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Is Drinking Absinthe Dangerous?

Famously banned for much of the 20th century, absinthe is an alcoholic beverage renowned for its hallucinogenic effects. Much of absinthe’s previous hype was probably due to its exceedingly high alcohol content, but today the spirit is sold in similar proofs as other high alcohol content beverages.

The Myth of Absinthe

Famous absinthe drinkers included artists and writers, such as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway, and connoisseurs of the time referred to the green-hued drink as “the green fairy” or “la fée verte” in French. It was considered a muse during the French historical period La Belle Époque, roughly lasting from 1871 until the start of World War I in 1914.

Preparing Absinthe

Absinthe is created from alcohol and distilled herbs. Wormwood is included in all absinthe recipes, and the drink’s fabled hallucinogenic effects were once attributed to a chemical in the herb known as thujone. Common herbs in versions of absinthe include the following:

  • Grand wormwood
  • Green anise
  • Petite wormwood
  • Fennel
  • Hyssop

Wormwood, an herb related to the daisy, is native to Europe. It has been used as a medicinal herb since ancient times. The chemical thujone in wormwood can be a powerful neurotoxin in high amounts. Absinthe’s creation is traced to Switzerland and France.

Dangers of Absinthe

Dr. Andrew Weil, a physician specializing in integrative medicine, writes that the only known dangers associated with absinthe are the same dangers associated with drinking large amounts of alcohol. When it was banned in several European countries and the United States, absinthe was connected to the following social ills:

  • Delirium
  • Epileptic attacks
  • Vertigo
  • Hallucinations
  • Eventual insanity

Modern scientific investigations of absinthe do not link it to any of the dangers that led to its ban. Researchers who opened previously uncorked bottles of absinthe from the early 20th century found the levels of thujone in the bottles were similar to levels of the chemical found in modern bottles, according to the April 2008 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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