the GI tract of patients with CKD was later found to be primarily the result of K+ secretion into the colon/rectum rather than reduced dietary K+ absorption in the small intestine 1,3, was inversely related to residual kidney function, and as a consequence could serve as the main route of K+ excretion in patients with ESKD. 4

Collectively, these findings suggest that in addition to non-dietary factors such as medications, we may need to routinely consider constipation as a potential cause of hyperkalemia in patients with advanced CKD or ESKD. 1

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that secretion of K+ by the apical surface of colonic epithelial is mediated in part by aldosterone-dependent mechanisms? 5


  1. St-Jules DE, Goldfarb DS, Sevick MA. Nutrient non-equivalence: does restricting high-potassium plant foods help to prevent hyperkalemia in hemodialysis patients? J Ren. Nutr 2016;26: 282-87.
  2. Hayes CP, McLeod ME, Robinson RR. An extrarenal mechanism for the maintenance of potassium balance in severe chronic renal failure. Trans Assoc Am Physicians 1967;80:207-16.
  3. Martin RS, Panese S, Virginillo M, et al. Increased secretion of potassium in the rectum of humans with chronic renal failure. Am J Kidney Dis 1986;8:105-10.
  4. Cupisti A, Kovesdy CP, D’Alessandro C, et al. Dietary approach to recurrent or chronic hyperkalemia in patients with decreased kidney function. Nutrients 2018, 10, 261;doi:10.3390/nu10030261.
  5. Battle D, Boobes K, Manjee KG. The colon as the potassium target: entering the colonic age of hyperkalemia treatment. EBioMedicine 2015;2: 1562-1563.


Contributed in part by Alex Blair, MD, Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA.

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Could constipation contribute to hyperkalemia in my patient with chronic kidney disease?

Why isn’t my patient with congestive heart failure or end-stage liver disease losing weight despite being on diuretic therapy? Is the diuretic dose too low, or is the salt intake too high?

When a patient with congestive heart failure (CHF) or end-stage liver disease (ESLD) doesn’t respond as expected to diuretic therapy, measurement of urinary sodium (Na) can be helpful.

In low effective arterial blood volume states (eg, CHF and ESLD) aldosterone secretion is high, resulting in high urine potassium (K) and low urine Na concentrations. However, in the presence of diuretics, urinary Na excretion should rise.

Patients undergoing active diuresis are often restricted to a 2 g (88 mEq) Na intake/day, with ~10 mEq excreted via non-urinary sources (primarily stool), and ~ 78 mEq excreted in the urine to “break even” — that is, to maintain the same weight.

Although historically measured 1, a 24-hour urine Na and K collection is tedious, making spot urine Na/K ratio more attractive as a potential proxy.  Approximately 90% of patients who achieve a urinary Na/K ratio ≥1 will have a urinary Na excretion ≥78 mEq/day — that is to say, they are sensitive to the diuretic and will have a stable or decreasing weight at the current dose. 2,3

Urine Na/K may be interpreted as follows:

  • ≥1 and losing weight suggests effective diuretic dose, adherent to low Na diet
  • ≥1 and rising weight suggests effective diuretic dose, non-adherent to low Na diet
  • <1 and rising weight suggests ineffective diuretic dose

The “ideal” Na/K ratio as relates to responsiveness to diuretics has ranged from 1.0 to 2.5.4 In acutely decompensated heart failure patients on spironolactone, a K-sparing diuretic, Na/K ratio >2 at day 3 of hospitalization may be associated with improved outcome at 180 days. 5

Remember also that if the patient’s clinical syndrome is not correlating well with the ratio, it’s always a good idea to proceed to a 24-hour urine collection.



  1. Runyon B. Refractory Ascites. Semin Liver Dis. Semin Liver Dis. 1993 Nov;13(4):343-51.
  2. Stiehm AJ, Mendler MH, Runyon BA. Detection of diuretic-resistance or diuretic-sensitivity by spot urine Na/K ratios in 729 specimens from cirrhotics with ascites: approximately 90 percent accuracy as compared to 24-hr urine Na excretion (abstract). Hepatology 2002; 36: 222A.
  3. da Silva OM, Thiele GB, Fayad L. et al. Comparative study of spot urine Na/K ratio and 24-hour urine sodium in natriuresis evaluation of cirrhotic patients with ascites. GE J Port Gastroenterol 2014;21:15-20
  4. El-Bokl M, Senousy, B, El-Karmouty K, Mohammed I, Mohammed S, Shabana S, Shelby H. Spot urinary sodium for assessing dietary sodium restriction in cirrhotic ascites. World J Gastroenterol 2009; 15:3631.
  5. Ferreira JP, Girerd N, Medeiros PB, et al. Spot urine sodium excretion as prognostic marker in acutely decompensated heart failure: the spironolactone effect. Clin Res Cardiol 2016;105:489-507.


Contributed by Alyssa Castillo, MD, with valuable input from Sawalla Guseh, MD, both from Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA.

Why isn’t my patient with congestive heart failure or end-stage liver disease losing weight despite being on diuretic therapy? Is the diuretic dose too low, or is the salt intake too high?