Mugwort: A Weed with Potential

It's a yellow dye, an insect repellant, a culinary consort, and a possible treatment for conditions ranging from flatulence to infertility.

Not bad for something many Americans would consider a noxious weed.

But if mugwort is the Rodney Dangerfield of the plant world in the United States, it gets more respect in other parts of the world, where it's been used for centuries.

A member of the daisy family, mugwort is native to Asia and Europe. It can reach heights of 6 feet, and has yellow or reddish-brown flowers in the summer. Its leaves have silvery fuzz on their undersides. It has a sage-like smell and a slightly bitter taste.

It's also related to ragweed and may cause allergies similar to ragweed. This may help explain why American gardeners try to kill it when possible.

In the past, though, mugwort was revered. Roman soldiers placed mugwort in their sandals before marching to ward off fatigue. It was thought to protect people from wild animals and evil spirits. People placed it under their pillows to induce vivid dreams, and planted it around their houses and gardens to repel moths.

Did You Know?
One form of moxibustion involves direct contact with the skin, with scarring. However, it’s not common practice in the U.S. Most practitioners perform indirect moxibustion, where dried mugwort is burned just above the skin or on a layer of salt or garlic.

An Ancient Medication

In traditional Asian medicine, mugwort or wormwood is used in a process called moxibustion. Mugwort or wormwood leaves are formed into sticks or cones about the size and shape of a cigar, then burned on or over an acupuncture point.

Moxibustion has been practiced for more than 3,000 years in China. Advocates claim it can strengthen and warm a patient's blood and life energy, and treat inflammations and cancers.

Moxibustion is also used to treat menstrual cramping and to help a fetus in the breech position turn. According to a Chinese study, the practice does appear to increase fetal movements and help them turn to the normal head-down position. However, many of theses studies were poorly controlled, and more studies are needed to support these claims.

Mugwort is also used to stimulate women's menstrual cycles. It can bring on delayed menstruation, and was used in the past to induce abortions. Because of the potential risks, pregnant and breast-feeding women are advised to avoid the herb.

In European and American herbal practices, mugwort is used to treat stomach and intestinal problems such as colic, gas, and diarrhea. It's also used to ease headaches, nosebleeds, chills and fever, nerve problems, and insomnia. Users also claim it has antibacterial and antifungal properties. These claims remain unstudied, and this herb is not approved by the Germany’s Commission E agency.

Despite these claims, most research on mugwort has focused on its side effects rather than its medical promise, according to the American Cancer Society. Mugwort can cause allergic reactions leading to sneezing and sinus-related symptoms, and can also cause contact dermatitis, or rashes, in sensitive people.

How Is It Used?

In the United States, mugwort is sold as a dietary supplement and homeopathic preparation and is generally considered safe. However, people with allergies to fruits such as peaches and apples, vegetables such as celery and carrots, sunflowers, and several other plants should avoid it.

It's available as dried leaves, extracts, tinctures, teas, and pills. It can be used as a poultice. It’s also available as an herbal incense, but many U.S. cities and states have outlawed these products.

There are no proven safe or effective doses of mugwort. Its use by children isn't recommended.

If You Want to Try Mugwort

In Europe, mugwort was used as a beer flavoring before hops were cultivated. It also is used as a flavoring for fish and meats, including the traditional German Christmas goose.

Mugwort is also used as a flavoring in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dishes. In Japan, it's used in desserts and in several types of rice cakes, and in Korean cooking it's an ingredient in pancakes, soups, and salads.

Talk to your healthcare provider first if you want to try mugwort as a complementary health approach. Always use herbal supplements under their supervision or that of someone trained in herbal medications. Information on the credentials and licensing of herbalists is available on the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.