Musings on Licorice Root

Rhubarb leaves unfolding.

More spring unfolds out of the soil. When rhubarb leaves sprout, you can see the intricate way they are tightly folded inside their buds. So what keeps these folds from sticking together? And how many folds are there?

Lovage sprouting

The lovage is up too. You can’t watch spring unfold without getting curious.

Many years ago I noticed a warning on Egyptian Licorice Tea, a sweet, pleasant tea from Yogi I liked to drink. But the warning on the tea made me pause:

Warning: Not recommended for use if you are pregnant or nursing, have high blood pressure, or for daily use beyond 4 to 6 weeks.

That’s not usual to have such a warning on tea.

Egyptian Licorice

The warning was about licorice root, the ingredient that gives the tea its sweetness. I enjoyed the taste so much that I bought a pound of licorice root. And I sometimes add it to other teas. But I can tell from subtle changes in my body that licorice root is something I can only seep sparingly. Which lead me to this long conversation with ChatGTP this morning:

Me: What are the dangers of drinking tea made from licorice root?

ChatGPT: Drinking tea made from licorice root can have several potential dangers or side effects, especially when consumed in large quantities or over an extended period. While licorice root has been used in traditional medicine and as a flavoring agent for centuries, it is important to be aware of its potential risks. Some of the main dangers associated with licorice root tea consumption include:

  1. Hypertension: Licorice root contains a compound called glycyrrhizin, which can cause an increase in blood pressure in some individuals. This can lead to hypertension, which is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and kidney problems.
  2. Electrolyte imbalance: The glycyrrhizin in licorice root can cause the body to retain sodium and lose potassium, leading to an electrolyte imbalance. This can result in symptoms such as muscle weakness, abnormal heart rhythms, and in severe cases, paralysis.
  3. Drug interactions: Licorice root can interact with certain medications, such as diuretics, blood pressure medications, and blood thinners, potentially causing dangerous side effects or reducing the effectiveness of the medication.
  4. Pregnancy risks: Consuming large amounts of licorice root during pregnancy has been associated with an increased risk of preterm birth and other adverse effects on the developing fetus.
  5. Adrenal insufficiency: Chronic consumption of licorice root can lead to suppression of the adrenal glands, causing a reduction in the production of cortisol, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s response to stress.
  6. Hormonal imbalances: Licorice root can have estrogen-like effects, which may cause hormonal imbalances and lead to menstrual irregularities, reduced fertility, and other issues in susceptible individuals.

To minimize these risks, it’s essential to consume licorice root tea in moderation and consult with a healthcare professional before adding it to your diet, particularly if you have pre-existing health conditions or are taking medications.

Ask a question and you end up with more questions popping up in your brain, don’t you?

Me: Why would a plant like licorice produce glycyrrhizin? What does glycyrrhizin do for the plant?

ChatGPT: Plants produce a wide variety of secondary metabolites, which are organic compounds that are not directly involved in the growth, development, or reproduction of the plant. These secondary metabolites often play important roles in plant defense against herbivores, pathogens, and environmental stressors. Glycyrrhizin, a triterpenoid saponin found in licorice root, is one such secondary metabolite.

While the specific function of glycyrrhizin in the licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is not fully understood, it is believed to serve several possible roles:

  1. Defense against herbivores: The bitter taste of glycyrrhizin may deter herbivores from consuming the plant, protecting it from being eaten. Additionally, the compound can cause digestive irritation in some animals, further discouraging consumption.
  2. Antimicrobial activity: Glycyrrhizin has been found to possess antimicrobial properties, which may help the plant defend against pathogenic bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
  3. Defense against environmental stress: Glycyrrhizin has also been shown to exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties may help the plant cope with environmental stressors, such as oxidative damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, drought, or extreme temperatures.
  4. Allelopathic effects: Some secondary metabolites, including saponins like glycyrrhizin, can have allelopathic effects on other plants, inhibiting their growth and potentially reducing competition for resources like nutrients, water, and sunlight.

Overall, the production of glycyrrhizin is likely an evolutionary adaptation that provides the licorice plant with a competitive advantage in its natural environment.

Me: What are saponins?

ChatGPT: Saponins are a diverse group of naturally occurring plant compounds characterized by their distinctive molecular structure, which includes a water-soluble sugar portion (glycone) and a fat-soluble non-sugar portion (aglycone). The term “saponin” is derived from the Latin word “sapo,” meaning soap, as many saponins can form a soapy froth when mixed with water due to their amphiphilic nature (having both hydrophilic and lipophilic properties).

Saponins are found in various plant species, including legumes, yucca, quinoa, and licorice. They serve several important functions in plants, such as:

  • Defense against herbivores: The bitter taste of saponins can deter herbivores from consuming the plant. Additionally, saponins can interfere with the absorption of nutrients in the digestive systems of animals, causing digestive distress and further discouraging herbivory.
  • Antimicrobial activity: Saponins can have antimicrobial properties, protecting plants against pathogens like bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
  • Protection against environmental stressors: Saponins can exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helping plants cope with various environmental stressors such as UV radiation, drought, or extreme temperatures.
  • Allelopathic effects: Saponins can have allelopathic effects on neighboring plants, inhibiting their growth and reducing competition for resources like water, nutrients, and sunlight.

In addition to their roles in plants, saponins have been studied for their potential health benefits and applications in human nutrition and medicine. Some saponins have been found to possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-boosting properties, while others have been investigated for their potential anticancer, antiviral, and cholesterol-lowering effects. However, it is important to note that not all saponins are beneficial, and some can be toxic or have undesirable side effects, depending on the specific compound and its concentration.

Me: How are plants able to produce saponins. For humans to make saponins they need a laboratory with all kinds of equipment.

What followed were many more answers and many more questions about biosynthetic pathways, enzyme production in plants, signals plants create to start gene transcription, transcription factors, and how RNA polymerase move and what happens when they collide. There is no end to knowing.

Cherry blossoms

You look at something as lovely as cherry blossoms, and they look so simple, yet they are a result of a mind blowing complex process of gene transcription and chemical pathways producing substances to create their delicate petals and stamen and pistils. And how do they count to five? Why don’t you see four petal and six petal cherry blossoms? Nature is incredibly complex and wondrous. Just being alive to enjoy it is enough.