Stroke warning: Popular herbal supplement associated with ‘haemorrhagic stroke’ in study

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There are two main types of stroke: ischaemic strokes and haemorrhagic strokes. The former happens when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. The latter happens when a blood vessel inside the skull bursts and bleeds into and around the brain. The mechanisms may differ but the causes overlap: poor lifestyle decisions can increase the risk of both.

Even seemingly benign decisions can hike your risk of having a stroke, a case study published in the journal Neurohospitalist suggests.

The case study associated Chinese liquorice root – an ancient, medicinal herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its supposed anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial properties – with haemorrhagic stroke.

A 68-year-old Chinese-American woman without previous medical history was presented to the hospital with difficulty speaking and weakness or the inability to move on one side of the body, both of which are key stroke symptoms.

She also had a higher than normal blood pressure.

A CT scan went on to reveal that the woman had an intracranial haemorrhagic stroke.

Performing a meticulous review of her social history revealed that she had been dabbling in traditional Chinese medicine over the last 40 years and occasionally consuming a Chinese herbal supplement containing liquorice Root for a “panoply of sporadic gastrointestinal complaints”.

However, because of a recent two-week bout of indigestion, she increased her consumption to every single day for two weeks straight.

The researchers in the case study posited that her stroke was the result of elevated blood pressure brought on by glycyrrhizin – a compound found in liquorice root.

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According to the British Heart Foundation, glycyrrhizin is “between 30 and 50 times sweeter than sugar and can alter your body’s levels of potassium and sodium, which help regulate body fluid”.

The BHF continues: “Too much glycyrrhizin can therefore lead to problems such as raised blood pressure, fluid retention, muscle weakness and heart rhythm abnormalities (arrhythmia).”

This is significant because the main cause of haemorrhagic stroke is high blood pressure, which can weaken the arteries in the brain and make them more likely to split or rupture, explains the NHS.

It’s important to note that the case study in question is the first of its kind to draw an association between liquorice root and stroke so definitive conclusions cannot be drawn.

However, liquorice root has been linked to high blood pressure – an association that has prompted health bodies to issue a warning to prospective consumers.

US-based health body National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says: “Although licorice root is generally considered safe as a food ingredient, it can cause serious side effects, including increased blood pressure and decreased potassium levels, when consumed in large amounts or for long periods of time.

“Because the composition of licorice products varies, it isn’t possible to definitely say that a particular level of intake is safe or unsafe.

“The effects of licorice on potassium and blood pressure are a particular concern for people with hypertension (high blood pressure) or heart or kidney disease.”

Other causes of stroke

It’s not possible to completely prevent strokes because some things that increase your risk of the condition cannot be changed.

According to the NHS, these include:

  • Age – you’re more likely to have a stroke if you’re over 55, although about one in four strokes happen to younger people
  • Family history – if a close relative (parent, grandparent, brother or sister) has had a stroke, your risk is likely to be higher
  • Ethnicity – if you’re south Asian, African or Caribbean, your risk of stroke is higher, partly because rates of diabetes and high blood pressure are higher in these groups
  • Your medical history – if you have previously had a stroke, transient ischaemic attack (TIA) or heart attack, your risk of stroke is higher.

“But it’s possible to significantly reduce your risk of having a stroke by making lifestyle changes to avoid problems such as atherosclerosis and high blood pressure,” notes the health body.

It adds: “You should also seek medical advice if you think you may have an irregular heartbeat.”

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