Image by Merja Partanen from Pixabay
The herbal genus Artemisia, named after the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis, includes almost 470 species.
The herb is characteristically bitter, and one of the species of artemisia called Artemisia absinthium is commonly known as wormwood. Some biblical scholars believe that the reference to Wormwood in Revelation 8:11, which turns the waters bitter, alludes to one of the species of artemisia.
Historically, Artemisia absinthium was also the source of the French alcoholic beverage called absinthe. This emerald green spirit, also known as “the green fairy,” was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with artists and authors including Vincent van Gogh. It was associated with hallucinations and psychosis.
Perhaps related to a milder expression of this property, artemisia species have been used by many cultures to stimulate more vivid dreams, and induce dream recall.
Aside from its more whimsical history, this potent herbal family also has a number of medicinal uses—when used short term, and in moderation, to avoid its potential side effects.
Artemisia for Parasitic Infections
Artemisia species are probably best known for their anti-malarial properties. Absinthium, annua, afra, and ludoviciana are especially useful and are used so heavily in treatment for malaria around the world that resistance is now becoming a problem. Because of this, it is often combined with other treatments to avoid perpetuating resistance.
Wormwood especially is a traditional treatment for parasitic worms, which may be how it got its name. But while the anecdotes for this property are extensive, it’s only been studied in mice as a treatment for intestinal parasites. In this study, it was shown to induce muscle paralysis in the parasites, with efficacy comparable to the anti-parasitic medication praziquantel.
Artemisia for Digestion
Bitters generally are known to stimulate release of digestive fluids including saliva, hydrochloric acid, bile, and digestive enzymes, and artemisia is no exception. It seems to be the bitter flavor itself that has this effect.
But artemisia is also useful for intestinal spasms as well, and it even has been studied with significant beneficial effect in patients with symptomatic Crohn’s Disease.
Artemisia for Joint Pain
While I don’t care for suppressive medications (herbs or otherwise) as a general rule—far better to treat the cause if you can than to suppress the symptom—sometimes symptomatic relief can be helpful in the meantime. Artemisinin, one of the constituents of artemisia species, has been shown to suppress production of inflammatory cytokines, making it useful for inflammatory pain. This study showed significant relief of joint pain in Rheumatoid Arthritis patients.
Probably due to its anti-inflammatory properties, artemisia may also be helpful in reducing swelling.
Artemisia species have been studied for osteoarthritis as well. This study showed that those who took the lower dose of artemisia actually experienced more improvement in their pain than those who took the higher dose. And this study showed that a topical application of ointment containing wormwood resulted in less pain and improved function.
Artemisia for Amenorrhea (Lack of Menses)
Artemisia species are all known for their emmenagogue properties (bringing on menses). This may be useful as a stimulant in cases of amenorrhea (though again, first make sure you’ve investigated possible causes and removed those, since you might not need a stimulant for menses then).
This is the reason that no artemisia species should ever be used in pregnancy, as they can induce menses and thus, miscarriage.
Artemisia for Blood Sugar Control
Many species of artemisia have been associated with improving insulin sensitivity and assistance with diabetes, including the species herba-alba, frigida, drucunculus, scoparia, and santolinifolia.
Artemisia for Bronchitis
Artemisia has traditionally been used for bronchitis and upper respiratory infections. Tridentata and ludoviciana especially can be useful as a steam inhalation for particularly stubborn mucus.
The Upshot and Cautions
Artemisia species were rarely used medicinally in modern times until fairly recently, due to concerns for toxicity. We know now that the toxic constituent is called thujone, and while it is one of the most medicinally active constituents in small doses, it is toxic at large doses. Products manufactured in the United States therefore cannot contain more than 5ppm thujone per dose.
Artemisia species can be consumed as a tea, extract, or used topically as an essential oil diluted in a carrier oil. It’s recommended to use artemisia species for no more than 2-4 weeks, though smaller doses can be sustained for a longer period of time.
Side effects to watch for if thujone accumulates include vomiting, nausea, dizziness, restlessness, hallucinations (a la absinthe), and seizures.
Use is contraindicated in pregnancy, heart disease, kidney disease, or any known seizure disorder.