Traditional healing, modern scienceThe dried root of the licorice plant has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Practitioners of TCM use dried licorice root for a variety of health concerns: to treat coughs, ulcers, sore throat, arthritis, lupus, liver disorders, food poisoning and diabetes. Licorice is known by herbalists to possess antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties. The medicinally used root is not an ingredient in the licorice candy sold in the US which uses the similarly flavored anise oil.
As modern medicine slowly begins to accept that traditional healing traditions have value, many herbal remedies proven by centuries of efficacy have been examined using scientific standards. In a previous study, clinical trials indicated that an injectable form of licorice root was effective against hepatitis C. However, mainstream medicine still has not officially approved licorice root as a treatment for any condition.
Corporate funding for herbal studyThe recent study is a striking instance of strange bedfellows. In this case, corporate profits proved to be the champion of traditional herbal wisdom. The lead researcher for the study is Stefan Gafner, PhD, a scientist employed by Tom's of Maine which markets natural personal care products, including toothpaste and dental floss. The company, started on a shoestring in 1970, was purchased by multinational conglomerate Colgate-Palmolive in 2006.
Gafner and his fellow researchers analyzed licorice root to identify the compounds work against bacteria. They found that two compounds, licoricidin and licorisoflavan A, offered the strongest anti-bacterial benefits. Both substances were shown to kill two of the major bacteria that were responsible for promoting gum disease. Licoricidin was also found to kill a third bacteria responsible for gum disease. In their article, the researchers say that these two licorice substances may treat or even prevent the oral infections which lead to tooth loss.
Establishing licorice root's ability to fight oral infections will help many people. Statistics from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research indicate that nearly 92% of American adults and seniors have had some form of tooth decay in 59% of teens and 42% of children aged 11. More than 80% of adults in the US may have gum disease, often without knowing it. Gum disease, which in extreme cases can result in tooth loss, is also a risk factor in many types of heart and lung disease.
If you plan to use licorice to improve your oral hygiene, remember that natural remedies should be used with informed awareness. Herbal experts recommend that people with high blood pressure or heart disease exercise caution and not take large amounts of licorice over extended periods. Also, the herb is not recommended for pregnant women. Like most herbs, licorice root can interact with some prescription drugs, causing side-effects.
It is good to read about a corporate conglomerate's profit motive put to good use for once, validating the wisdom of traditional herbal healing. It will be interesting to see if Colgate-Palmolive applies the information from this study to the oral hygiene products other than the Tom's of Maine line. Many Colgate-Palmolive products use toxic chemicals including triclosan and fluoride. The conglomerate is still viewed negatively by many environmental activists, both for its marketing of disposable plastic products and for its New Jersey plant's contribution to groundwater pollution. However, the company has made improvements in the past; for instance, declaring a moratorium on animal testing in 1999 following protests by animal rights groups.