What exactly is mugwort? Well, outside of sounding like it should be in the pages of the “Harry Potter” series, it’s a root-based perennial plant that goes by many different names. Most importantly, it’s been shown to help fight serious diseases and maladies, from cancer to joint pain.
You may often hear mugwort referred to by other names, such as felonherb, green ginger or common (wild) wormwood. (1) It is sometimes confused for St. John’s wort (because of the name) or chrysanthemum weed (because of its appearance). You can find varieties of mugwort growing natively in Asia, Northern Europe and parts of North America — it’s so common that it may even be growing on the outskirts of your yard right now, and you didn’t even know it!
What Is Mugwort?
The plant’s technical title, Artemisia vulgaris, comes from “Artemis,” the name of a Greek moon goddess and considered to be a patron of women. Meanwhile, “vulgaris” ties back to the first of many of mugwort’s uses that we’ll be talking about: Historically, it was used as a herbal inhibitor for women’s menstrual cycles and helped provide menopause relief.
In some cases, mugwort was successful in a method called moxibustion, which used most notably for reversing the breach position of fetuses before birth and alleviating joint pain. (2b, 3) The leaves of one species of the plant, A. douglasiana, has been used as a preventative method before being exposed to poison oak, plus it’s been used as a natural bug repellant. (4)
The plant contains high levels of antioxidants, which help to alleviate digestive and intestinal issues like ulcers, vomiting, nausea and constipation. It’s even been known to elicit intense and vivid dreams. (5) Components of mugwort are also being tested and studied as a possible alternative treatment for some cancers. Let’s dive into more details and history behind all of the benefits of mugwort.
1. Reversing Breech Birth Position
In most cases, when a baby is just a few weeks shy of entering the world, the head of the baby will naturally begin moving toward the birth canal to prepare for delivery. But in approximately 1 out of every 25 full-term births, that does not happen. This is called a breech birth. (6)
Ancient Chinese medicine starting using a method called moxibustion as a natural solution to this dangerous situation. So what is moxibustion? The leaves of the mugwort plant are formed into a short stick or cone and burned over the points of acupuncture, which inhibits the release of energy and circulates blood by creating a warming effect on the acupuncture site.
When moxibustion is being used to reverse a fetus in breech, the procedure stimulates a specific acupuncture point, BL67, located near the toenail of the fifth toe, creating blood circulation and energy that result in an increase in fetal movements. According to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, 75 percent of 130 fetuses reversed positions after the mother was treated with moxibustion. (7)
2. Soothing and Treating Joint Pain
Mugwort in conjunction with the moxibustion technique not only succeeds with stimulating fetal movement inside the womb — it’s also a successful therapy for certain forms of arthritis.
In one study, the same ancient Chinese technique was blind-tested on participants with osteoarthritis. Out of 110 patients, half were given the real-deal moxibustion treatment, and the other half were given the placebo version three times a week for six weeks. Neither the patients, not the practitioners knew which patient was receiving which treatment.
The results? At the end of the treatment, there was a 53 percent reduction in pain for participants in the moxibustion group and only a 24 percent reduction in pain within the group who received the placebo. Knee function also improved 51 percent in the moxibustion group and only increased 13 percent in the placebo group. The effects of the therapy were not necessarily permanent, but the results are certainly promising. (8)
3. Flavoring Beers of the Past and the Present
Most beer brewers use hops, or Humulus lupulus, to make their beer. But about 1,000 years ago, medieval brewers were using an alternate concoction of herbs called gruit, which included mugwort as one of the main ingredients. (9)
In fact, the English have a slightly different memory how the name “mugwort” came about than the ancient Greeks or Chinese. Because the gruit beer was served and enjoyed in a mug, the herb is said to have gotten its name because of that obvious connection.
The flowers are dried and boiled with other herbs to make a version of a herbal tea, then added to the liquid to create the flavor of the brew. Some say that the herbal mixture results in a sour flavor.
Like so many trends, this medieval trend of brewing beer has actually made a comeback. Certain popular breweries are creating gruit blends, including New Belgium, Dogfish Head, and gobs of other microbreweries around the world. There are even lots of recipes for brewing your own gruit beer. (11)
4. Attacking Cancerous Cells and Malaria
Completed and current ongoing studies on the possible uses of mugwort indicate that links to the fundamental component of the plant, artemisinins, as being toxic to certain cancer cells. Relatedly, mugwort is a naturally occurring anti-malarial.
As scientists have continued to study the components that effect malaria, they’ve found links to artemisinins targeting mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum and the lysosome. Cancer cells contain a higher level of iron then healthy cells do, which in turn, makes them more susceptible to the toxicity in artemisinin.
In one study, scientists paired the iron heavy cancerous cells with the artemisinin. Once the combination was inside the cells, the result was enhanced toxicity — which means, more potential killing capacity towards the cancer. In the exact words of the hypothesis: “This tagged-compound could potentially develop into an effective chemotherapeutic agent for cancer treatment.” (12)
While this isn’t a proven method for treating cancer yet, it’s certainly something to be on the lookout for as the results of more studies and research unfold. (13)
How to Spot It
The plant itself can reach up to six feet at its highest and has often been confused with a hemlock, but you can tell the difference by a few simple factors: the height, stem color and its flowers. For example, hemlocks grow up to 12 feet, which is unheard of for a mugwort plant. The stem of a hemlock is known to be green with purple splotches, but mugwort stems are purely purple. Hemlock’s flowers are white with 5 petals in an upside down umbrella shape, while mugwort flowers are a pale yellow or red, wrapping around the stalk in an alternating pattern around it.
Mugwort leaves also grow down the purplish, grooved stem in an alternating pattern, and their undersides are a lighter hue or green with a fuzzy, silvery layer. If you live in the Eastern region of the U.S., and you’re near some rocky soil, an embankment or a stream, you might even have wild mugwort near your place of residence. (14)
If you’re looking to purchase mugwort, there are quite a few forms to choose from. We’ve already talked about most of these, but please make sure that you’re purchasing from a credible source and always consult your doctor before use. Here are some of your options:
- Essential oils
- Dried herb
- Smudge sticks
Risks and Side Effects
Before we come close to wrapping up, I want to make sure that you are aware of possible allergies and side effects of the mugwort plant. There are many common allergies to this specific family of plants, and not all of them are mentioned here. Be sure to consult your doctor before use.
Below I’ve listed several allergens that have been tied to mugwort due to similar protein compounds. Most people who are allergic to mugwort pollen only develop a few food sensitivities from this list, so you don’t need to avoid all of these nutritious foods, just remain aware of how you may react to them. (15)
- Pine nuts (chestnuts, hazelnuts)
- Sunflower seeds
- Unpeeled, raw carrots
- Raw apples
- Unpeeled peaches
- Fennel seeds
These are not the only common allergies tied to mugwort. There are many other closely related allergens. Do not consume or topically use mugwort if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to be pregnant without consulting your doctor.
Now that you know how to spot mugwort, and you’ve heard all about its history, you’re fully equipped to put some of this historically rich plant’s natural remedies to good use. Since the days of the Bible, this is one herb that’s uses go a very long way.
We have discussed many simple ways that this one plant can aid in relieving your pain, help you avoid invasive surgeries, soothe your aching joints, settle your stomach, balance your mood and potentially be a new way to fight cancer — and there’s a possibility it could even be growing in your yard!
Mugwort could be a great alternative to prescription medications and toxic chemicals in treating any of the ailments we’ve discussed, so it’s definitely worth asking: “Would this be a good fit for healing my body?”