The People's Perspective on Medicine

Go Easy on Licorice to Avoid Leg Cramps

Anyone with concerns about heart rhythms or blood pressure should take it easy on licorice. Too much can be dangerous and even lead to leg cramps.

Your mother probably told you not to eat too much candy because it could ruin your teeth. Maybe your grandmother warned that gobbling candy would make you gain weight. But did anyone tell you to go easy on licorice as a way to prevent painful nighttime leg cramps? One reader discovered this connection independently. 

Going Easy on Licorice:

Q. I have always enjoyed black licorice sticks as a special treat. It never bothered me until I started eating bagfuls of German salted licorice. Eventually my heart started racing because of a drop in potassium levels.

I haven’t had licorice for a few years now, but last week I bought a bag of licorice sticks on a whim. I cut them into 3-inch pieces and grabbed two large handfuls as an evening snack.

I was awake all night with the worst leg cramps I have ever had. I drank electrolyte water, ate a banana, took cramp pills, and the “fixes” worked temporarily. Then the cramps came back. The next day my legs were still extremely sore. I am now off licorice for good. Not worth the pain or the risk to my heart.

What Does Licorice Do in the Body?

A. Natural black licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) contains an ingredient called glycyrrhizin. It can deplete the body of potassium. Low potassium could potentially lead to edema, lethargy and high blood pressure as well as irregular heartbeats.

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We suspect your leg cramps may indeed have resulted from an electrolyte imbalance. Your decision to take it easy on licorice makes sense since you appear to be especially vulnerable to the serious side effects of this sweet treat.

The FDA has warned that eating too much black licorice, about two ounces a day, can disrupt heart rhythms. The risk is especially high for people over 40, but even youngsters should not be allowed to binge on licorice.

Not all licorice candy contains actual plant extract; some is flavored with anise. However, it is hard for consumers to determine whether their candy has real licorice extract, so moderation is prudent.

Don’t Worry About Red Licorice:

Whenever we write about the dangers of too much black licorice, people want to know about red licorice. The red candy isn’t actually flavored with G. glabra, so the only hazards of consuming it are linked to its high sugar content. 

Be Aware of Licorice in Tea:

Consumers of herbal tea should also exercise moderation. Some teas contain licorice extract either as a flavoring agent or as a botanical medicine. At the appropriate dose, this herb has benefits, but overdosing on it can be dangerous.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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I have had a cough forever, and a friend recommend black licorice made outside the USA. It helped! Don’t understand why but I have a small piece in the am and pm.

Red licorice in moderation( 4-6 sticks) works wonders for an upset stomach.

My understanding is that if you want to use licorice for its benefits but want to avoid the potential of having these side effects, then you can use the DGL (deglycyrrhized) form?

We often recommend that.

I am looking for a remedy for leg cramps not caused by eating licorice. I exercise at least 5 days a week (min 150 minutes) but still get leg cramps at night. I take potassium supplements as well as magnesium and calcium. That has helped but not eliminated the problem.

About the Licorice and leg cramp experience … the exact same thing happened to me after I ate an entire jar of jelly beans one evening. I was unable to even stand up to try to walk. The worst leg cramps ever. I blamed it on the sugar in the jelly beans. Could it have been the sugar in the licorice?

Were there licorice jelly beans in the mix? That might have been the problem.

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