Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Literature Review: Benefits and Dangers of Wormwood

Wormwood, otherwise known as Artemisia absinthium, is an herb used in the alcoholic beverage, absinthe.
Image by FelinusNoir

Taking wormwood as an herbal supplement can be both beneficial and dangerous. Take wormwood only under a doctor's care.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned to my alternative healing doctor that I was having trouble with my stomach. I was very bloated and uncomfortable, among other things. Embarrassingly enough, he determined I most likely had a parasite, so he sent me home with some herbal supplements to kill and flush the worms: clove, garlic, and wormwood. In an effort to forget about the "ick" factor, I decided to do some research about the herb with which I was the least familiar, wormwood.

Wormwood, scientifically dubbed in Latin, Artemisia absinthium, has been used to help with stomach ailments since antiquity. However, regardless of its long history and the positive results the combination of herbs had for me, a cursory review of the literature seemed, overall, to yield inconsistent information about wormwood's dangers and benefits.

Wormwood Basics

Mosby's Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine offers a definition and brief medicinal description of wormwood, both the good and the bad. Somewhat confusing because of the use of medical terminology, Mosby's states that wormwood can be used as an "anthelmintic, bacteriostatic, antispasmodic, carminative," for "flow of bile, menstrual irregularities, febrifuge," as a  "sedative," for "stimulation of physiologic processes, general health, joint inflammation, digestion; nutrient absorption, anorexia nervosa, antitumor activity, wound healing, muscle sprain, gall bladder dysfunction," and "liver dysfunction." On the other hand, the entry also warns that it may "cause mental deterioration; may damage nervous system; and may be toxic in large quantities," which is consistent with the warnings I read in many additional sources. None of the sources I reviewed cited any studies that pinpoint the amount of wormwood that might cause a toxic reaction.

Wormwood Studies

In an article in Better Nutrition in 2007, author Jack Challem categorizes wormwood as a "bitter," or a bitter herb. In this article he shares data to support that bitter herbs can help alleviate acid indigestion. "Reinhard Sailer, MD, a medicinal herbalist," he states, "conducted a clinical trial on bitter herbs at University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland. He used bitter herbs to treat 89 patients with dyspepsia (acid indigestion). Symptoms decreased by an average of 74 percent, with the effectiveness rated as 2.9 on a scale in which three points was 'good.' Only two people stopped taking the bitter herbs because of the taste, and no other side effects were reported." Although these seem like numbers that would make people who suffer from "dyspepsia, upset stomach, heartburn and flatulence" jump for joy, Challem does not supply complete information or a reference for this study in his article. There are no dates listed, and he makes no mention of which bitter herbs were studied. As for Sailer's study, itself, I also find that a sample size of 89 is inadequate. Most disappointing of all, even in our university databases I was unable to find follow-up information for Dr. Sailer's study. Without valid and sound evidence, I cannot accept that Challem's article truly provides insight into the benefits of wormwood.

Challem's article and Sailer's study are not the only sources that lack crucial elements of sound and valid methodology. Other recent clinical studies include a study of the effects of wormwood on Crohn's disease and a study on its effects on uveal melanoma (Nova Herbal Supplements Inc., n.d.). Again, even though the studies suggest that wormwood was effective in the treatments of these diseases, the sample sizes are woefully small. The uveal melanoma study relies on an extended study of only one patient. Studies on the treatment of Crohn's disease have sample sizes of only 20 or 40 patients.

Wormwood in Absinthe

Many of the articles I found while researching wormwood are related to the alcoholic drink, absinthe. Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary defines wormwood as "A toxic substance, absinthium, obtained from Artemisia absinthium. It was used in certain alcoholic beverages (absinthe), but because of its toxicity such use is prohibited in most countries." The benefits and dangers of wormwood as an herbal supplement should not be confused with the dangers of absinthe, but the history of wormwood-based absinthe is interesting to note.

Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia suggests that some might argue that the opium-like effects of absinthe, made dangerous specifically by the thujone substance found in wormwood, contributed to the production of art in the early 1800s and early 1900s by such famous artists as van Gogh, Picasso, and Rimbaud. Regardless of this cultural benefit, the dangers associated with thujone eventually led to a ban on beverages that contain the substance. The writers state:  "By 1903, the national Academy of Medicine had declared absinthe to be the most dangerous of all substances. Medical observation had linked absinthe consumption to a wide range of pathological conditions, including hallucinations, convulsions, and a violent type of insanity. Doctors and social scientists drew up catalogs of violent crimes and homicides apparently committed under the influence of absinthe" (2003, pg. 1).  This is in line with the Mosby's Dictionary warning that wormwood might cause "mental deterioration" and a "toxic reaction."

Wormwood Herb, A Review of the Literature

All in all, the information available about wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, is somewhat inconsistent. Although many sources agree there may be benefits to using wormwood as a medicinal herb, there are just as many that warn against the dangers of an overabundance of wormwood or the element once used in absinthe, thujone. I took the wormwood supplement only under the care of a doctor and had positive results, but based on my review of the literature, it is certainly something I will never take without the advice of a doctor.


  • Absinthe. (2003). In Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://ezp.lirn.net/form?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.credoreference.com/entry/abcalc/absinthe
  • Challem, Jack (2007, February 01). Bitter herbs for better digestion. Better Nutrition, (2), 22, Retrieved from http://elibrary.bigchalk.com
  • Nova Herbal Supplements Inc. (n.d.). Recent Clinical studies with wormwood. Retrieved from http://www.noorherbals.com/studies.html
  • Spices and Flavorings. (2000). In Cambridge World History of Food. Retrieved from http://ezp.lirn.net/form? qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.credoreference.com/entry/cupfood/ ii_f_1_spices_and_flavorings
  • wormwood. (2009). In Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. Retrieved from http://ezp.lirn.net/form?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.credoreference.com/ entry/tcmd/wormwood
  • wormwood. (2005). In Mosby's Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Retrieved from http://ezp.lirn.net/form?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.credoreference.com/entry/ mosbycompmed/wormwood

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
Originally published Jul 17, 2011 by Amy Lynn Hess.

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