So if the case for the harmful effects of absinthe is flimsy, does it have any beneficial ones? Ordinaire first prescribed it as a general tonic but it is doubtful whether he performed any objective research into whether it was improving the condition of his patients, they kept coming back for more so it must be doing them good. The producers unashamedly sold absinthe on the basis of its health giving properties, especially in the years leading up to the ban. In 1844 absinthe was issued to French legionnaires fighting in Algeria as it was believed to prevent fever and kill bacteria in water. Although there were no studies to support this at the time, in 1975 researchers found that dilute oil of wormwood did inhibit the growth of 4 out of 7 types of bacteria. (Kaul VK; Nigam SS; Dhar KL. Antimicrobial activities of the essential oils of Artemisia absinthium linn, Artemisia vestita wall' and Artemisia vulgaris Linn, Indian Journal of Pharmacy
, 1976, 38(1), 21-22). Wormwood has also been shown to be a hepatoprotective. Gilani and Janbaz found that an extract of Artemisia absinthium protected against acetaminophen and carbon tetrachloride-induced hepatotoxicity in mice. The presence of antioxidants and calcium-channel blockers in wormwood also probably contributes to its hepatoprotective effects. (Gilani AH; Janbaz KH., Preventative and curative effects of Artemisia absinthium on acetaminophen and CCl4-induced hepatotoxicity, Gen. Pharmacol
, 1995, 26(2):309-315; Gilani AH. Search for new calcium channel blocking drugs from indigenous plants, International Congress on Natural Products Research, 1994, August 1-5, Halifax 0:29). Recent studies have demonstrated that extracts of wormwood (and other plants used in absinthe) have CNS cholinergic receptor binding activity and therefore contrary to accepted wisdom, absinthe may actually improve cognitive function (Wake et al, J Ethnopharmacol
, 2000 Feb;69(2):105-14.
In conclusion, there is no evidence that absinthe ever contained the high concentrations of thujone that would have led to detrimental effects or that it has hallucinogenic or mind altering properties. The health problems experienced by chronic users were likely to have been caused by adulterants in inferior brands and by the high levels of alcohol present. Claims for beneficial effects must also be treated with some scepticism as again, the detrimental effects of the alcohol would presumably outweigh any benefits. It seems likely that the phenomenal success of absinthe during the 19th century was due to one factor, the French love of aniseed drinks. The modern equivalent of absinthe, pastis, is by far the most popular distilled spirit in France with 125 million litres being consumed annually. Perhaps the reason that so much absinthe was consumed, and absintheurs waxed so lyrically about it was simply because it tasted good.
This article by Ian Hutton first appeared in Current Drug Discovery
, September, 2002; A facsimile of the original article can be read here