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Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is an herb that’s prized for its distinctive aroma, herbaceous flavor, and purported health benefits (
While native to Europe, it grows readily across various climates, including parts of Asia, Africa, South America, and the United States.
It has velvety white or greenish-silver stems, yellow-green leaves, and bulbous flowers that are bright or pale yellow. All parts of the plant have been used in traditional medicinal practices for hundreds of years (
It gained notoriety from its use in absinthe, a French liqueur that was a favorite of many 19th-century artists, including Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh — and purported to cause numerous adverse effects (
This article provides a detailed look at wormwood, reviewing its benefits and uses, dosage information, and potential downsides.
Compounds and chemical properties
Wormwood is typically taken as an extract or tea. Its oil is made from the stems and leaves of the plant, whereas an extract or tincture may use the entire plant (
This compound occurs in two forms — alpha- and beta-thujone, which differ at the molecular level. Although these differences are small, they’re meaningful because alpha-thujone is considered more toxic. It’s also the primary active ingredient in wormwood (
Thujone is thought to excite your brain by blocking gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that has calming effects on the central nervous system.
Wormwood’s most notable plant compound is thujone, which has some benefits but can be toxic in excess.
Benefits and uses of wormwood
In addition to its use in absinthe and other spirits, wormwood has many applications in non-Western medicinal practices, including Traditional Chinese medicine.
Although the drink’s high alcohol and thujone contents may play a minor role in these effects, this has not been confirmed by formal research. Thus, its historical associations with these mental and physical conditions are not well understood (
May alleviate pain
For example, this herb may help relieve osteoarthritis, a painful condition resulting from joint inflammation.
In a 4-week study in 90 adults with knee osteoarthritis, applying a 3% wormwood skin ointment 3 times daily helped improve both pain levels and physical function. All the same, it didn’t reduce stiffness (
It should be noted that the plant itself should never be directly applied to the skin, as its compounds are too concentrated and can result in painful burns (
Currently, there’s not enough research to determine whether teas or extracts of wormwood also reduce pain.
May fight parasitic infections
Yet, the evidence for this specific application is largely anecdotal.
Thus, more comprehensive studies are necessary.
Boasts antioxidant properties
Nonetheless, more research on this compound’s properties is needed.
May fight inflammation
Artemisinin is thought to inhibit cytokines, which are proteins secreted by your immune system that promote inflammation (
Studies suggest that wormwood may help relieve Crohn’s disease, which is characterized by inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract. Its symptoms may include diarrhea, fatigue, abdominal cramps, and other digestive issues.
In one study in 40 adults with this condition, those taking a 500-mg wormwood supplement 3 times daily had fewer symptoms and a reduced need for steroids after 8 weeks, compared with those in a placebo group (
Keep in mind that further research is needed.
Wormwood has been associated with many benefits, such as alleviating pain and inflammation and fighting oxidative stress and parasitic infections. However, more scientific research is necessary.
Dosage and safety information
Due to a lack of research, no specific dosage guidelines for wormwood exist.
At the same time, various governmental institutions have placed restrictions on wormwood products, as its compounds can produce toxic effects.
For instance, the European Union (EU) limits foods prepared with wormwood to 0.23 mg of thujone per pound (0.5 mg/kg), while the threshold for alcoholic beverages like absinthe is 16 mg per pound (35 mg/kg) (3, 21).
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restricts any commercial product containing thujone to 10 parts per million (ppm) or less. This amount is considered negligible and thus safe for most populations (3, 21,
Keep in mind that wormwood tea and extracts aren’t regulated by the FDA. Thus, they don’t fall under these regulations and harbor significantly more thujone.
If you’re unsure how much to take, it’s best to speak to your medical provider.
Precautions and possible side effects
Vulnerable populations and people with certain conditions may want to avoid wormwood. These conditions include:
- Pregnancy. You shouldn’t take wormwood if you’re pregnant, as it may cause miscarriage (
- Breastfeeding and early childhood. Women who are breastfeeding and children should avoid this herb due to a lack of safety information.
- Epilepsy. Thujone stimulates the brain and has been known to cause seizures. Wormwood may also decrease the effectiveness of common anti-seizure medications, such as gabapentin and primidone (
- Heart disease. Taking this herb with the heart disease medication warfarin may cause intestinal bleeding (
- Kidney problems. Wormwood is toxic to the kidneys and may increase your risk of kidney failure (
- Certain allergies. If you’re allergic to members of the Asteraceae family, such as ragweed and marigolds, you may also react to wormwood, which is in the same botanical family (
High doses of wormwood may result in digestive upset, kidney failure, nausea, vomiting, and seizures. However, you’re unlikely to experience these side effects if you’re taking it in small doses, such as those found in tea (
Very large amounts of this herb and other thujone-containing products can be fatal, though its lethal dose in humans has not been established (28).
Furthermore, it can cause burns if applied directly to your skin. If using it topically, be sure to only use it as an ointment or lotion (
Finally, you shouldn’t take any form of wormwood regularly for over 4 weeks. This duration is considered long term, and the herb’s long-term safety and side effects are unknown.
You should avoid wormwood if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking certain medications. Additionally, people with epilepsy and kidney problems shouldn’t take it. Its long-term safety is unknown.
Wormwood stems, leaves, and flowers are usually dried for brewing into a tea. Plus, the herb can sometimes be found in supplement form and herbal blends.
For application on the skin, it’s extracted into an essential oil and diluted into lotions or ointments.
You can purchase dried wormwood — as well as capsules, extracts, and tinctures made from it — online.
Keep in mind that these products aren’t regulated by the FDA, so you should look for third-party verification on the label. This means that the supplement has been tested and is free of contaminants and hidden ingredients.
Trusted testing laboratories include NSF International, ConsumerLab.com, and USP.
You may also purchase the plant or its seeds to grow in your garden.
Wormwood is available in various forms, such as herbal tea, tincture, extract, ointment, and lotion.
The bottom line
Wormwood is a bitter herb known for being an ingredient in absinthe.
While it isn’t hallucinogenic, its plant compound thujone can be toxic and even fatal in large amounts.
All the same, wormwood may offer numerous benefits when taken in moderation. These include fighting inflammation and parasitic infections, as well as relieving pain.
People who have epilepsy or are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking certain medications should avoid wormwood.
As with any supplement, you should speak to your healthcare provider before using wormwood, especially because its long-term effects and specific dosage guidelines are not known.