Licorice Root During Pregnancy: Why You May Want To Avoid It

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When you become pregnant, you have to go through a lot of lifestyle changes, especially when comes to exercise and diet. You may be told to exercise for a certain amount of time each week, or you might be encouraged to consume foods that contain vitamins and minerals like iron and folate, as advised by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). At the same time, a healthcare provider might ask that you avoid certain foods—like licorice—that might be harmful to you and the baby during pregnancy.

Licorice root—and, by extension, licorice itself—may seem like an unexpected food you may need to stay away from during your pregnancy. Finnish researchers of a study published in the March 2017 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology noted that those who are pregnant should avoid eating a lot of licorice root or black licorice candy.

What Is Licorice Root?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), licorice root can be found throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. You can find it in dried or capsule form, and licorice root is sometimes used to treat ulcers and stomach ailments, sore throats, and viral infections.

It typically flavors things like foods and tobacco products. Additionally, glycyrrhizin—the compound that gives licorice its taste—comes from the licorice plant, the FDA's additives list shows glycyrrhizin as "licorice and derivatives (ammoniated glycyrrhizin, glycyrrhiza)"

The licorice plant may cause some negative health effects. It has been associated with bloating and water retention that occurs during pregnancy, according to a June 2021 Heliyon study.

Hence, it is understandable why research has been done to determine the link between consuming licorice root and its effects on pregnancy.

The Links Between Licorice Root and Pregnancy

The researchers of the American Journal of Epidemiology study found that prenatal exposure to the sweet-tasting herb may be linked to earlier puberty, lower IQ, and behavioral problems in children. In other words, if the licorice was consumed during pregnancy, the baby would have been exposed in the womb and, after birth, may develop these effects later in life.

The study compared the results of cognitive and memory tests for 378 children (with an average age of 13) whose mothers had either consumed little to no licorice during pregnancy or had consumed large amounts—defined as more than 500 milligrams of glycyrrhizin per week. (That's about equal to 8 ounces of pure licorice root.)

While the study asked women only about the quantities and brands of "licorice-containing confectionaries" they ate, glycyrrhizin can also be found in chewing gum, cookies, ice creams, herbal teas, and beverages.

The researchers found that kids who'd been exposed to large amounts of glycyrrhizin in the womb had poorer cognitive reasoning skills and scored about 7 points lower on IQ tests than those who'd been exposed to little or none. They also performed worse on memory tests and, according to reports from their parents, they were more than three times more likely to have symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

For the girls in the study, higher glycyrrhizin exposure was also associated with earlier and more advanced puberty. Girls in the high-licorice group were more than an inch taller, on average, and weighed about 18 pounds more than those in the low-licorice group.

Considerations of Consuming Licorice Root or Licorice While Pregnant

The American Journal of Epidemiology study researchers adjusted their results to account for factors such as the mother's age, smoking status, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and stress during pregnancy—as well as the children's own licorice consumption. The authors also stated that their findings are comparable to the effects of binge drinking during pregnancy on children's cognitive and behavioral problems.

But the study still couldn't determine a cause-and-effect relationship between licorice exposure and the children's various outcomes, and they said that other factors could have played a role as well.

In Finland, where black licorice and "salty licorice" candies (also known as salmiakki) are popular treats, the government has already warned against consuming glycyrrhizin during pregnancy. While occasional consumption of licorice-flavored sweets or ice cream is not dangerous, the national guidelines state licorice is generally "not recommended" for pregnant people.

Also, the authors wrote that they "cannot determine the extent to which our findings generalize to countries where licorice is not as commonly consumed." But they pointed out that even in the US, the average daily consumption of glycyrrhizin can be up to 215 mg—suggesting that some people might be wise to cut back while they're expecting.

Specifically, in the United States, the NCCIH also recommended that pregnant people avoid consuming large amounts of licorice root in food or using licorice root as a supplement.

Just as people are warned against drinking while pregnant, the researchers said, they should also be informed of the potential risks of too much licorice, though they also mentioned that licorice did not need to be completely off-limits. Ultimately, just be sure to discuss any changes in your diet with your healthcare provider if you're pregnant—especially if you love licorice.

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