The cure for diabetes might be … candy?

Scientists have discovered that licorice root, the raw material for licorice candy, may be effective in treating Type 2 diabetes, the Atlantic reports.

A research team at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, has identified a group of natural substances in licorice root called amorfrutins. Using a mouse model, the scientists found that amorfrutins reduce blood sugar levels and inflammation that would otherwise be present in the mice suffering from diabetes. As an added bonus, ingesting the amorfrutins prevented the development of a fatty liver, a common side effect of diabetes and an excessively fat-rich diet.

The scientists also discovered that the amorfrutin molecules bind to a nuclear receptor that plays an important role in fat and glucose metabolism by activating various genes that reduce the concentration of fatty acids and glucose in the blood. The reduced glucose level actually prevented the development of insulin resistance in the mice — blocking the main cause of Type 2 diabetes.

There are already drugs on the market that activate that receptor, but many of them have side effects such as weight gain and cardiovascular problems. Amorfrutins activate the receptor without side effects.

There's just one problem — a person couldn't eat enough licorice whips to get the amount of amorfrutin required for beneficial effects. So the scientists are looking for a way to extract the substance so that it can be concentrated and mass-produced.

“The amorfrutins can be used as functional nutritional supplements or as mild remedies that are individually tailored to the patient,” Sascha Sauer, lead investigator of the study and head of the Otto Warburg Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute, told the Atlantic. The study was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA on April 16.

The next step for the scientists will be testing the efficacy of the amorfrutin extracts in clinical studies on diabetes patients. Diabetes patients are in dire need of a new drug after a pair of drugs currently on the market, Avandia and Actos, were recently restricted by the FDA after they were linked to heart failure and stroke. And, while there are drugs available to control the condition, there are no treatments for Type 2 diabetes that halt the disease's progression.

Licorice root has been used to heal since ancient times. Certain forms have been shown to calm the digestive system and ameliorate respiratory ailments. Studies also have shown it can help prevent tooth decay and gum disease and that it has antibacterial and antiviral properties. Because of all of its beneficial effects, licorice root has been dubbed the “Medicinal plant of 2012.” Awesome.

(Disclaimer: If you want to experiment on yourself, make sure your licorice candy actually contains licorice root extract, not the similarly flavored anise oil. And be aware that it can interact with certain medications if you eat too much of it.)

Follow Samantha Bonar @samanthabonar.

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