Licorice consumption in pregnancy has been controversial because of its association with causing harm to the developing offspring, as claimed by several studies.
One of the culprits in excessive weight gain among pregnant women is overeating sweets. Aside from chocolates, some women will suddenly crave other sweet treats, such as licorice candy which is popular in Scandinavian countries.
However, some studies also oppose these claims by saying that not all licorice is unsafe, and that the said negative effects are dose-dependent.
In this article, let us find out whether consuming licorice during pregnancy is safe or not.
Table of Contents
What is Licorice?
Licorice, or Glycyrrhiza glabra scientifically, is a shrub that is widely used in Ayurvedic or traditional Hindu medicine. Today, aside from India, many countries in Asia and southern Europe commercially cultivate several licorice plant species.
It is believed that licorice originated in Iraq, but botanists have since noted that this plant species generally grows in countries with subtropical climates.
Its natural habitat is anywhere with fertile soil that is sandy in texture and close to rivers or other bodies of water, making the plant’s immediate environment accessible to sufficient water.
The licorice plant can grow up to 2.5 cm in height. Its thick and fibrous roots have been a significant source of herbal medicine since ancient times. Licorice root extracts are traditionally used to treat respiratory tract disorders, digestive issues, epilepsy, gout, and bleeding disorders.
Licorice Root Extracts
The licorice root extracts contain 400 compounds with several widely diverse effects. These bioactive constituents are responsible for the pharmacological effects and food industry application of the licorice root.
Among the compounds isolated, the main ones identified based on abundance were glycyrrhizin, glycyrrhetinic acid, and their derivatives.
Glycyrrhizin is used as an efficient natural sweetener because it is 50–100 times sweeter than sucrose and has a slow sweetness onset.
It produces effects similar to the naturally-produced corticosteroid in the body as an immune booster. For unresponsive patients to standard immunomodulatory therapy, licorice could be considered an alternative therapeutic choice.
Unfortunately, aside from the beneficial effects on the immune system, both also possess potential harm to consumers. Both are known to inhibit the enzyme 11B-HSD. This enzyme converts inactive cortisone into active cortisol.
Inhibition of this enzyme leads to enhanced mineralocorticoid activity. This means that sodium retention and potassium secretion are more pronounced, which can potentially lead to hypertension and hypokalemia, respectively.
Consumption of Licorice Root in Pregnancy
Because of the aforementioned, the consumption of licorice during pregnancy is generally not recommended because of its unsafe effects on pregnant women.
Hypertension in pregnancy can lead to serious complications such as preeclampsia and eclampsia, characterized by organ failure, pregnancy loss, seizures, and coma.
Moreover, some studies have reported negative effects of licorice on the developing fetus. It was observed that children born to mothers with high exposure to licorice during pregnancy had lower IQ, poorer memory, and higher odds of developing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder problems. 
Who Should Not Use Licorice Root?
Because of its serious hormonal side effects on the body, individuals with the following conditions should take precautions when consuming licorice extract-containing food items. 
- Cardiopulmonary problems
- Kidney problems
- Adrenal insufficiency
- Liver problems
- History of urinary retention due to anatomical anomalies
- 65 years and older
Pregnant women are sometimes compelled to have intense cravings for sweets during their pregnancy. In countries where licorice-containing food items are popular, it can be challenging for pregnant women to avoid.
Licorice root extracts contain glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhetinic acid as main constituents. These bioactive compounds can cause hypertension and hypokalemia when ingested excessively. Hence, it is unsafe for pregnant women to snack on this sweet treat regularly.
Disclaimer: This article is only a guide. It does not substitute the advice given by your healthcare professional. Before making any health-related decision, consult your healthcare professional.
Editorial References And Fact-Checking
- Hasan, M. K., Ara, I., Mondal, M. S. A., & Kabir, Y. (2021). Phytochemistry, pharmacological activity, and potential health benefits of Glycyrrhiza glabra. Heliyon, 7(6), e07240. doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e0724
- Wahab, S., Annadurai, S., Abullais, S. S., Das, G., Ahmad, W., Ahmad, M. F., Kandasamy, G., Vasudevan, R., Ali, M. S., & Amir, M. (2021). Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice): A Comprehensive Review on Its Phytochemistry, Biological Activities, Clinical Evidence and Toxicology. Plants (Basel, Switzerland), 10(12), 2751. https://doi.org/10.3390/plants10122751
- Sabbadin C, Bordin L, Donà G, Manso J, Avruscio G and Armanini D (2019) Licorice: From Pseudohyperaldosteronism to Therapeutic Uses. Front. Endocrinol. 10:484. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2019.00484
- Kwon, Y.-J., Son, D.-H., Chung, T.-H., & Lee, Y.-J. (2019). A Review of the Pharmacological Efficacy and Safety of Licorice Root from Corroborative Clinical Trial Findings. Journal of Medicinal Food. doi:10.1089/jmf.2019.4459
- Deutch, M. R., Grimm, D., Wehland, M., Infanger, M., & Krüger, M. (2019). Bioactive Candy: Effects of Licorice on the Cardiovascular System. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 8(10), 495. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods8100495
- Räikkönen, K., Martikainen, S., Pesonen, A. K., Lahti, J., Heinonen, K., Pyhälä, R., Lahti, M., Tuovinen, S., Wehkalampi, K., Sammallahti, S., Kuula, L., Andersson, S., Eriksson, J. G., Ortega-Alonso, A., Reynolds, R. M., Strandberg, T. E., Seckl, J. R., & Kajantie, E. (2017). Maternal Licorice Consumption During Pregnancy and Pubertal, Cognitive, and Psychiatric Outcomes in Children. American journal of epidemiology, 185(5), 317–328. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kww172