What do Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso all have in common aside from their incredible painting abilities? These three artists all shared a love of absinthe, a botanical spirit made from wormwood, anise and fennel.
You may have heard of wormwood because of its inclusion in this famous European beverage, but did you know that it also holds an ability to aid many common and serious health concerns?
It’s true. Wormwood is actually used to eliminate intestinal worms, especially roundworms and pinworms. This is exactly why it’s commonly recommended as part of a parasite cleanse.
And it doesn’t stop there. Scientific research also shows that wormwood can even kills cancer cells. Wormwood tea can also be used to help treat anorexia, insomnia, anemia, a lack of appetite, flatulence, stomach aches, jaundice and indigestion.
Wormwood herb is used in alcoholic beverages while the wormwood star is mentioned in the bible.
It’s truly an intriguing plant to say the least, but can this herb really kill parasites and cancer? Studies say yes, and the positive medicinal effects keep on coming.
Of course, there is good reason for caution with wormwood products (like absinthe) as well, but once you learn about thujone, you’ll see why not all wormwood products are created equally.
What Is Wormwood?
What is wormwood exactly? Artemisia absinthium is an odorous, perennial that belongs to the Asteraceae or Compositae family, more commonly known as the daisy family. This artemisia plant releases an aromatic odor and has a spicy, bitter taste.
The wormwood plant is native to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia. Today, it also grows wild in the U.S., most commonly along roads or paths.
Also called shrub wormwood, Artemisia absinthium is a shrubby plant that typically grows to be one to three feet tall. It has gray-green or white stems covered by fine hairs and yellowish-green leaves that are hairy and silky. The leaves of the plant have glands that contain resinous particles where the natural insecticide is stored.
Sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), also known as sweet annie, sweet sagewort, annual mugwort or annual wormwood, is a common type of wormwood native to temperate Asia but naturalized in parts of North America.
Wormwood can be used either fresh or dried. All the aerial portions (stem, leaves and flowers) of the plant have medicinal uses, and wormwood tea is commonly consumed for a range of ailments.
The essential oil is extracted from the leaves and flowering tops by steam distillation. One study of the essential oil of Artemisia absinthium found that it contains at least 28 components representing 93.3 percent of the oil. The main components are β- pinene (23.8 percent) and β- thujone (18.6 percent).
Thujone is the potentially poisonous chemical found in wormwood. Distilling the herb in alcohol increases the thujone concentration, which is what makes absinthe such a debatable liquor of choice.
Wormwood’s biologically active compounds include:
- acetylenes (trans-dehydromatricaria ester, C13 and C14 trans-spiroketalenol ethers, and others)
- ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
- azulenes (chamazulene, dihydrochamazulenes, bisabolene, camphene, cadinene, sabinene, trans-sabinylacetate, phellandrene, pinene and others)
- flavonoids (quercitin 3-glucoside, quercitin 3-rhamnoglucoside, spinacetin 3-glucoside, spinacetin 3-rhamnoglucoside and others)
- lignins (diayangambin and epiyangambin)
- phenolic acids (p-hydroxyphenylacetic, p-coumaric, chlorogenic, protocatechuic, vanillic, syringic and others)
- thujone and isothujone
- sesquiterpene lactones (absinthin, artabsin, anabsinthin, artemetin, artemisinin, arabsin, artabin, artabsinolides, artemolin, matricin, isoabsinthin and others)
Whether you’re using wormwood tea, extract, tincture or ointment, the benefits of this therapeutic herb are vast.
1. Combats Malaria
Malaria is a serious disease caused by a parasite that is transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitoes and invades human red blood cells. Artemisinin is an extract isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood.
Artemisinin is an herbal drug that’s the most powerful antimalarial on the market. It’s known for quickly reducing the number of parasites in the blood of patients with malaria. The World Health Organization recommends artemisinin-based combination therapies as first-line treatment for uncomplicated P. falciparum malaria.
Experiments have shown that artemisinin is effective against the malaria parasite because it reacts with the high levels of iron in the parasite to produce free radicals. The free radicals then destroy the cell walls of the malaria parasite.
2. Fights Cancer Cells
According to several studies, artemisinin can battle iron-enriched breast cancer cells similar to the way it eliminates malaria-causing parasites, making it a potential natural cancer treatment option for women with breast cancer.
Cancer cells can also be rich in iron since they commonly soak it up to facilitate cell division. Researchers in a 2012 study tested samples of breast cancer cells and normal breast cells that had first been treated to maximize their iron content. The cells were then treated with a water-soluble form of artemisinin, an extract of wormwood.
Results were quite impressive. The normal cells showed little change, but within 16 hours, almost all of the cancer cells were dead with only a few normal cells killed. Bioengineer Henry Lai believes that because a breast cancer cell contains five to 15 more receptors than normal, it absorbs iron more readily and hence is more susceptible to artemisinin’s attack.
This makes wormwood a potential anti-cancer therapy and a promising plant for the treatment of cancer, according to researchers. In fact, artemisinin-type drugs have been found to induce tumor cell death and shown to hold anti-proliferative activity on cancerous cell lines.
3. Helps Get Rid of Parasites
Wormwood is used to eliminate intestinal worms, including pinworms, roundworms and tapeworms. Pinworms are the most common worm infection in the U.S. with pinworm eggs spread directly from person to person. Roundworms, or nematodes, are parasites that also infect human intestines, and tapeworms are long, flat worms that infect animal and human intestines.
A 2018 animal study published in the Journal of Helminthology indicates that wormwood induced worm paralysis, death and ultrastructural alternations.
4. Helps Treat Crohn’s Disease
In Germany, a double-blind study examined the effectiveness of an herbal blend containing wormwood at a dose of 500 milligrams three times per day versus a placebo over 10 weeks in 40 patients suffering from Crohn’s disease who were already on a steady daily dose of steroids.
This initial stable dose of steroids was maintained until week 2, and after that a defined tapering schedule was started so that by the beginning of week 10 all the patients were steroid-free.
Researchers found that there was a steady improvement in Crohn’s disease symptoms in 18 patients (90 percent) who received wormwood in spite of the decrease of steroids. After eight weeks of treatment with wormwood, there was almost complete remission of symptoms in 13 (65 percent) patients in this group as compared to none in the placebo group. This remission lasted until the end of the observation period, which was 20 weeks (12 weeks later), and the addition of steroids was not necessary.
The results were truly impressive and suggest wormwood is able to decrease or eliminate the need for steroids in Crohn’s disease patients. Additionally, results indicate that wormwood has positive effects on mood and quality of life, which is not achieved by other standard Crohn’s disease medications.
More recent research has unearthed similar results, with a 2010 study finding wormwood could accelerate healing in Crohn’s patients and further research published in 2020 and 2021 confirming this herb’s use in helping Crohn’s patients.
5. Contains Antimicrobial and Antifungal Abilities
In vitro studies have shown that the essential oils of wormwood have antimicrobial activity. Research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests that wormwood oil exhibits a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity against several bacterial strains, including E. coli and salmonella.
Not only can wormwood kill bacteria, but it’s also been shown to kill fungi. Research shows that essential oil distilled from the aerial parts of Artemisia absinthium inhibited the growth of a very broad spectrum of tested fungi (11 to be exact). The wormwood essential oil also showed antioxidant properties during testing.
Another study published in Planta Medica concludes that A. absinthium oil inhibits the growth of Candida albicans. This is the the most common type of yeast infection found in the mouth, intestinal tract and vagina, and it may affect skin and other mucous membranes.
6. Can Help With SIBO
Many people turn to natural and alternative treatments when it comes to problems with their gastrointestinal health, and for good reason. Studies show that herbal remedies like wormwood tea or capsules are as good or even better at fighting small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or SIBO symptoms.
Today’s typical treatment of SIBO is limited to oral antibiotics with varying rates of effectiveness. A 2014 study had 104 patients who tested positive for newly diagnosed SIBO take either a high dose of rifaximin or an herbal therapy daily for four weeks.
The herbal products were specifically chosen because they contained antimicrobial herbs like wormwood, oregano oil, thyme and berberine extracts, which have been shown to provide broad-spectrum coverage against the types of bacteria most commonly involved in SIBO.
Of the patients who received herbal therapy, 46 percent showed no evidence of SIBO on follow-up tests compared to 34 percent of rifaximin users. Adverse effects reported among those taking rifaximin included anaphylaxis, hives, diarrhea and C. difficile colitis, while only one case of diarrhea and no other side effects were reported in the herbal therapy group.
The study concluded that herbal therapies are at least as effective as rifaximin for eradication of SIBO. Additionally, the herbal therapy with wormwood appears to be just as effective as triple antibiotic therapy for individuals who don’t respond to rifaximin.
How to Use
Wormwood is commercially available at health stores and online as an essential oil, as well as in capsule, tablet, tincture and liquid extract forms. It can also be used in fresh or dry form to make an infusion or tea.
It’s best used in dried form, which contains little, if any, thujone. To make an infusion, follow this wormwood tea recipe:
- Steep a half teaspoon to one teaspoon of dried or fresh wormwood in one cup of boiling water for five to 15 minutes.
- It’s important that you use no more than one teaspoon of the leaves as they’re very strong and bitter. Longer steep time will make for a stronger wormwood tea but also a more bitter tea.
- Wormwood tea should be taken unsweetened to have the best effect, but you can counter the bitterness by adding dried peppermint or anise.
Wormwood tea can be especially helpful for digestion, specifically before heavy meals that may likely cause gas and bloated stomach. Research even suggests that wormwood helps relieve symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
Wormwood tea dosage varies, depending on what you’re using it for. Wormwood tea preparations are typically sipped because the strong, bitter taste is an important component of its therapeutic effect on stomach ailments. It can also be taken as an occasional energy tonic.
For intestinal concerns like worms or parasites, it’s best to take powdered wormwood in pill form. You can also use wormwood and other botanicals in a homemade bitters recipe. Bitters make excellent digestive aids.
Wormwood tea or other products should only be taken under the supervision of a professional. It should always be taken in small doses as directed and for no longer than four weeks at a time.
Side Effects, Allergies and Drug Interactions
Wormwood herb is not meant for long-term use. Make sure you don’t exceed recommended doses because excessive consumption could be highly toxic. It may be best to use wormwood in dried form, which contains little, if any, of the volatile oil thujone.
The FDA lists wormwood unsafe for internal use due to the toxicity of thujone oil. However, it’s considered to be safe when taken by mouth in the amounts commonly found in food and beverages, including bitters and vermouth, as long as these products are thujone-free.
Using wormwood for longer than four weeks or at higher than recommended doses may lead to nausea, vomiting , restlessness, insomnia, vertigo, tremors and seizures.
Wormwood products that contain thujone, like absinthe, can be unsafe when taken by mouth. Absinthe effects/thujone effects can include:
- difficulty sleeping
- muscle breakdown
- kidney failure
- stomach cramps
- urine retention
- numbness of arms and legs
- even death
Don’t take this herb in any form if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. There have been documented abortifacient and emmenagogue effects of wormwood.
If you’re allergic to ragweed and other plants in the Asteraceae/Compositae family, then wormwood may cause an allergic reaction.
If you have porphyria (a group of disorders that result from a buildup of natural chemicals that produce porphyrin in your body), then you should know that the thujone present in wormwood oil might increase your body’s production of chemicals called porphyrins, which could make your porphyria worse.
If you have epilepsy or any other seizure disorder, speak with your doctor before using this herb. The thujone in wormwood cause cause seizures, especially in people who have a tendency toward seizures.
Wormwood is not recommended for people with kidney disorders. The oil might cause kidney failure. If you have kidney concerns, don’t take this herb before talking with your doctor.
It’s not advised to use the essential oil in aromatherapy since it contains an extremely high amount of thujone, which is a convulsant and neurotoxin.
Be cautious, and speak with your doctor before combining wormwood with any anticonvulsant, which is a medication used to prevent seizures. Since these medications and wormwood can both affect brain chemicals, this herb may decrease the effectiveness of anticonvulsants.
Wormwood Interesting Facts
The name wormwood is derived from ancient use of the plant and its extracts as an intestinal anthelmintic, antiparasitic drug that expels parasitic worms and other internal parasites from the body.
In ancient Egyptian times, it was a commonly used medicinal plant, specifically for anal pain, and as an additive to wine. Later on it was used in European folk medicine to induce labor. The plant, when steeped into a strong wormwood tea, has been used traditionally in Europe as well as a bitter stomach stabilizer to stave off indigestion and loss of appetite.
A favorite alcoholic beverage in 19th century France, absinthe was said to be addictive and associated with a collection of serious side effects known as absinthism or irreversible damage to the central nervous system.
Absinthe was made popular by some very well-known writers and artists, such as Ernest Hemingway, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Oscar Wilde. The manic depressive painter van Gogh was addicted to absinthe, and some say his continual drinking of it led to many of his paintings having a green or yellowish tint (due to the thujuone’s hallucinatory effects) — and that the wormwood actually enhanced his epilepsy.
Thujone is the potentially poisonous chemical found in wormwood. Distilling wormwood in alcohol increases the thujone concentration. Thujone-free wormwood extract is currently used as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages like vermouth.
Wormwood, or its derivative chemical components, have famously been mentioned in many a novel, play and in other art forms, from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” to John Locke essays to “Romeo and Juliet.”
There are several Bible references to this herb as well. The word “wormwood” appears several times in the Old Testament, translated from the Hebrew term la’anah (which means “curse” in Arabic and Hebrew).
It’s also spoken of in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation: “The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water — the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.” (Rev 8:10–11)
- Absinthe is a botanical spirit made from wormwood, anise and fennel, but that’s not all wormwood is good for. It’s used to eliminate intestinal worms, especially roundworms and pinworms, and it’s the source of of the key ingredient for the herbal drug artemisinin, which is the most powerful antimalarial on the market.
- It’s also been shown to kill cancer cells and treat anorexia, insomnia, anemia, a lack of appetite, flatulence, stomach aches, jaundice and indigestion.
- Specifically, this herb has been proven to beat malaria, kill breast cancer cells, get rid of parasites, help treat Crohn’s disease, contain antimicrobial and antifungal abilities, and help treat SIBO.
- Wormwood is commercially available at health stores and online as an essential oil, as well as in capsule, tablet, tincture and liquid extract forms. It can also be used in fresh or dry form to make an infusion or tea.
- Wormwood should only be taken under the supervision of a professional. It should always be taken in small doses as directed and for no longer than four weeks at a time.