For years it has been best known as a sweet treat enjoyed by young children, but liquorice may also help older women cope with the symptoms of the menopause.
By Martin Beckford, Health Correspondent, in Orlando
12:01AM BST 19 Oct 2011
Early research suggests that women who took a daily pill based on the plant root for a year experienced up to 80 per cent fewer hot flushes.
They were far less likely to have their sleep disturbed by night sweats strong enough to wake them up.
The experimental medicine, not yet on general sale, may even slow down the bone loss caused by the menopause that can lead to osteoporosis.
Experts believe chemicals in liquorice mimic the effect of the female hormone, oestrogen, that is lost in older women.
It could prove a cheap, safe and natural alternative to Hormone Replacement Therapy that is not suitable for all women particularly pensioners.
Dr Marsha Baker from the University of Southern California, who presented a paper on the study at the annual conference of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Florida on Monday, said: “We are not going to draw any definitive conclusions from this but even though it’s preliminary it’s still promising information that we can use to direct some further, larger-scale studies.”
Dr Donna Shoupe from the University of Southern California, who led the study, said: “There was a pretty significant reduction in hot flushes on the study.
“Hot flushes actually disrupt your life, they’re bothersome. We looked at wake episodes at night, that was decreased also. When you have a hot flush at night it actually wakes you up.
“So if it wakes them up they’re tired so impact on sleep is a very important aspect of it.”
Most women go through the menopause in middle age as they cease to be fertile.
But as their ovaries stop producing hormones it leads to painful side-effects that reduce quality of life, such as hot flushes, lack of sleep, headaches and mood changes.
The standard treatment is HRT, which replaces the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, but some doctors are reluctant to prescribe it after a contentious study claimed it increases risk of breast cancer and heart disease. Women over 60 are thought in particular to be at higher risk.
In an attempt to see if a natural alternative could help alleviate symptoms, researchers recruited 51 women with an average age of 50.8 who had moderate symptoms, experiencing about 10 hot flushes every day.
They were either given 50mg or 100mg of a liquorice root extract called licogen in a daily tablet, or a dummy pill, and followed for a year.
The results showed an effect after eight months, with hot flushes falling by up to 80 per cent, including in some cases down to just one at night from four.
In addition analysis suggests the liquorice extract had reduced levels of bone turnover, by between a third to half, which Dr Shoupe said she was “pretty thrilled about”.
It is believed that the treatment works by binding to oestrogen receptors so it makes the body thinks it has more of the hormone.
However the researchers admit the study, funded by an Israeli liquorice manufacturer but carried out independently, was small and that the fall in hot flushes for those on the drug did not differ significantly from those given a placebo.
David Sturdee, president-elect of the International Menopause Society, said the numbers involved in the study were too small to be sure the liquorice had any effect.
But he added: “It is interesting and anything that we can get that is non-hormonal and would be useful as an alternative to HRT for those who can’t take HRT must be welcomed.”