The liquorice root is full of surprises. Chewed as a breath freshener in Italy and a sweet in Sweden (and the north of England), this little brown stick has also been used as a remedy for mouth ulcers for thousands of years.
New research has identified a natural chemical extracted from the liquorice root that could be used to treat Type II diabetes.
Our metabolism is a delicate balance. Insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, regulates levels of glucose and fatty acids in the blood by storing them out of the way in fat and muscle tissue. Some stored compounds can be converted back into glucose when the body needs energy.
Wear and tear on this balance, as our cells age or through diet or stress, can overload our tissues with fatty acids. Fat and muscle cells become unable to soak up excess glucose and in some cases build a resistance to insulin, a hallmark of Type II diabetes.
Recent drug-based therapies aimed to restore the metabolic balance by targeting the wiring of PPARgamma, a receptor protein in the nuclei of many fat cells. PPAR-gamma responds to fatty acids in digested food by activating genes to boost metabolism. The hope was to manipulate PPAR-gamma to lower the level of fatty acids and improve the cells' sensitivity to insulin.
But there was a problem. The synthetic drug rosiglitazone triggers PPAR-gamma very strongly, successfully lowering blood glucose levels but also firing many other genes at the same time. Out of context, some of these genes were linked to unforeseen side-effects such as weight gain, fluid retention and heart disease.
In a recent study in PNAS, Christopher Weidner and colleagues investigated a natural alternative. Amorfruitins, extracted from the edible roots of Amorpha fruticosa (the indigo bush)and Glycyrrhiza foetida (a species of liquorice) are natural activators of PPAR-gamma. Amorfruitins were shown to influence glucose and fatty acid metabolism similarly to rosiglitazone but with more selective targeting of PPAR-gamma, respectful of its powerful role in controlling different sets of genes.
The team, led by Sascha Sauer from Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin showed that amorfruitins decreased insulin resistance in the fat cells of diabetic mice without any observed weight gain.
Amorfruitins also reversed some of the genetic changes brought about by a high-fat diet.
Dr Sauer said. “In view of the rapid spread of metabolic diseases like diabetes, it is intended to develop these substances further so that they can be used on humans in the future.”
Sauer's team have begun to investigate how amorfruitins steer the wiring of PPAR-gamma so effectively. They found differences between the genes expressed by PPAR-gamma in response to rosiglitazone or amorfruitins. This is something of a smoking gun: a first step towards understanding what it is about liquorice, a legume, that gives amorfruitins their remarkable ability to correct wiring inside mammalian cells.

Properties of Liquorice    

  • Liquorice has strong taste, sweets and a bitter aftertaste due to glycyrrhizin (active principle).
  • It's sweetener, expectorant, analgesic and anti-inflammatory.
  • Very useful to treat gastritis because increase mucus and protects the stomach from the gastric juices.

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