By definition, candy is a frivolous treat – sugary and devoid of nutrients.– designed to appeal to your sweet tooth, not your good sense.
But just because a particular kind of plant is mostly known in the US for being a candy ingredient, doesn’t mean that this botanical shouldn’t be taken seriously as a traditional herbal remedy.
And if many medical researchers have their way, the rich collection of anti-cancer natural substances in this herb will soon be put to use to help people survive their tumors.
The herb is licorice – a powerful medicinal plant used around the world since the beginning of human history to treat a wide variety of ills. Now, this doesn’t mean you should run to the store and load up on licorice candy. You need to take it in herbal form to get the desired effect – and there are important cautions I’ll get to later.
But for some cancer patients it may develop into a valuable treatment. Here’s the full story…
Alexander the Great’s doctor was a licorice fan
Licorice root is an herb that has been in medical use as far back as the ancient Assyrians and Egyptians — King Tut was buried with a supply in his tomb. The physician Dioscorides, who treated the soliders of Alexander the Great, prescribed the root to boost endurance and stamina among the king’s Macedonian regiments.
Today, modern research is demonstrating that licorice root is composed of a complex collection of phytochemicals that produce profound effects in the body – including the power to fight cancer.
For instance, a pair of related chemicals found in licorice root, isoliquiritigenin and quercetin, have been shown to disrupt the growth of tumors and protect against the spread of cancer cells.
A study of how isoliquiritigenin fights skin cancer shows that it can slow, stop and reverse tumor expansion by interfering with how cancer cells produce the energy that fuels their growth.1
Normal cells get most of their energy from biochemical processes called oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) that take place in their mitochondria, often called the cell’s “batteries.” This process oxidizes nutrients — producing energy that is generally stored in a substance called ATP.
Cancer cells almost always produce energy differently. First off, to support their energy production they have an outsized hunger for sugar – in the form of glucose that is delivered from their own network of blood vessels.
This enlarged supply of glucose is necessary to maintain their preferred method of energy generation, which researchers now call aerobic glycolysis. This is essentially a process that ferments sugar to produce the energy that keeps the cancer growing. (Cancer cells’ preference for glycolsis in meeting their energy supplies is known as the “Warburg effect.”2)
A study in China, though, shows that isoliquiritigenin from licorice can block the action of enzymes that allow cancer cells to succesfully maintain glycolysis. Isoliquiritigenin forces these cells to revert to healthy mitochondrial functions that produce energy the normal way – by oxidzing nutrients.
And guess what? The studies demonstrate that forcing cancer cells to try and make energy like normal cells keeps them contained and unable to spread. Eventually, it kills most of them.
This forced switch back to OXPHOS or healthy cell metabolism is fatal to cancer cells for reasons that are complicated. According to scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, chemical byproducts that are generated by cancer cells during glycolysis, including lactate, help tumors proliferate and spread in several ways: They break down the structure of nearby normal cells (allowing cancer to invade), and boost the cancer cells’ ability to metastasize i.e. spread throughout the body.3
By standing in the way of glycolysis, isoliquiritigenin eliminates these advantages.
Other researchers at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine believe that glycolysis also produces substances that help tumors resist the efforts of immune cells to kill off cancer cells and can make cancer resistant to chemotherapy and radiation.4
Investigators have found that when isoliquiritigenin shuts off a cancer cell’s supply of glycolytic enzymes, cancer cells flounder for energy supplies. And the attempt at starting up normal mitochondrial methods of fueling the cell’s activities produces proteins that lead to apoptosis – the cell’s programmed self-destruction.5
Going after colon cancer
Another substance in licorice root – quercetin – (which is also found in other fruits and vegetables), has been shown to help fight cancer in significant ways.
Lab research at Texas A&M AgriLife demonstrates that quercetin can protect the colon against inflammation and the development of tumors.6
Quercetin interrupts one of the first signs of developing colon cancer — the formation of what are known as “aberrant crypts.”
“(These crypts or lesions) are some of the first true changes in the colon that can be observed visually,” says researcher Nancy Turner, Ph.D.
According to Dr. Turner, when the normal cells in a healthy colon age they eventually undergo apoptosis (programmed cell death) as they are replaced by younger cells. But when their apoptosis programming stops functioning properly, the aging cells accumulate, start to form crypts and can become cancerous.
In opposition to this process, quercetin helps maintain the proper rate of apoptosis: “(With quercetin), we were able to decrease the number of cells that were proliferating in the colon,” says Dr. Turner. “And we were able to increase the number of cells that were undergoing apoptosis. So the net effect of that is, we were able to maintain almost a normal number of cells.”
Helps contain inflammation
Quercetin also limits inflammation that can lead to colon tumors. In Dr. Turner’s study, her team of investigators focused on two well-known inflammatory enzymes called Cox-1 and Cox-2. Of these, the presence of Cox-2 has long been considered a troubling sign of potential cancer.
“Cox-2 is an inducible protein that is expressed in the body when there is some kind of external stimulus to a cell,” she says. “We think of high levels of Cox-2 as being a bad thing.”
But her research now demonstrates that even before Cox-2 levels begin to elevate, Cox-1 increases – suggesting that Cox-1 exerts an influence on the production of Cox-2.
Dr. Turner’s investigation shows that quercetin can rein in both Cox-1 and Cox-2: “So that would tend to suggest that there may be opportunity for quercetin to suppress tumor development,” she notes.
At the same time, researchers in Asia have formulated a substance made from quercetin that they found could effectively force colon cancer cells to undergo apoptosis.7 And a study in Croatia shows that when quercetin enters the digestive tract, the body can convert it into powerful antioxidants that improve colon health.8
While quercetin is a natural substance (classified as a flavonoid) that is contained in foods like onions and apples, licorice is a unique source of natural compounds that combines this chemical with isoliquiritigenin and other beneficial phytochemicals.
And there are enough of these to keep cancer researchers busy for a long time.
But there are some cautions you need to heed when it comes to licorice. The FDA cautions that anyone 40 years of age or older should limit their licorice consumption. It contains glycyrrhizin, a chemical that can cause heartbeat irregularities because it can mess with your potassium levels.9
And the University of Maryland says that if you take licorice root as an herb, consult your health practitioner before using it for more than a week.10 Plus, avoid this herb if you have a serious health issue like diabetes or heart disease. And never give it to children except under the strict supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner.