Wormwood: History, Health Benefits and Warnings

Wormwood was traditionally used to treat worm infections, and while that health claim is still largely unproven, wormwood actually does have several health benefits, including helping those with indigestion issues. Read on to find out just what medical conditions wormwood has been scientifically proven to aid, where it comes from, and what are its possible side effects.

What Is the History of Wormwood?

Wormwood is from the daisy family of plants (Asteraceae), scientific name Artemisia absinthium L. or common wormwood. Some other common names for wormwood include green ginger, ajenjo (in Spanish), armoise (French), wermut (German), and absinthe (well known as the potent green alcoholic spirit made from the wormwood shrub, and well liked by 19th century-born artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Wilde). Native to Europe and naturalized to large parts of North America, wormwood is a perennial shrub with a distinct sage smell and a bitter taste.

Wormwood is a cousin to mugwort and the origin of the liqueur vermouth (pronunciations of wormwood led to the name, from “wormwood” to the German “wermwut,” pronounced “vər-mo͞oth′” and then spelled “vermouth”), though it’s no longer used in most commercial vermouth recipes today.

Wormwood has been used as an aphrodisiac, an insect repellent, a flavoring agent in alcoholic beverages (thujone-free wormwood), and a fragrance in perfumes, cosmetics, and soaps. However, it’s the digestive aid provided by wormwood which has the most scientific backing, including helping with Crohn’s disease, gall bladder disease, dyspepsia, intestinal spasms, stomach upset, and loss of appetite. Wormwood has been used in traditional European, ancient Greek, and Chinese medicine as wormwood tea, tincture, and essential oil of wormwood.

Wormwood: history, health benefits, and warnings.

The Potential Health Benefits of Wormwood

While wormwood is still largely unexplored territory, there have been some studies done that indicate where wormwood’s greatest medicinal powers lie.

1. Digestion Aid

This is a classic use of wormwood. In one small study done in 2014, researchers were able to find hard evidence to back up wormwood’s digestive power. Twelve participants were given water with wormwood extract mixed in, 12 others were given a water and gentian mixture (another bitter herb), while the 14-person control group was given a placebo mixture.

The findings showed that wormwood promoted the cephalic phase response, which includes salivating when you smell, taste, or even see food—it’s the physiological response your body has when it’s time for you to eat. One of the other aspects of the cephalic phase response is to increase production of certain stomach enzymes that help promote healthy digestion, and in this way wormwood has been shown to aid and stimulate digestion.

2. Crohn’s Disease Management

Research regarding wormwood and Crohn’s disease shows even more potential for wormwood’s use in gut health. Herbal supplements like SedaCrohn are made from wormwood and have been studied for their effect on Crohn’s patients. In fact, one study showed a “near complete remission” for 65% of the participants who took it, and another study found indications that wormwood helped accelerate healing in the gut.

A meta-analysis done in 2015 on 27 distinct studies showed that wormwood was significantly more effective at helping Crohn’s patients reach remission and stay there than was a placebo. While evidence of this benefit is still inconsistent regarding herbal remedies (due in no small part to the lack of funding available for natural medicines), there is nevertheless some proof that patients have been helped, not hurt, by wormwood.

3. Pain Relief

The anti-inflammatory effects of wormwood mean that it has the potential for pain relief and pain management in chronic inflammatory conditions. One 2016 randomized trial on participants with osteoarthritis of the knee and hip found that the group taking 150 milligrams of wormwood extract 2 times a day for 12 weeks experienced significant pain reductions. While the findings are preliminary, they still hold great promise for those living with chronic inflammatory pain conditions.

4. Malaria Treatment

It may seem like a bit of an outlier, but wormwood and wormwood tea have been found to effectively treat malaria. In 2012, a Ugandan community was seen relying on wormwood for malaria treatment, and researchers came to understand that was helping to prevent repeat episodes of malaria in the patients.

Another study from 2017 found that wormwood tablets could even help treat drug-resistant malaria in those who were down to their last resort. While doctors don’t recommend using wormwood alone as a malaria treatment, and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warns against relying on natural remedies for prevention, wormwood has still been shown to help those who cannot be otherwise helped by medical drugs, including the drug artemisinin, which is itself a derivative of wormwood and a fully approved anti-malarial medication.

5. Antifungal and Antimicrobial Abilities

Wormwood oil has been shown to provide a wide range of antimicrobial uses, including an ability to help neutralize bacterial strains like E. coli and Salmonella, the cause of more than 1 million food-borne illnesses each year just in the United States. About 19,000 of those cases resulted in hospitalization, and 380 in death (especially among more vulnerable populations like the very young, the very old, and the immunocompromised).

E. coli infections lead to conditions like UTIs, diarrhea, and even pneumonia, and not only does wormwood oil effectively kill these bacteria, but it’s also been shown to inhibit fungi growth in at least 11 specific cases, including Candida albicans, a yeast found in the mouths and intestinal tracts of humans. This yeast can sometimes overgrow to the point of contributing to leaky-gut syndrome, vaginal yeast infections, and skin and mucosal infections.

Wormwood plant leaves

The Possible Side Effects of Wormwood

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers wormwood unsafe because of the neurotoxic potential of the volatile oil thujone (the component that made absinthe a mind-altering drug). Wormwood derivatives without thujone content are considered generally safe, but because wormwood is a documented abortifacient, it should not be used by pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Side effects of natural, fully potent wormwood could include absinthism, which is a syndrome with adverse effects like digestive disorder, delirium, vertigo, numbness and trembling in the limbs, thirst, paralysis, and possible death. If any of these symptoms arrive after use of a wormwood product, consult a health care professional immediately.

Wormwood is also not recommended to be used alongside acetaminophen (Tylenol), GI medications, phenobarbital, or warfarin due to instances of interference with those meds and because when combined they may cause kidney damage, rhabdomyolysis, or kidney failure.

Wormwood: Wonders and Warnings

Wormwood has a lot to offer for one unassuming shrub. Not only can it intoxicate the mind if used to make absinthe, but it can also help cure the body of infections and bacteria. A real two-sided coin, wormwood has dangerous properties but also certain healthcare potentials that cannot be ignored. Now that you better understand the history, uses, and hesitations surrounding wormwood, you can make your own call about it.

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