Nervous Affections

There are writers other than Grieve who consider mugwort a nervine. Ibn Sina records the benefit of artemisia in headache due to a cold cause and in nasal catarrh while the Salernitan herbal, reflecting Arabic influences, recommends a hot opiate taken with a decoction of artemisia for migraine. Bauhin cites the empiric Wirtemberg, who guarantees relieving within an hour a headache due to cold by washing the head with a decoction of mugwort in wine, then laying on the hot leaves. This is a version of a cure for migraine from Arnold de Villanova, Bauhin points out, mentioning also that mugwort in wine or lavender water can be used in cases of paralysis. Other uses in Bauhin’s day include inducing sleep, treating scabs on the head, clearing jaundice and preventing dropsy, and reversing prolapse of the anus. In this last case, the anus is first fumigated with myrrh Commiphora molmol and colophonia before a hot poultice of mugwort cooked in red wine is applied.

Quincy classifies uterine medicines under nervous simples, where these ‘hysterics’ must be differentiated from carminatives and from cephalics and cordials, now under one heading for ‘what is cordial must be cephalic as the head hath a principal share in agreeable sensations’. The uterine medicines, notable for their strong scent and distinguishable by smell into odoriferous and foetid plants, are serviceable for menstrual obstructions, which cause a great many symptoms and can bring the whole system of the body into disorder: what were previously termed the ‘fits’ or ‘rising of the mother’, or ‘suffocation of the womb’. Quincy states that where this has occurred through an irritation of the nerve fibres or ‘titillation’ of the senses, then those herbs which are offensive and disagreeable in both smell and taste – the very opposite of cordial medicines – are required to calm the excessive stimulation by virtue of a clammy and viscous substance which envelops and entangles the subtle juice of nerve fibres. A second condition he terms ‘uneasiness of the womb’, which may arise from the obstruction of regular menses or from the lodging of’some disagreeable matter upon their glands’, which can turn into tumours. ‘Hysteric’ remedies increase the force of circulating blood and render it thinner for easier flow in the required discharges, or by their detersive qualities ‘open those glands and by degrees wear away obstructed tumours’. In his entry for mugwort, Quincy simply mentions its use for female complaints, without differentiation into irritation of the nerves or uneasiness of the womb. Certainly mugwort is strongly scented but not pleasant enough to put in a vase in the home. On this basis, it could be considered the opposite of cordial and a remedy to calm over-stimulated senses. Its heat and emmenogogue action fits it for treatment of uneasiness of the womb.

Current herbalists too suggest beneficial effects on the nervous system for uterine remedies such as mugwort: Hoffmann suggests it may ease depression and tension, perhaps due to the volatile oil content. Wood says it reduces tension and corrects a constrictive tissue state and cites LeSassier for its particular suitability for weak, sensitive women or those who have suffered abuse, poverty, obstetric injury, difficult pregnancies and damaging abortions, provoking a ‘withdrawal of spiritual aspirations from the womb, from sex’. It is clear that these uses are not based on the same conception of action as that of Quincy’s ‘hysterics’. For the same reason, there is no mention of mugwort for pre-menstrual syndrome, a state which might have correlations with Quincy’s ‘titillation of the senses’, but for which an imbalance of the female sex hormones is usually cited as the causal factor today.

Let us also consider briefly, for completeness and comparison, the old Hippocratic concept of the wandering womb as recorded by The Trotula. ‘Suffocation of the womb’ occurs when the womb is drawn upwards, causing stomach upset and loss of appetite from overwhelming frigidity of the heart. There is sometimes even syncope, when the pulse vanishes. At other times, the woman may become doubled-up or so contracted that her head is drawn to her knees; she may suffer loss of vision and speech, her nose distorted, the lips contracted, she grits her teeth, and the chest is elevated upwards. It happens because corrupt female seed abounds excessively in her body and is converted into a sort of poison. A cold vapour ascends to organs nearby, such as the heart and lungs, causing the above symptoms. To draw the womb back into place, foul smells are put to the nose to repel the womb, and the woman’s vagina is anointed inside and around with pleasantly scented oils to attract the womb back into place. The womb may also descend out of place, causing a weakening of ligaments and an abundance of cold humours. This could arise from cold air entering the body from below, from walking on cold stone, from a cold bath, or from giving birth. Treatment is the opposite, with pleasant scents applied to the nostrils and unpleasant things to the womb. For prolapse, the belly is anointed with aromatics mixed with wormwood, being applied with a feather. Culpeper later recommends the use of burdock leaves Arctium lappa to effect these treatments, while Cook, in his Woman’s Herbal Book of Health of 1920, warns of walking on cold floors in bare feet and identifies many female complaints as due to cold, for which his remedy was pennyroyal Mentha pulegium tea freely. Cook could not believe that the womb was able to wander around the body troubling other organs, but the aetiology and ‘symptom-picture’ could remain, leading to a remedy of which the author of The Trotula would have approved.

The mention of mugwort used as moxa is not found in our authors before the 18th century, when Quincy names Sir William Temple in connection with it, and Miller talks about it as a famous cure of gout. This use continues today. Conversely, the antidoting of opium by mugwort disappears with Culpeper, despite the use of laudanum in the 18th and 19th centuries, except as one of a long list of indications in Menzies-Trull and a mention in Wood. Its use against poison in a metaphorical sense, warding off evil, protecting the wearer against harm and the evil eye has been persistent in folklore. Mabey (1996) records a sprig of mugwort being worn to this day as a charm at the annual open-air parliament on Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man. Among practitioners of plant-spirit medicine, mugwort is a key herb. Brooke (1992) associates mugwort with clairvoyant powers, the ability to see clearly, and with creativity and self-expression. Richter (2002), in an article we have not yet accessed, points out that mugwort is regarded as a magical plant by the Teutonic peoples and the Anglo-Saxons. Its name ‘mater herbarum’ or mother of herbs speaks not only of its place in the first rank of gynaecological and urological herbal medicines, but also of its protective or apotropaic characteristics valued in Christianity. (Fernie (1897) says that mugwort is mistakenly named mother of herbs by Macer but we have not found the Latin words he cites.) The Salernitan herbal says mugwort combats bad thoughts and devils flee from the plant. Bauhin relates some of the magical practices he has witnessed: garlands of mugwort are worn on St John’s eve then cast into the midsummer fire as misfortune is cast off the wearer, thus the plant is called St John’s crown, portions of old dead roots called ‘coals’ and dug up from under the roots of mugwort are worn as a protection against epilepsy and fevers, Jacob Vallich commends mugwort to ward off the devil, and mugwort and sage can be carried on the person to prevent tiredness on a journey. This last of course is an elaboration on Pliny. The Myddfai physicians counsel an egg-shell full of the juice of mugwort and garlic taken in the morning to ensure neither hurt nor tiredness on the journey, whatever distance is walked. The common denominator here is mugwort. The English herbalists Gerard and Parkinson cannot suffer these superstitions. Gerard talks of the ‘fantastical devices invented by poets’ seen in the ancient writers which tend to witchcraft and sorcery and the great dishonour of God. He refuses to repeat them, whereas Parkinson cites Bauhin’s ‘idle, superstitious and irreligious relations’ although it is ‘both unseemly for me and unprofitable for you’ to repeat them, before he laments on ‘the weake and fraile nature of man!’

To sum up, the main action of mugwort is as an emmenogogue, however, Bradley (2006) cites a single study on mice in which mugwort did not demonstrate a uterine stimulant effect. Mills and Bone suggest that ‘probably the most frequent indication for such remedies in earlier times was to bring on delayed menstruation; in other words, many ’emmenagogues’ were used for birth control, as abortifacients‘. This is particularly so, claims Riddle (1991), when the herb is said to expel the dead foetus, ‘a common circumlocution for abortion‘. In our sources there is no mention of a dead foetus, save for Wood’s citation of Salmon in the late 17th century.

Mugwort as a member of the Artemisia genus has bitter tonic effects and these may be additionally beneficial where the herb is prescribed primarily for gynaecological problems. For primary treatment of the digestive system, however, surely wormwood is a better choice. In broad terms, Wood wants mugwort as a restorative to the injured female nature and he cites Paracelsus: ‘What is Venus but the Artemisia that grows in your garden?’ Wormwood is given over to Mars by Culpeper.

There are nervine tonic effects attributed to mugwort. Hoffmann states simply that ‘of the many plants that stimulate the menstrual process, some also have a tonic effect. Simply triggering menstruation implies nothing more than that’. Numerous claims for a wide range of conditions of the nervous system that mugwort can treat are listed in the negative monograph of the Commission E, but further research is needed to substantiate such claims.

I know of a colleague who has used mugwort to achieve a pregnancy in cases of unexplained infertility, in combination with pennyroyal and tansy Tanacetum vulgare. I have effected the same in a case of an overweight, that is, excessively cold and moist, female, at a dose of 10 mL per week of each herb, taken daily in divided doses.

Given the great variability of pharmacological constituents, fresh plant preparations of the flowering plant should be used where possible due to the higher concentrations of volatile oils at flowering. Also, from the point of view of safety, decreases in total terpene concentration with increase in leafage correlate with decreases in phytotoxicity