By Tracie Korol
Our dogs do not enjoy freedom of choice. They rely upon us to make decisions on their behalf and we, tormented by the sight of a suffering companion, will often make the difficult choice of providing comfort over cure. We wish for our pets a long and healthy life without the damaging effects of anti-inflammatory drug therapies or immunosuppressive results of steroids, but we also wish for them to be comfortable.
Fortunately, there are a few herbs that address both sides of a difficult issue. One of them is licorice, an ancient medicine with myriad multiple applications. A bonus: it grows like a weed and tastes like candy.
Licorice, or Glycyrrhiza (from Greek meaning “sweet root”) has been used in medicine since antiquity and its history in veterinary applications is probably just as ancient. In Europe it has been considered a valued medicine and trade commodity for at least a thousand years. Known in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as the Great Detoxifier, Licorice has also been used to treat sore throat, urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers, constipation, and Addison’s disease, a disorder marked by insufficient secretion of hormones of the adrenal cortex. It relieves inflammation associated with arthritis, skin irritations, and respiratory conditions and studies have shown it to be as effective as hydrocortisone without the side effects.
Most of us have witnessed the bittersweet use of hydrocortisone and other corticosteroid drugs (such as prednisone) with our pets. In many ways they are close to “miracle medicines” in their ability to relieve inflammation, itchiness, and even the symptoms of cancer and nervous diseases. But just as quickly we come to recognize that they are seldom a “cure” for anything. The side effects may actually be worse that the disease we wish to combat; almost immediately we can expect to see our Best Friends retain water and gain weight, and often within two weeks we may see side effects that include hypertension, altered mood and personality, heart palpitations and chronic illness due to depressed immune function. In many cases, antibiotics, strong diuretics, and mineral supplements become necessary just to antidote the corticosteroids.
Corticosteroids suppress immune functions and inflammatory responses that are responsible for an animal’s discomfort. By decreasing natural production of lymphocytes and antibodies, and by altering normal defensive functions of the body, corticosteroids can often make disease symptoms disappear very quickly. However, continued use of corticosteroids will eventually induce a serious state of immune deficiency that can be very difficult to reverse.
Fortunately, licorice root provides us with some safer options. The anti-inflammatory activity of licorice root is primarily attributable to a chemical called “glycyrrhizin” present in the plant. Glycyrrhizin is similar to the natural cortisone that is released by the body’s adrenal glands. Glycyrrhizin effectively stimulates the adrenals into action, while introducing its own anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, immune-supporting corticosteroid-like actions to the body. As a result, licorice helps relieve pain, itching, and inflammation without completely bypassing normal anti-inflammatory functions, and without seriously compromising the immune system.
Licorice is best used in tincture form but comes with the sweet benefit of being sweet! However, it should not be used with reckless abandon or in normal doses for periods exceeding two weeks without the instructions of a qualified practitioner. It should not be used with pregnant or nursing animals as its estrogenic properties may affect uterine functions.