Is Absinthe Dangerous?

Absinthe is now available in the United States. As an art major, I am curious about a drink so favored by artists and writers in La Belle Époque, but I am concerned by what I read of wormwood’s effects. Is absinthe dangerous? 

– March 6, 2009

Originally published 3/6/2009

Absinthe is a high-proof herbal liquor that was illegal in the United States and in much of Europe for decades but is now making a comeback. The drink, which originated in Switzerland, is made from the flowers and leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium, better known as wormwood. Because of its unusual green color (derived from the chlorophyll of the macerated leaves), absinthe became known as the "Green Fairy" when it was the favored drink of bohemian artists and writers in the late 19th century and early 20th century in France, the period known as La Belle Époque.

In those days, absinthe was reputed to be a dangerous, addictive, psychoactive drug and was blamed for at least one grisly murder. It was said to cause delirium, epileptic attacks, vertigo, hallucinations and eventual insanity. On the plus side, absinthe was regarded as an intoxicating source of creativity for the artists and writers who imbibed regularly. All these effects were falsely attributed to thujone, a potent neurotoxin in wormwood.

We now know that the wormwood in absinthe contains far less thujone than once believed and that amounts are much too small to pose any health threat. Current thinking holds that wormwood isn’t at all dangerous, and that any ill-effects of absinthe are due to alcoholism, not to any specific brain toxicity associated with its use.

For these reasons, the use of absinthe has been enjoying a resurgence in Europe and the U.S. At least two brands are now on the market here, and the European Union has been overturning the old bans. Bottom line: absinthe is just as dangerous as any type of alcohol if you drink it in excess (although I can’t imagine doing that – it tastes nasty to me).

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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