Licorice, today chiefly utilized as a flavoring additive in tea, tobacco and candy, is one of the oldest used herbs for medicinal purposes and consists of up to 300 active compounds. The main active constituent of licorice is the prodrug glycyrrhizin, which is successively converted to 3β-monoglucuronyl-18β-glycyrrhetinic acid (3MGA) and 18β-glycyrrhetinic acid (GA) in the intestines. Despite many reported health benefits, 3MGA and GA inhibit the 11-β-hydrogenase type II enzyme (11β-HSD2) oxidizing cortisol to cortisone. Through activation of mineralocorticoid receptors, high cortisol levels induce a mild form of apparent mineralocorticoid excess in the kidney and increase systemic vascular resistance. Continuous inhibition of 11β-HSD2 related to excess licorice consumption will create a state of hypernatremia, hypokalemia and increased fluid volume, which can cause serious life-threatening complications especially in patients already suffering from cardiovascular diseases. Two recent meta-analyses of 18 and 26 studies investigating the correlation between licorice intake and blood pressure revealed statistically significant increases both in systolic (5.45 mmHg) and in diastolic blood pressure (3.19/1.74 mmHg). This review summarizes and evaluates current literature about the acute and chronic effects of licorice ingestion on the cardiovascular system with special focus on blood pressure. Starting from the molecular actions of licorice (metabolites) inside the cells, it describes how licorice intake is affecting the human body and shows the boundaries between the health benefits of licorice and possible harmful effects.
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