The Unexplained: Deadly Cravings

If you are over forty and eat more than two ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks, it can cause irregular heart rhythm, or even death.

I have too much of a fondness for licorice.  I used to rob my piggy bank and hot foot it to the Hiway Drug to buy several long, black, licorice twists from the glass cylinder behind the soda fountain counter.  I would go home and eat them until my teeth turned black.  My mother was disgusted and said I inherited the craving from my grandfather. It must have skipped a generation.

I guess this is why I was intrigued when I ran across an odd medical mystery.  It came from the case studies of Massachusetts General Hospital and happened in September of 2020.

A 54 year old man, a construction worker, was enjoying a meal at a fast food restaurant when he just keeled over.  His heart had stopped.  The crew that arrived did all they could to get a heartbeat.  They gave him IVs, injections, and shocked him.  A faint heartbeat returned.

Sara Marie Hogg

On arrival at Mass General, his blood pressure and heartbeat were too high.

When the labs came back, there was an indication that his potassium was low.  He had no medical history of cardiovascular problems, but they learned that he had been a heroin user in the past and had had Hepatitis C infection that he had never sought treatment for.  Did this figure into the mystery?  Those are serious conditions but they had nothing to do with his untimely collapse.

Doctors on the case decided that it was a food or drug that was causing the deadly drop in his potassium levels.  They quizzed the man’s family members again and learned that he had been eating bags of candy instead of meals – for the past few weeks.  Three weeks prior he had switched to mainly black licorice.  He ate it to excess.

As the man’s organs began to fail, and he produced less and less urine, his family decided against further treatment.  He died within thirty-two hours of his arrival at the renowned hospital.

The FDA has come forward and stated that if you are over forty and eat more than two ounces a day for two weeks, it can cause irregular heart rhythm, or even death.  Black licorice contains glycyrrhizic/glycyrrhetinic acid which can cause a spike in blood pressure and cause electrolyte imbalances.  Potassium levels drop drastically.

Licorice does have beneficial medical properties such antioxidants and antimicrobials.  Some people even abuse licorice because they like the side effects – convinced it lifts their moods, along with aiding digestion and respiration.

Red licorice, cherry and strawberry, don’t contain the bad substance from the licorice root.  Chocolate licorice is also benign.  The construction worker had been eating the red licorice before he switched to black.

I cannot find any figures for the exact number of licorice deaths per year.  It was a great enough concern that several in-depth studies and tests on toxicity were initiated years before the construction worker was stricken down.

One practice has sent a number of people to the hospital.  During Ramadan, when fasting, Egyptians often drink erk soos, a tea made from boiling the licorice root.

If licorice poisoning can be diagnosed quickly, a person can be saved.  Taking a detailed medical history is imperative for a positive outcome.


Please click HERE to find Sara Marie Hogg’s historical mystery, It Rises from the Pee Dee, on Amazon.

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