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Wormwood

Botanical name: Artemisia absinthium

Photo

© Steven Foster

Parts used and where grown

The wormwood shrub grows wild in Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. It is now cultivated in North America as well. The leaves and flowers, and the oil obtained from them, are all used in herbal medicine.

Wormwood has been used in connection with the following conditions (refer to the individual health concern for complete information):

Science Ratings Health Concerns
2Stars

Irritable bowel syndrome (in combination with ginger, bupleurum, schisandra, dan shen, and other extracts)

1Star

Gallbladder inflammation

Indigestion

Parasites

Poor appetite

3Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2Stars Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

Historical or traditional use (may or may not be supported by scientific studies)

Wormwood is perhaps best known because of the use of its oil to prepare certain alcoholic beverages, most notably vermouth and absinthe. Absinthe, popular in the 19th century in Europe, caused several cases of brain damage and even death and was banned in most places in the early 20th century.1 Wormwood oil continues to be used as a flavoring agent for foods, although in much smaller amounts than were found in absinthe.

As a traditional medicine, wormwood was used by herbalists as a bitter to improve digestion, to fight worm infestations, and to stimulate menstruation.2 It was also regarded as a useful remedy for liver and gallbladder problems.

Active constituents

The aromatic oil of wormwood contains the toxins thujone and isothujone. Very little of this oil is present in ordinary wormwood teas or tinctures.3 Also existent in the plant are strong bitter agents known as absinthin and anabsinthin. These stimulate digestive and gallbladder function.4 Modern herbal medicine rarely uses wormwood alone. It is typically combined with herbs such as peppermint or caraway to treat heartburn and even irritable bowel syndrome. Clinical trials are lacking to support the use of wormwood for any indication, however.

How much is usually taken?

A wormwood tea can be made by adding 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (2.5 to 5 grams) of the herb to 1 cup (250 ml) of boiling water, then steeping for ten to fifteen minutes.5 Many doctors recommend drinking three cups (750 ml) each day. Tincture, 10–20 drops in water, can be taken ten to fifteen minutes before each meal.6 Either preparation should not be used consecutively for more than four weeks.7

Are there any side effects or interactions?

Longer-term use (over four weeks) or intake of amounts higher than those recommended can cause nausea, vomiting, insomnia, restlessness, vertigo, tremors, and seizures.8 Thujone-containing oil or alcoholic beverages (absinthe) made with the oil is strictly inadvisable—the oil is addictive and may cause brain damage, seizures, and even death.9 Short-term use (two to four weeks) of a wormwood tea or tincture has not resulted in any reports of significant side effects. One study found there were no side effects when using less than 1 ml tincture three times per day for as long as nine months to promote digestive function.10 Nevertheless, consult with a healthcare professional knowledgeable in herbal medicine before taking wormwood. Wormwood is not recommended during pregnancy and breast-feeding.11

At the time of writing, there were no well-known drug interactions with wormwood.

References:

1. Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 1–3.

2. Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 1–3.

3. Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. Gothenburg, Sweden: Ab Arcanum, 1988, 79–81.

4. Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, et al. (eds). The Complete Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Boston, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998, 232–3.

5. Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. Gothenburg, Sweden: Ab Arcanum, 1988, 79–81.

6. Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. Gothenburg, Sweden: Ab Arcanum, 1988, 79–81.

7. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A. American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997, 15.

8. Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 1–3.

9. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A. American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997, 15.

10. Yarnell E, Heron S. Retrospective analysis of the safety of bitter herbs with an emphasis on Artemisia absinthium L (wormwood). J Naturopathic Med 1999;9:in press.

11. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A. American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997, 15.

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