Is Licorice Tea Really Good for a Sore Throat?

These days, the slightest sore throat necessitates Covid testing, but beyond that, what can you do to alleviate the scratchiness and discomfort?

At TeaHaus, we generally suggest a hot cup of ayurvedic Vata—a caffeine-free herbal blend of licorice, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, anise, and mallow blossoms. The thick, creamy body of this tea coats your throat, and its sweet licorice and anise aroma and flavor are smooth and soothing.

vata

From a scientific standpoint, spices such as cinnamon and ginger boost the immune system and are antioxidant and antibacterial. In fact, when heated, the antibacterial benefit of cinnamon increases.

However, whether a cup of tea contains enough spice to actually have an effect is something we don’t really know. Many research studies are conducted with concentrated capsules and not cups of brewed tea, I suppose partly because brewing tea isn’t easily reproducible. For example, did each teaspoon of tea contain exactly the same amount of each ingredient? Was the water exactly the same temperature? Was the brewing time exactly the same for each cup?

Therefore, are the benefits of this ayurvedic tea mostly due to the physical coating of the throat by the rather viscous tea and the heat of the liquid, both of which are soothing? Or is there something about the licorice?

Licorice Root: Studies of Its Medicinal Properties

You may have seen recent articles in which physicians Shawn Nasseri and Brad DeSilva say that licorice root tea can help alleviate a sore throat. They explain that licorice contains the chemical component glycyrrhizin, and therefore has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties. However, a tea containing ingredients with beneficial properties does not necessarily mean that these properties are biologically available to your body (see my post Reviewing “The Wellness Tea” [with an objective look at health claims]) nor does it mean there’s enough of the ingredient to make a difference.

The article I looked at (these things tend to be published in multiple places), by Emily Laurence, cites a study of licorice, but if you follow the provided link, it’s actually a BMJ synopsis of the original study, which evaluated a traditional herbal product called Throat Coat®. The synopsis says that “details on the statistics that were used are sketchy, which is odd considering the great detail in which other aspects of the study were reported.”

Any study whose details on statistics are “sketchy” seems unreliable. However, because I wasn’t able to access the original publication (other than an abstract; Brinckmann et al.), I can’t really say one way or another. Still, there’s doubt.

licorice botanical

Looking further, I found a 2019 study (Wijesundara and Vasantha Rupasinghe) that evaluated hot water infusions of licorice root powder among other herbals. Results were promising, with licorice having some effect (dependent on concentration) against the bacteria that causes strep throat.

In 2019, a group of researchers (Chengxian et al.) reviewed studies that evaluated herbal teas for treatment of chronic sore throat, focusing on those that were prepared in water, the most like someone brewing an herbal tea at home. They found that licorice root, specifically Glycyrrhiza uralensis, has been shown in multiple studies to have an effect on bacterial infections, inflammation, and fever. A study by Tanemoto et al. (2015) indicates that licorice’s anti-inflammatory properties are due to the glycyrrhizin, along with some other minor constituents.

Licorice has also been used to treat gastric ulcers, chronic hepatitis B, and polycystic ovary syndrome. Its potential for fighting cancer continues to be studied. In fact, there are myriad studies on licorice root, and it seems that evidence is building that there is some validity to the root’s effectiveness.

Still, all those involved in this research caution that sufficient data are still lacking. Although herbs have been used medicinally for millennia, controlled studies of their efficacy have been slow to come.

Also, we must keep in mind that licorice can be toxic, potentially causing dangerously high blood pressure, potassium loss, and muscle weakness. (It’s rather sad that an herb that seems to have real benefits for our health can also be dangerous.)

One study states that a person should have only 10–30 mg of licorice a day, or “half a cup of liquorice tea per day” (Lawrence and Chong 2010), although other sources suggest 100 mg/day or even 200 mg! In 1996, a study determined that the “no-observed-adverse-effect” level was 2 mg/kg/day for women, although there were only 40 participants (Omar et al. 2012).

One of the problems in the real world is that licorice can be found in many items, so consumers may not ever realize how much they’ve ingested. Some products now contain licorice that’s had the glycyrrhizin removed, making it safer for consumption.

The licorice tea shown here is actually Ceylon tea with natural flavoring, and Vata tea contains licorice as one of several ingredients. In this way, the qualities of licorice can be enjoyed in a more safe way. Still, no one should be drinking endless amounts of any licorice beverage or eating too much licorice in one day.

cup and tea

Licorice Root: The Plant

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.) is a perennial herb in the pea family, with the word “licorice” coming from its scientific name, a combination of glykos, an ancient Greek work for “sweet,” and rhiza, meaning “root.” The plant grows around 3 feet tall and has blue flowers, producing flat pods. It’s the roots that are consumed, however. Although the various licorice species contain differing amounts of glycyrrhizin, the concentration ranges from 2% to 25%. Interestingly:

Glycyrrhizin is 50 times sweeter than sucrose (cane sugar). Its sweetness has a slower onset than sugar but persists in the mouth for a longer time. (Omar et al. 2012)

This natural sweetness accounts for licorice being used to cover bitterness or add a sweet taste to medicine and health products, chewing tobacco, candy, baked goods, and drinks.

The plant is native to southern Europe but was used in China, India, Egypt, and Assyria in antiquity. It’s currently widely harvested in the U.S., the Mediterranean area, parts of Russia and China, among other countries, with wild licorice still considered superior to cultivated (Brinckmann 2020).

Licorice Tea

So what does licorice tea taste like? Exactly as you’d think: sweet, with characteristic licorice flavor.

The Ceylon licorice-flavored tea from the Metropolitan Tea Company had a lovely sweet licorice aroma and yielded a deep brownish-red cup. Because it’s tea based, the licorice flavor was light and pleasant. However, the more I drank, the more the uniquely licorice sweetness bothered me. I love licorice as a food, but I’m not particularly taken with licorice-flavored tea. Also, being teabag tea, the tea itself isn’t of the best quality—though licorice is so overpowering that you wouldn’t want to waste a high-quality Ceyon for this purpose anyway.

I must say that their packaging is very nice! The wood box, like a miniature tea chest, was handmade in Sri Lanka and is nicely designed with fetching artwork. My husband bought this in a “general store” that romanticizes a previous era and offers products that we might think would’ve been enjoyed by generations past. Needless to say, this store is in a tourist town so the tea is targeted toward gift-buyers rather than serious tea drinkers.

brewed tea 2

Moving on to Vata, this is a loose herbal blend from TeaHaus. It has an aroma that’s incredibly aromatic—but the licorice sweetness is balanced by spicy cinnamon. The aroma of the orangish-brown brew is also strong and pleasantly spicy-sweet, ideal for when you’re congested.

vata brew

I find the sweetness overwhelming when I’m not sick, but it hits the spot when my throat is sore. Its mouthfeel is tangible, and it just coats your mouth and throat in a soothing way. Brewed, you can see how the licorice root is yellow in color.

brewed vata pieces

So should you drink licorice tea when you have a sore throat? The science, though not conclusive, suggests yes. Just be careful to not overindulge.

But if licorice isn’t your cup of tea, remember that hot beverages in general help sooth the throat.


Sources:
–BMJ, “Herbal tea helps reduce the pain of acute pharyngitis,” BMJ 327(7417). 9/27/2003.
–Brinckmann, J. A., “The long road to sustainable licorice,” United Plant Savers, Medicinal Plant Conservation. 4/12/2020.
–Brinckmann, J., H. Sigwart, and L. van Houten Taylor, ” Safety and efficacy of a traditional herbal medicine (Throat Coat®) in symptomatic temporary relief of pain in patients with acute pharyngitis,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 9(2). 7/5/2004.
–Chengxian, L., et al., “Systematic review of herbal tea . . .,” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2019.
–Laurence, E., “This is the very best tea to brew if you have a sore throat, according to an ENT doctor,” Well and Good, 12/20/21.
–Lawrence, J., and L. P. L. Chong, “The dangers of drinking liquorice tea,” Endocrine Abstracts 21. 2010.
–Omar, H. R., et al., “Licorice abuse,” Therapeutic Advances in Endocrinology and Metabolism 3(4). August 2012.
–Tanemoto, R. et al., “The constituents of licorice . . .,” Biochemistry and Biophysics Reports 2. July 2015.
–Wijesundara, N. M., and H. P. Vasantha Rupasinghe, “Herbal tea for the management of pharyngitis,” Biomedicines 7(3). 2019.

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