Herbal health claims have always left me skeptical. I’m not a medical practitioner, but rather a professor of Middle East & African History. Commonsense tells me that if green tea cures cancer, as some herbalists claim, broccoli prevents Alzheimers, and gingko reverses aging, then what do we need cemeteries for? However, three weeks ago, I had an experience that made me take a second look, not at miracle cures but at the medicinal effects of licorice on toothaches. I had been sitting at my desk, preparing my lectures when a pain shot through my jaw. Within minutes, the throbbing pain had intensified to the point that I could barely stand up.
I belong to a Dental HMO in which I’m required to go to the dentist prescribed by the plan. A call to the dentist’s office informed me that no openings for patients were available until Wednesday morning. It was Monday afternoon. I couldn’t afford to see an out of network dentist. I probably couldn’t afford to see the dentist on my plan, given the fact that dental work I’d had in the past even using the plan had cost upwards of $500. But I was desperate. I got in my car and headed home, stopping at a pharmacy along the way. I grabbed a bottle of Orajel off the shelf and handed the cashier my credit card for the $5.00 purchase. She ran it through the machine. The card came back “declined.” The toothache was getting worse and I didn’t have the energy to call the number on the slip of paper the cashier handed me with the declined credit card to figure out whether it was their mistake or mine. I scrabbled through my purse and found about $1.50 in change. I grabbed a box of black gumdrops called “Black Crows,” off the shelf next to the cashier’s station, plunked the quarters, nickels and pennies on the counter and ran out the store. Of course, this was not a rational decision since sugary snacks could only make the toothache worse. But I had passed the point of mature, adult decision making. Misery, frustration, and pain pushed me to grab for comfort in the cheapest way I knew, devouring the candy I used to eat as a kid. I tore open the cellophane wrapper and popped those gumdrops into my mouth like Tic Tacs. I turned on the car’s ignition and tossed the half empty box on the passenger seat. The aching stopped as abruptly as it had started.
While I was relieved, I didn’t connect gorging on licorice gumdrops with the cessation of a tooth ache until I got home and mentioned the incident to my husband. He made the connection for me, having come across an article [ describing the use of licorice root for tooth pain, while researching wildflowers to plant in our yard.. As often happens with personal discoveries, it turns out that was new knowledge to me, had been known as a folk remedy for centuries. But I didn’t know that. More importantly, the Internet can sometimes offer such an overload of information, with the useful so intertwined with commercial plugs for products being sold, that it can be difficult to sift through all the conflicting reports. This is even more so the case, when your analytical facilities are dulled by pain and discomfort.
The day after the toothache incident, I went to the health food store and bought several ounces of licorice root, which I could chew as needed. Licorice is the root of the glycyrrhiza glabra plant, a legume that belongs to the same family as beans, peas and soy. It has been used in Chinese medicine since ancient times, as an expectorant to reduce coughing, colds and bronchial infections. It is sold as a tooth powder in India, and chewed as a mouth-freshener in southern Europe. Medical research describes the active ingredient in licorice as glycyrrhizic acid, a powerful chemical compound with anti-inflammatory effects. But it also warns that excessive amounts of the herb can raise blood pressure and cause water retention. Pregnant women should not eat licorice. The available information also cautioned that what appears to be toothache pain can sometimes be the symptom of a more serious ailment, such as heart disease.
Licorice candy is not the best remedy for a toothache. But if you’re not in the vicinity of a well-stocked health food when a toothache strikes, grabbing some off a convenience store shelf can be a lifesaver.