When you're pregnant, you naturally want to do everything you can to protect your unborn child and ensure the healthiest pregnancy possible. You might not think that enjoying an occasional piece of licorice could be harmful. Unfortunately, licorice contains a chemical that can hurt your unborn baby. You shouldn't consume any black licorice while pregnant, and you should continue to avoid it while breastfeeding.
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Although most people think of licorice as a candy, it's actually the root of an herb plant known as Glycyrrhiza glabra that's been used by humans for thousands of years as a sweetener and a medicine. The plant grows in Europe and Asia, and over the years has treated canker sores, stomach ulcers and indigestion, the skin condition eczema and even the common cold. Licorice products, which include candy, supplements and herbal teas, contain an extract of the licorice plant root.
Licorice taken in large quantities -- more than 20 g per day -- can affect your adrenal system), potentially causing heart problems, headaches and high blood pressure. If you're pregnant, licorice also can interfere with the natural barriers that prevent your stress hormones from crossing the placenta to the fetus. According to a study published in 2010 in the medical journal "Psychoneuroendocrinology," this exposure to stress hormones can lead to higher levels of stress hormones in your child after he's born.
Overexposure to licorice during pregnancy potentially can lead to behavioral problems in children, according to a study published in the "American Journal of Epidemiology" in November 2009. In that study, the researchers looked at children who had been exposed to varying levels of licorice during gestation. They found that children who were exposed to the most licorice had worse memories and verbal abilities, along with increases in aggression and attention deficit-type behaviors.
Not all licorice-style candies use the root Glycyrrhiza glabra as a flavoring agent. In fact, according to candy manufacturer Hershey's, some forms of black licorice actually contain the herb anise in place of Glycyrrhiza glabra. Other products contain both anise and Glycyrrhiza glabra. Therefore, if you're pregnant, you should read the package ingredients before deciding to eat black licorice, and avoid those that list "licorice extract" or "licorice root extract" as a candy ingredient.