The currently en-vogue beverage absinthe, a mostly green colored spirit drink of distinct bitter taste, is recently experiencing a revival, after nearly 70 years of prohibition.
Absinthium was one of the icon of the Bohemianism until it was prohibited due to Absinthism syndrome.
The causes of Absinthism are the focus of a controversial discussion, because the studies done on 19th century were not enough precise and reliable, and the possibility that the main causes were chronic alcohol intoxication or other reasons such as food adulterations cannot be definitely excluded.
Meanwhile recent studies revealed some positive effects of Artemisia Absinthium.
Plant Description and Properties
The wormwood plant (Artemisia absinthium L.), which is part of the family of composites (Asteraceae) has given absinthe its name and is, besides alcohol, the main component of this spirit drink.
Wormwood is a half-shrub which is local in Central Europe and Asia with silvery grey, pinnatipartite, feltyhaired leaves. The small, light yellow and globular flowers are arranged in end standing panicles (Figure 1). The plant parts above ground are harvested in anthesis and after drying are used for the manufacturing of spirit drinks.
Wormwood contains an oil (0.2–1.5%) of a color ranging from dark-green or brown to blue. It is of a scratchingly adstringent bitter taste and smells rather strong.
The bicyclic monoterpene thujone was often described as the main component of wormwood oil (40–90% of the essential oil). One distinguishes between the two isomeric components α- and β-thujone, The concentration of β-thujone is usually higher than the one of α-thujone (β-thujone: 70–90% of the total thujone content). However, besides the β-thujone chemotype of the wormwood plant further chemotypes were described, which contain cis-chrysanthenyl acetat, cis-chrysanthenol, cisexpoxyocimene, sabinyl acetate or bornyl acetate as principal component.
In the west alpine area above 1000 m the cisepoxyocimen type is predominant, while the β-thujone type rather exists in the lower zones. In wormwood oil from the Tuscany or the Pyrenees neither α- nor β-thujone could be detected.
Further characteristic components of wormwood are terpene lactone bitter substances such as absinthin (0.20–0.28%) and artabsin (0.04–0.16%), while the sesquiterpene lactone absinthin (Figure 2) is the organoleptically dominant bitter principle.
History of Absinthe
Plinius already mentioned a wine called “absinthites” prepared by adding the herb of wormwood.
In the Middle Ages, wormwood was used as a purge and vermifuge, and it developed towards a "general remedy for all diseases".
The spirit drink known as absinthe was created in French-speaking Switzerland (Couvet, in the Val-de-Travers, Neuchatel) in the late eighteenth century by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire and Henriette Henriod. The herb of wormwood, used as medicine since antiquity, was mixed for the first time with further herbal ingredients for flavoring and after the addition of alcohol distilled and distributed as foodstuff.
But Henry-Louis Pernod founded the first distillery in Pontarlier (France) in 1805.
In the Wars of French Algeria (1844-1847), alcoholic beverages containing wormwood were given to the soldiers as a prophylaxis against miscellaneous diseases (such as malaria and helminthiasis) and to raise the fighting spirit.22−24 After the war, the homecoming soldiers made absinthe popular in their own countries.
In the late nineteenth century, absinthe, in the meantime called “green fairy” (“fée verte”), was the most popular spirit drink in Europe. Especially in the bars and cafes of Paris, the “green hour” (“l’heure verte”) was a steady element of the daily routine and many artists were consumer of this drink (Van Gogh is probably the most famous one).
Pontarlier became the capital of absinthe. In 1905, 25 distilleries had existed with approximately 3000 workers and an annual production of 10 million litres of absinthe.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, absinthe was blamed for many kinds of diseases (Absinthism) and its prohibition was demanded.
In 1905, absinthe was prohibited in Belgium, followed by Switzerland in 1908, the Netherlands in 1910, the USA in 1912 and Italy in 1913. In France absinthe was prohibited in 1915 then in 1923, absinthe was also prohibited in Germany.
Absinthe was not prohibited in country like Spain, UK and Czech Republic and this lead the definition on European Directive 88/388/EEC to harmonize the European laws.
After the obligatory adoption of the Directive by the member states in the early 1990s, absinthe was marketable again within the entire European Union. For bitter spirit drinks, such
as absinthe, a thujone maximum limit of 35 mg/kg α-/β-thujone was introduced in the Directive.
The first report describing Absinthism appeared in 1859, during the zenith of Absinthe’s chronic abuse.
Absinthism causes the following symptoms: at first the well-being gets stimulated, later hallucinations arise followed by a depressive phase.
“At the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and is the most horrible things in the world.”
Prolonged drinking was characterized by:
•Convulsion and Epileptic Fits
•Auditory and Visual Hallucinations
•Xanthopsia (clear in Van Gogh’s paintings)
In the advanced state, signs of degeneration can be observed, which cause convulsion that even results in death.
In spite of similar symptoms with alcohol, absinthism is a different syndrome from alcoholism; symptomatic differences between the drinker of absinthe and the ordinary alcoholic were presented at the First International Eugenetics Congress:
“In the Absinthism, the hallucination insanity was described to be more active with sudden attacks of delirium, more terrifying, sometimes provoking most dangerous reaction of extreme violence”.
Convulsant effects of Thujone is explained by its interaction with GABA dependent chloride channels, so thujone acts like naturally or synthetic convulsive agents.
Beside from brain damage, absinthism is characterized by gastrointestinal problems, risk of psychiatric disease and even suicide.
Furthermore a clinical report, published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (today New England Journal of Medicine), describes the latter symptom of a case of absinthe intoxication as a episode of acute porphyria: thujone could interfere with hepatic heme synthesis, in fact upon its addiction, in vitro, a marked accumulation of protoporphyrin was observed.
This effect is explained with the pathway of metabolization by the hepatic cytocrome P-450 system: an high concentration of the thujone in the drinkers reduces the rate of its metabolism, in the liver it can produce its porphyrogenic effect that leads to porphyric crises.
Since 1990 the Absinthe is marketable again and Despite the adoption of maximum limits of α-/β-thujone, the consume of absinthe could lead to the return of absinthism, in fact a second opinion blamed other substances contained in the spirit (such as Sweet Calamus or Tansy), and not thujone, as causes of this intoxication.
Besides the well-known properties of Absinthe, modern studies were designed to investigate the potential protective effects of Artemisia Absinthium on cerebral oxidative stress and damage as well as behavioral disturbances induced by cerebral ischemia and reperfusion injiury.
The major pathobiological mechanisms of ischemia and reperfusion injiury include:
These changes appear after the reperfusion of the area damaged by focal ischemia usually due to the middle cerebral artery occlusion; they are associated with the over-production of Reactive Oxygen Species by neural tissue.
Results of a study suggest that Absinthe is neuroprotective and may prove to be useful adjunct in the treatment of stroke. The brain oxidative stress and damage and behavioral deficits were significantly attenuated by the pre-treatment with the methanol extract of Artemia Absinthium.
Promising results relating to the therapeutic uses of Absinthe were also obtained in previous studies on Crohn’s Disease and on its hepatoprotective activity.
The surprising disparity between the toxic and protective effects of this plant require a careful risk-benefit analysis before the application on humans but it is important to exploit all benefits of this substances in spite of its colourful history.