Common Names

Botanical Name
Artemisia absinthium

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What is it?

In herbal medicine we use the leaves of Wormwood, a tough and long-lived plant that has an intense (actually rather pleasant) odour and a truly unforgettable taste. The whole Wormwood plant has an unusual grey-white colour and is covered with a soft downy kind of fur.
Wormwood looks weird, it tastes weird and its name could hardly be less appealing but this is a plant with a tremendous medical history and one that is still revered in herbal traditions today.




How has it been used?

Wormwood has been extensively used to kill worms and parasites and of course this is how it got its name. Wormwood also has a rich traditional use as a tonic for people with weakened digestion or low energy. It is a particularly potent liver tonic and has been widely used in cleansing programs since antiquity. Culpeper considered Wormwood one of the finest remedies for poor liver function, gastro-intestinal pain & indigestion. He also thought it especially excellent for gout & gravel (kidney stones)

Wormwood has also been highly regarded as a pain-relieving herb when applied externally as a tincture rubbed on the skin or a compress made from the herb and placed over the affected parts.

Rudolf Weiss talks about Wormwood's stimulating action on the central nervous system. This has been famously abused in history in the form of Absinthe (a mind altering drink made from Wormwood) but as he says 'the action caused by the low doses in conventional preparations may be desirable as it has a rather balancing and regulating effect'. Weiss especially values Wormwood for its effects on the digestive system calling it 'the best remedy for dyskinesia' (lack of movement) of the biliary tract (related to the movement of bile through the liver)

WM Cook writes 'the leaves and flowers were used by the ancients. They are stimulating and relaxing tonics, bitter and strong to the highest degree, and acting upon the stomach and gall-ducts. It improves appetite and digestion, and slightly influences the bowels; for which effects it has been a favorite addition to tonic preparations for low and bilious conditions, jaundice, hypochondria, and similar maladies. A small portion of it serves a good purpose, in such cases, when there is decided languor and sluggishness of action; though its intense bitterness has pretty much driven it from use. Considerable doses, or its long-continued use, leads to excitement of the stomach, pulse, and brain; which results have been attributed to a narcotic property in it. I wholly doubt its narcotism; but trace these effects to its very slow and persistent stimulating and tonic action upon both the heart and the nervous centers. It is quite popular in the treatment of worms; and is good for the stomach worm, when the stomach is languid, and the abdomen tumefied (swollen) and flaccid. It makes a good fomentation (poultice) in sprains, rheumatism, and other sub-acute difficulties about the joints; and in bruises and local congestions'

King's Dispensatory writes 'Wormwood possesses decided medicinal qualities, acting with considerable force upon the cerebrum and the sympathetic nervous system. It has been employed with success for the expulsion of intestinal parasites—such as ascaris vermicularis and lumbricoides. In small doses it is a stimulant tonic, improves the appetite, and is useful in atonic states of the gastro-intestinal tract, as a tonic dyspepsia, especially when due to alcoholic excesses, in flatulent colic, and in obstinate diarrhoea. Large doses increase the action of the heart and arteries. It has been employed with good results in amenorrhoea and leucorrhoea when due to debility'

The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP) describes Wormwood's actions as bitter, stomachic, choleretic, anthelmintic and says it is indicated for parasitic infestation, anorexia, atonic dyspepsia and specifically indicated for infestation with Enterobius. The BHP suggests a dose of 1-2 gms or by infusion or a dose of 1-2mls of the extract of Wormwood.

Thomas Bartram describes Wormwood's actions as a digestive, mental, stomach, bile and gastric juice stimulant. Antiparasitic, anthelmentic, anti-inflammatory, carminative, choleretic and immune enhancing herb. He says it can help 'feeble digestion, liver & gall bladder congestion with yellow tinge of the skin and eyes'. He goes on to say that 'Wormwood is also for depression of liver origin, foul breath, lack of appetite, nausea and travel sickness'.


Science on Wormwood

~ Studies with Wormwood extracts given to human volunteers show that it causes a dramatic increase both in gastric secretions in the stomach and pancreatic enzymes and bile in the duodenum (Baumann IC, Glatzel H, Muth HW: Z Algemeinmed 51(17):784-791,1975)

~ Substances in Wormwood called sesquiterpene lactones, and particularly one called absinthin, have been shown to cause a reflex reaction from bitter taste buds in the tongue to an activation of the major vagus nerve that controls the upper digestive organs; the stomach, the pancreas and the liver (ESCOP monographs UK, July 1997)

~ Texts written 2 thousand years ago in China describe how to use Wormwood to treat Malaria and in recent years one of the active ingredients of Wormwood, Artemesinin, has indeed been shown to be a staunch ally against this dreadful disease. Malaria kills over a million people a year, most of them children and especially in Africa. In 2004 the Ethiopian government changed their front line Malaria drug from Fansidar, which had an average treatment failure of 36% to Coartem, a drug based on Artemesisin, which is 100% effective when used correctly.

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of naerly 80 further studies and articles on Wormwood are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Wormwood

Wormwood should not be used by pregnant women or during breastfeeding; I would not use this herb for children under the age of 12 unless other methods had failed. It is safe to use for the elderly when needed but the dose should be moderate.

As a member of the Compositae family there is about a 1% chance of being mildly allergic to it. Symptoms such as a cough, itching after commencing its use mean it is not the herb for you. Increased bowel cleansing is common from using Wormwood and is not seen as a bad sign.

There are plenty of reports in the medical literature of severe toxicity from the excessive use of Wormwood or one of its derivatives. Wormwood was the basis of the infamous absinthe that is thought to have sent Van Gogh, along with many others, quite mad. This is a herb to use with much care, the right amount can be a healing medicine even when other methods have been unsuccessful but too much will be a poison. Use with care.

General comment on herbal safety

All medicinal herbs that have the power to do good have the potential to do harm. The old maxim 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us. The ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. Not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs, but equally we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities that, not so long ago, decried herbal medicines as ineffectual, have now taken up a different adversarial position; that they are dangerous substances that should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. Such cautions are absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver that has long been proven to be effective at manipulating people.

Unfortunately, the same unnecessary fear and worry has crept into many natural health websites and popular publications on herbs. Herbs that we have safely used for thousands of years, that have no reports of adverse reactions in the medical literature despite widespread use by millions of people, are suddenly described as contraindicated because of something that should have been seen as completely unimportant, or at the utmost a merely theoretical concern, such as a laboratory study on one of the herb's constituents to use an all too common example.

I wonder sometimes if the writers of such articles feel that the herb will be more deserving of respect if it is thought to be a little bit dangerous, in other words more like a drug than something that has simply come out of the earth and been used by ordinary people for generations beyond count.

There is just so much misinformation about herbal medicine on the internet now. Ludicrous claims and cautions abound in equal measure; it seems like one group are trying to make money out of the public whilst the other are busily trying to scare them off.

I have to believe that the kind of reader who takes the time to read pages on herbs that are as extensive as this one is much less likely to be swayed by marketers or misinformers. I hope that you will keep your wits about you if you get conflicting opinions from people who have never really got to know these herbs, who have never worked with them, or learned how to use them safely and effectively.

I want to remind you that the reason that herbs can never be patented and owned by any individual or corporation is because they are, and always will be, the People's medicine. They belong to all of us and it is my great hope in sharing this work that you will learn how to use them wisely for yourself, and the people you care for. Be safe, but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

Wormwood is a potent cleansing and stimulating herb that does its work within the body for a long time after it has been taken. It is a herb to use with much respect and not for longer than required and I usually prescribe it to be taken once a day, with plenty of water, and away from food.

I look for signs of encumbrance and excess dampness as an indicator to using Wormwood; such things as a thick coating on the tongue, a languid pulse or debris and congestion in the blood plasma. Symptoms that might suggest the use of Wormwood include bloating and distension in their abdomen, headaches, tiredness, and low grade inflammation in the back or the joints.

I see Wormwood as one of the best of all medicines where there is dysbiosis; infection in the digestive tract. This may be obvious from the health history or in symptoms such as grinding of the teeth, an itchy bottom or a chronic bloating of the gut that is not simply related to food intake. In the olden days such symptoms would have been thought to have been caused by worms but we now know that bad bacteria and fungal overgrowths are even more common than parasites -- fortunately Wormwood pretty much kills anything you don't want in there if you take enough of it for long enough!

The tincture of Wormwood is very effective but is hard to take because of its extreme bitterness. Nevertheless is someone has a congested liver or a blocked flow of bile a one-off dose of the tincture -- whereby around 10-20 drops in a glass of water is drunk over a few minutes -- is a remarkably potent and quick acting treatment.

For the effective treatment of gut parasites or fungal or bacterial infection I prefer the ease of use of the capsules of Wormwood whereby I typically give a strong dose of around 4 x 400mg capsules in the evening for as long as it takes to effect a cure.

To ease the passage of its strong action within the body Wormwood combines well with any of Licorice root, Fennel or Peppermint


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Wormwood is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with herb B. There is value in this approach in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another but where it falls short is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Wormwood might work brilliantly for one person but less well for another with the same sort of symptoms -- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light, Wormwood can particularly offer its benefits when a cleansing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd