Jellybean-addicted man gets 'liquorice poisoning'

It's a case of having too much of a good thing: a man with a mystery illness, the cause of his problems too many liquorice jellybeans.

The 51-year-old Canadian man recently showed up at an emergency ward after his symptoms became too much to bear.

He'd been suffering abdominal pain for three days, lost his appetite, was vomiting and had a dry mouth.

Tests results showed he had extremely high blood pressure, but no history of hypertension or other conditions which cause fluctuations in blood pressure.

He also had hypokalemia - low levels of potassium - which can lead to potentially fatal heart arrhythmia.

The unnamed man's case study has been published by the doctors who treated him in the latest edition of journal Postgraduate Medicine.

Doctors eventually figured out the simple answer to his condition, sometimes called 'liquorice poisoning', which saved him from a lifetime of medication.

It turns out he had an insatiable appetite for liquorice-flavoured jellybeans, downing a 50-bean bag every day. His addiction was so strong, he kept eating them in his hospital bed, the study says.

The man was told to stop his dangerous habit and within days, his potassium levels and blood pressure both came back to normal.

Doctors concluded it was caused by liquorice ingredient glycyrrhetinic acid.

Dr Tamara Spaic, an endocrinologist at London's Western University, told the National Post had the cause of the man's condition not been found, he could've faced a life taking a cocktail of medicines.

"There would likely be a need to use multiple medications, which would increase the risk of developing various side-effects, as well as the unnecessary high cost of treatment and regular follow-ups."

While there have been a handful of documented cases in recent years, it is still so rare physicians can miss it or misdiagnose it. 

In fact, just days before Halloween in 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration put out a warning to people to keep their black liquorice consumption in check.

"If you're 40 or older, eating two ounces (56g) of black liquorice a day for at least two weeks could land you in the hospital with an irregular heart rhythm or arrhythmia."

It had this advice for black liquorice lovers:

  • No matter what your age, don't eat large amounts of black liquorice at one time.
  • If you have been eating a lot of black liquorice and have an irregular heart rhythm or muscle weakness, stop eating it immediately and contact your healthcare provider.
  • Black liquorice can interact with some medications, herbs and dietary supplements. Consult a health care professional if you have questions about possible interactions with a drug or supplement you take.

The FDA says many liquorice or liquorice-flavoured products made in the US don't actually contain liquorice, but rather anise oil, which has the same smell and taste.  

Historically, liquorice root has been used in Eastern and Western medicine to treat a number of conditions including heartburn, stomach ulcers, sore throats and coughs, but the National Institutes of Health says there's insufficient data to support its effectiveness.