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Licorice during pregnancy related to health problems for children

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Women who consume licorice during pregnancy is perhaps more likely to have children with cognitive or behavioral problems than mothers who don’t eat a lot of this candy while she is pregnant, a small Finnish study suggests.

Some of the previous lab experiments have linked glycyrrhizin, a natural sweetener in licorice, to changes in the placenta that can make it easier for the stress hormone cortisol to travel from mothers to their developing babies, said lead study author Katri Raikkonen of the University of Helsinki. Some cortisol aids development of the fetus, but too much can change neurological processes and to contribute to the cognitive or behavioral problems later in life, Raikkonen said, per e-mail.

For the current study, the researchers examined the data on 378 children born in Helsinki in 1998 and their mothers, quizzing the women on liquorice consumption after they give birth, and then the assessment of children for developmental problems when they are approximately 13 years old.

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Girls and boys born to mothers who ate a lot of liquorice during pregnancy – researchers defined as an amount that is at least 500 milligrams (0.02 gram) of glycyrrhizin a week scored lower on intelligence tests, had poorer memory and a higher chance of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than children whose mothers consumed little or no licorice during pregnancy, the study found.

Girls also appeared at the start of the puberty earlier when mothers ate a lot of liquorice during pregnancy.

“Our findings suggest that it would be wise to avoid licorice and other foods containing glycyrrhizin during the 40 weeks of pregnancy,” Raikkonen said.

Because licorice root extracts are widely used as sweeteners in foods, beverages and some vegetable products, one 2006 study estimated average glycyrrhizin consumption in the U.S. at somewhere between 1.85 mg 205 mg per day for a 150 pound person.

In the current study, 327 of the children were exposed to none of the licorice in utero or not more than 249 mg of glycyrrhizin per week, researchers report in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The mothers of these children consumed 47 mg of glycyrrhizin per week on average, while they were pregnant.

Another 51 children had mothers who consumed at least 500 mg of glycyrrhizin per week during the pregnancy, or about 845 mg per week on average.

Compared with the children who are exposed to little or no licorice in the womb, children are exposed to a lot of liquorice score of more than 7 age standardised points lower for the estimated general, verbal and performance IQ, and also did worse on tests measuring verbal productivity and the memory.

Children with a high glycyrrhizin exposure was also more than three times higher risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the study found.

Girls with a higher glycyrrhizin exposure in the womb appeared to weigh more and start breast development earlier than girls whose mothers consumed little or no licorice.

Outside the the small size, another limitation of the study is that it is not a controlled experiment designed to prove that licorice consumption during pregnancy directly causes developmental problems in children, researchers note. They also lacked data on the amount of glycyrrhizin in each licorice women ate during pregnancy, or other food or beverage that they might have consumed with glycyrrhizin.

Not all licorice contains a lot of glycyrrhizin, Katherine Keyes, a public health researcher at Columbia University Medical Center in New York said in a telephone interview.

“If you’re going to avoid that something in the pregnancy, there is still much more evidence to avoid alcohol or smoking,” said Keyes, who was not involved in the study. “With licorice consumption, the science is not yet clear.”

“Women are bombarded with during pregnancy with so many things that they can’t and don’t listen, because it’s too much,” Keyes added. “Focusing on alcohol and tobacco is the most important, and focus on other things like drop is less important.”

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