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A man's love of licorice tea landed him in the emergency room



Photo: Franklin Hunting (Flickr)

A man's hot tea used to be much less relaxing than he hoped, according to his doctors. An 84-year-old Canadian ended up in the emergency department with a severe case of high blood pressure, headache and chest pain, with the only probable cause that his symptoms are his two weeks just drinking home-made liquorice. But it is hardly the first time the liquorice has been blamed on blood pressure problems.

The man's history was described in a case study published Monday in The Canadian Medical Association Journal.

According to the study, the man had a long history of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, but he had been able to keep his blood pressure controlled just as recently as his last medical examination. One week before he visited the hospital, however, he noticed that his blood pressure had begun to climb and nothing seemed to help him. When the doctors saw him, he was already suffering from physical symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue and headache. And it is likely that things could have been much worse if he hadn't received help then and then.

"In his case, the blood pressure was so high that it caused him to have heart failure, swelling of his legs and some abnormalities with his electrolytes, such as low potassium," author Laurence Green, an intern at McGill University Health Center, told Gizmodo by phone.

There was no apparent reason why his blood pressure was out of control. But eventually, the man volunteered to have drunk 1-2 glasses of homemade tea brewed by liquorice root for two weeks before his access to the hospital. Licorice (derived from the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra ) is part of a drink called the erk sous, popular in some countries, including Egypt and around the Muslim holiday in Ramadan.

Fortunately, once he stopped drinking the liquorice and began taking intensive blood pressure medicine, the man was back. He left the hospital in good health after two weeks, and a check-up three weeks later revealed his blood pressure was left to handle.

Man's pre-existing health certainly contributed to the danger he was in. But doctors have long known that licorice can cause or exacerbate high blood pressure in humans. As long as 2017, the Food and Drug Administration warned that people over 40 should avoid eating too much licorice. According to the agency, more than two ounces of black licorice candy can be eaten one day for two weeks straight to increase the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia in older people.

"This is not a new discovery". Green noted. "It's more of an episodic reminder to doctors that licorice can cause these symptoms and that they should be aware of it."

The culprit behind the licorice's effect on blood pressure is the compound that gives it its slightly sweet taste, called glycyrrhizin (or glycyrrhizinic acid). In high doses it causes our cells to retain more water than they should, and our body's potassium levels should be diminished if net results raise blood pressure. According to his doctors, the man knew about the risk of liquorice and high blood pressure, but he simply did not suspect the teen when his symptoms first occurred.

While the case study is intended for doctors, Green said there are things that the public should also keep in mind, especially those of us who love their red Twizzlers.

"Many think they eat licorice, but they are not. The red candy that is shaped like licorice? There is no licorice in there at all. It must be the black licorice. And even then, if it is taken in moderation and you do not have high blood pressure or heart problems, you should be fine, "Green said.

It is theoretically possible for wholly healthy people to develop licorice-related high blood pressure or other related problems, he added, but it would take some rather large amounts of licorice to pull off. As long as you do not, you are clear. After all the ways to go, death from licorice binge can be one of the most embarrassing.


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