Wormwood Is an Ancient Herb With Lots of Health Promise—Here’s What to Know Before Trying It

Photo: Getty Images / Nikolay_Donetsk
Ah, yes. Wormwood. Your go-to supplement.

JK. Unless you're well-versed in Traditional Chinese Medicine, wormwood (also known as qinghao) probably doesn't have much name recognition. For starters, it's an herb with a strong bitter flavor. It's also the main ingredient in vermouth and absinthe, the alcoholic drink responsible for that wild club scene in Girls Trip. 

The plant been used medicinally for thousands of years, with recorded uses in the Roman Empire as well as during the Han Dynasty in China. Traditional uses include treating malaria, helping grow hair, and even promoting a longer lifespan. Current researchers are exploring its potential efficacy in treating diseases like Crohn's disease and malaria. And though research is sparse and more clinical human trials are needed, there are some possible wormwood benefits that make it worth having on your herbal radar.

1. It could help stimulate digestion

Traditionally, wormwood has been used to help digestion, and a small 2014 study found evidence to support this practice. The control group of 14 participants drank water mixed a sugar placebo, while 12 people drank water mixed with a wormwood extract (another 12 ingested water with gentian, another bitter herb). The study suggests that ingesting wormwood elicits the cephalic phase response, AKA how your body responds to nerve signals telling you it's time to eat (it's why you salivate when you see, smell, or taste food). This response also leads to increased stomach enzyme production, which creates better conditions for digestion. However, this was conducted on a small group of people and additional research is needed.

2. It might help with pain management

A small randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial suggests that wormwood has potential anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving benefits, as osteoarthritis patients reported significant reductions in pain after taking 150 mg of wormwood extract twice daily over a 12-week period, according to study authors. Study authors note that these findings are preliminary and that further research is required.

3. It may help manage symptoms of Crohn's disease

Research is definitely mixed on this one. For patients with Crohn's disease, SedaCrohn (an herbal supplement made from wormwood) could increase quality of life and accelerate healing, according to respective studies conducted in 2007 and 2010. (In the 2007 study, there was a "near complete remission" for 65 percent of the people in the wormwood group, compared to just 15 percent of the placebo group.) And a 2015 meta-analysis of 27 studies concluded that wormwood was more effective than placebo at putting Crohn's patients into remission and keeping them there. However, a more recent 2017 meta-analysis of 29 randomized control trials concluded that herbal medicines weren't particularly effective at achieving or maintaining clinical remission for Crohn's, and that further studies are warranted. Whiplash, much? If you're interested in exploring this option, be sure to consult your doctor.

4. It has promise as a malaria treatment

A Ugandan community was observed in 2012 after researchers learned they relied on wormwood tea to treat malaria. Researchers concluded that it was effective in preventing multiple episodes of malaria. And a case study from 2017 found wormwood (specifically, tablets made from dried leaves of the plant) helpful at treating drug-resistant malaria as a last-resort measure. However, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Center cautions that people getting reinfected with malaria is more likely with wormwood than with conventional antimalarial medicine. That's why it should not be used on its own to treat malaria; the World Health Organization recommends artemisinin-based combination therapies, which includes taking artemisinin (a derivative of wormwood) along with an approved anti-malarial drug.

The big catch with wormwood

You know how at the beginning of stunt videos there's usually a big disclaimer telling people, "Don't try this at home." Yeah, the same can kind of be said for wormwood. The herb can have some serious potential side effects, including hepatitis, hearing loss, and skin rashes. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center also warns against wormwood if you're epileptic because it can even induce seizures and mess with the efficacy of antiseizure medications. It also shouldn't be taken by women who are pregnant or nursing—it's considered an abortifacient, meaning that it could induce miscarriages or abortions.

For people interested in the benefits of wormwood, they shouldn't try it on their own before seeking out the advice of their doctor or a qualified herbalist. They can help assess if it's something that's worth taking, and ensure that it doesn't interact with any medications a person is taking for other health conditions. The herb has some serious potential—which means it shouldn't be taken lightly.

Want to know some more about medicinal herbs and mushrooms? Meet reishi and ashwagandha.

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