While you may think of licorice as the rope-like candy treat, licorice starts off as a plant. Its strong flavor not only makes it ideal for adding to foods and drinks, it also is used as an herbal preparation to soothe upset stomach, heartburn and stomach inflammation. Before you reach for the nearest bag of black licorice, however, you should know how eating black licorice could affect your potassium levels.
Potassium is a mineral in your body that is used to help your muscles and nervous system function effectively. Therefore, your body must maintain tight control on potassium levels to continue to properly function. Low levels of potassium have been linked with increased risk for heart and kidney disease. However, high potassium levels can be dangerous as well, typically because they are due to an underlying medical condition such as kidney failure.
Consuming excess amounts of black licorice can lower high potassium levels in your blood because of a compound known as glycyrrhizic acid. This acid has effects similar to a hormone known as aldosterone that works to stimulate your kidneys to release potassium. When you eat too much black licorice, the glycyrrhizic acid can cause you to lose the potassium built up in your bloodstream. While it can be harmful to have too much potassium in your body, having too little is problematic too. You may experience symptoms like severe vomiting, easy fatigue, muscle weakness and irregular heartbeat.
As a Treatment
While black licorice can lower potassium levels, it typically is not used as a treatment for high potassium -- a condition known as hyperkalemia -- because physicians typically attempt to address the underlying condition associated with the high potassium levels. You can experience high potassium as a result of taking excess potassium supplements or potassium-sparing diuretics. In this case, your physician would adjust your dosage of your medication rather than recommend licorice as a treatment. If you had potassium due to a medical condition like kidney disease or hemolysis -- where your blood cells rupture -- your physician would suggest alternate treatments. Instead, it's important to be aware how licorice could lower your high- to normal-range potassium levels.
Due to the potassium-lowering effects of licorice, it is best to eat it in moderation. BBC News recommends limiting your licorice intake to about 100 mg per day to avoid adverse health effects. While the amount of licorice added can vary by manufacturer, chewing gum can contain about 24 mg of licorice while herbal teas can have about 450 mg per 32 oz. serving. If you consume licorice and begin to experience side effects like headaches, swelling or muscle weakness, discontinue use and talk to your physician.