Absinthe/Thujone: Does it lead to suicide?

Originally Published: June 9, 2006 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 29, 2011
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Dear Alice,

I recently drank one shot of Absinth(e) mixed with water at a party. I read up on it online and opinions differ vastly as to the potential for negative side effects. At this point my imagination has me suffering every possible one.

I would like to know the true possible effects and if one drink could realistically cause them. If it helps, the brand I had contained 100mg of thujone and it was Czech and I'm told they use an extract which is worse than using straight wormwood.

I hope you can help because I'm a little freaked out, the guy who gave it to me drank it extensively and recently committed suicide and I'm convinced the cause in part was the Absinthe.

Dear Reader,

Euphemistically referred to as the Green Fairy, the emerald liqueur known as absinthe rose to incredible popularity in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Shortly after, it was banned in many countries including the U.S. At that time, "absinthism" (addiction to absinthe) was blamed for causing madness and criminal behavior. However, the absinthe you drank a century later is unlikely to have these effects. In addition, your friend's suicide was probably the result of more than just his penchant for the Green Fairy.

Often consumed as shots mixed with water and sugar, absinthe contains aniseed, fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, angelica, star anise, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, wormwood oil, and alcohol. A compound extracted from wormwood oil called thujone is thought to cause a number of responses including mood elevation and auditory and visual hallucinations. These responses led some to believe that the liquid had magical powers, and it was associated with the creative genius of artists and poets such as Van Gogh, Picasso, and Oscar Wilde. Although possession and sale of absinthe containing thujone is still banned in the U.S. (thujone-free absinthe is legal, however), the rise of the internet has made it possible to obtain it from countries like the Czech Republic where it is legal.

Though quality and concentration of thujone varies in absinthe purchased outside the U.S., thujone itself may be the "extract" you're referring to. Historically, absinthe was thought to be an aphrodisiac and also a cause of psychiatric illness and suicide, though there is no strong evidence to prove this. It may also cause convulsions and gastrointestinal problems. Since they are consumed together, it is difficult to separate the effects of thujone from the standard effects of alcohol. However, many of the problems that were historically attributed to absinthe — irresponsible or erratic behavior, withdrawal, dependence, and serious health problems such as brain damage — all could have been due to alcohol. Because absinthe is no longer in common use, and hasn't been studied extensively by modern scientists, it's difficult to say exactly what the effects are or what causes them.

A standard shot of absinthe usually contains 2 to 4 mg of thujone (the 100mg label you saw most likely referred to the entire contents of the bottle), which some sources think is not enough to cause significant psychoactive effects. Frequent use may cause thujone to build up in the body, increasing the chance of seizures or hallucinations. As with any drug, each person's body will respond differently. However, it appears unlikely that your single drink of absinthe would have any lasting effects. The excessive consumption of absinthe may be related to the suicide of the person from whom you got the drink, but it is likely that there were other reasons as well. Use of drugs including alcohol is a way that some people try to deal with depression or other problems. Untreated depression is a leading cause of suicide as well.

Like all drugs that are illegal, there are no mechanisms for monitoring the quality of the product you buy. It is possible that what you drank contained some substance besides absinthe that made you sick. If you are still feeling unwell, you may want to consider making an appointment with a health care provider. If you are a student at Columbia, you can get a check up from Medical Services by calling x4-2284 or logging on to Open Communicator.

Though she's often portrayed as a nasty nymph, your brief rendezvous with the Green Fairy is unlikely the cause of your medical concerns. Hope this information helps and that you start feeling better.

Alice