What is Wormwood?
Wormwood certainly does not have the most attractive name but it may have got its moniker from its ability to kill intestinal worms and other harmful organisms.
Wormwood or comon wormwood which is also known by its scientific name ‘Artemisia absinthium’ is an herb which grows wild throughout many parts of Europe and also in certain parts of North Africa and Northern Asia. It is now being grown increasingly in North America because of a rise in demand for its medicinal uses. It is closely related to mugwort or armoise but is higher in essential oils. It has many uses as a herbal remedy as we will see.
A Controversial History
Wormwood has something of a controversial history which may even linger on to this day. Its name is synonymous with an alcoholic drink called absinthe which was very popular during the 19th century.
Absinthe for which wormwood was a key ingredient is often associated with artists like Vincent Van Gogh and writers like Edgar Allan Poe and was thought to have contributed towards their untimely deaths. Because of the presence of absinthol and another chemical called thujone, absinthe was thought to cause hallucinations, severe nervous disorders, depression and mental impairment.
As a result absinthe was banned in numerous countries around the world. Recent studies have however showed that the damaging hallucinogenic effects of absinthe were probably exaggerated and it has made a recovery especially in Europe.
Composition of Wormwood
Wormwood gets its therapeutic uses from the presence of volatile oils, absinthin, anabsinthin, organic acids and resins. These compounds also give wormwood its very bitter taste.
It has several medicinal properties including anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, intestinal anthelmintic, febrifuge and stomachic properties. It also has antioxidant abilities which help reverse cellular damage that contribute to the aging process and many diseases.
Health Benefits of Wormwood
Apart from being used as an ingredient in absinthe, wormwood has historically been used to treat various illnesses including digestive conditions, fevers, and dyspepsia and liver conditions. These days it is becoming more and more popular to treat conditions which include the following:
1. Stimulating the Digestive System
Wormwood has traditionally been used to treat many problems relating to the digestive system. It is used to relieve indigestion and also to stimulate better digestion because of its ability to promote the production of bile and support gallbladder and liver health. It is especially effective when it is combined with another digestive herb like ginger or peppermint.
2. For Crohn’s Disease
A German study published in 2007 was conducted to evaluate the ability of an herbal blend containing wormwood as a major ingredient to treat the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. The double blind trial treated the 20 wormwood group members with 500 mg doses three times each day for 10 weeks while the other patients were given a placebo.
The effectiveness of the treatment was based on psychological factors associated with Chron’s sufferers such as a decline in feelings of depression. Those who received the wormwood treatment experienced good improvements in their symptoms with 13 of the 20 patients being totally freed of psychological symptoms. Those in the placebo group actually experienced a worsening of both physical and emotional symptoms. (1)
3. For Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is a very common condition which affects the colon and can cause several nasty symptoms including cramping, bloating, abdominal pains, diarrhea and constipation.
Some people have had success in treating many of these symptoms with wormwood either alone or in combination with other herbal remedies. Research also shows that wormwood combined with other herbs was effective against the symptoms of abdominal complaints like nausea, heartburn and intestinal spasms. (2)
4. To Kill Worms and Parasites
There is evidence that wormwood can destroy harmful parasites which lends credence to one of its traditional uses. People in developing countries can benefit from the far more affordable herbal treatments because of the high cost and limited availability of pharmaceuticals. It is capable of destroying numerous parasites including pinworms and roundworms.
According to research wormwood helps to produce an intestinal environment that is deadly to parasites and other dangerous organisms. (3) (4)
5. To Stimulate Menstruation
Wormwood has natural emmenagogue properties which basically means that it can help stimulate menstruation and help regulate the cycle of menstruation. This may be desirable because herbal emmenagogue preparations like wormwood can be used as an emergency contraceptive or as a natural treatment for infrequent menstruation.
Some women might also choose to induce menstruation early for convenience for example to avoid coinciding with a holiday.
Because of its emmenogogue effects, wormwood should be avoided by pregnant women as it may result in miscarriage.
6. To Relax the Muscles
Wormwood can be taken to relax tension and cramping in your muscles. Its anti-inflammatory effects can also help ease the pain associated with joint inflammation like rheumatism and other forms of arthritis.
7. For Anxiety
Like many herbal remedies, wormwood has mild anti-anxiety effects and many people use it to help overcome the symptoms of stress and anxiety. There is however little in the way of scientific research to confirm its use for anxiety and I am relying on anecdotal evidence.
8. To Stimulate the Appetite
Wormwood has traditionally been uses as a tonic to stimulate the appetite which is especially important following a bout of illness. The recommended amount to help improve your appetite is between 10 and 20 drops of liquid extract mixed into a glass of water and drunk around 15 minutes prior to every meal.
9. Other Benefits
Apart from the benefits we have already mentioned, wormwood is also used to treat malaria and may even have some applications against cancer. Research has demonstrated that an extract from wormwood called artemisin could help destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unaltered. (5)
How to Take It
Wormwood is available in a number of forms including capsules, tinctures, tablet and liquid extract forms. Its oil is also extracted and sold as essential oil. There is insufficient evidence regarding a precise dose but traditionally for indigestion and other digestive problems, it has been taken at around 3 to 5 grams each day as an herbal infusion.
As well as the commercially available forms of wormwood, it is often drunk as a tea. You can make your own home made wormwood brew by following these steps.
- Take around half a teaspoon of crushed, dried wormwood.
- Add your herbs to a cup of boiled water.
- Allow the herbs to seep for around 15 minutes then strain out the herbs.
- You can conceal the bitter taste of the herb by adding a masking agent like peppermint. This will make your decoction more palatable and is also excellent for indigestion and heartburn.
- You can drink up to three cups a day but should not continue to use it for more than 4 weeks at a time.
Wormwood Side Effects
Despite the fact that most wormwood products these days are sold with little to none of the dangerous chemical thujone being present, there are still several potential adverse side effects and you should approach it with caution. These possible side effects include:
- Dermatitis when used topically
- Kidney damage has been reported when a 31 year old male mistakenly drank 10 ml of wormwood essential oil. This led to renal failure and heart disease but the man eventually made a full recovery.
- It may become habit forming and should not be used for more than 4 weeks at a time.
- It may cause nausea, insomnia, tremors and in extreme circumstances seizures.
- People with certain pre-existing conditions like gastric problems and ulcers should not take wormwood because of its potential to cause further irritation.
Wormwood for Pregnant Women
Pregnant women should avoid using wormwood because of its potential to stimulate menstruation which may result in miscarriage. Women who are breastfeeding should also stay on the side of safety and avoid using it.