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Absinthe is a type of alcohol and a very strong one at that. With an alcohol content of 45–74% by volume, absinthe is a very potent drink with a long and complicated history.1

It was first produced commercially in early 1797 and gained widespread popularity. The green liquor became very popular in France in the late 19th century and was closely associated with “la vie bohème,” or the bohemian lifestyle. At the end of the century, the “green cocktail hour” was said to have been a daily event. The strength of the alcohol, as well as whole spectrum of rumored side effects such as hallucinations and psychosis, gained the drink a mysterious and notorious reputation.1,2

Contemporaries of artists who were absinthe drinkers, such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire, claimed it shortened their lives. Vincent Van Gogh’s compulsive consumption of absinthe is said to have exacerbated his mental illness, with some saying it might have played a role in his infamous and debated ear-cutting event as well as his suicide. Absinthe was even blamed for a number of murders. Hysteria over the drink grew and by the early 1900s, the drink was banned in many countries, including Switzerland, France, and the United States.2,3,4,5

Long after Prohibition ended in the U.S., absinthe remained a banned substance, and it was not until 2007 that the ban was lifted and it became legal to import, manufacture, and sell it.6

What Is Absinthe?

So what, exactly, is this myth-shrouded, green drink? It is spirit with a high alcohol content traditionally produced from wormwood, anise, and other herbs such as fennel.These herbs give absinthe its hallmark green color.

Wormwood contains thujone, which has been identified as the agent rumored to cause hallucinations and convulsions when consumed in high doses. Once the drink was legalized again, the FDA set a requirement that any distilled spirits product labeled “absinthe” be “thujone-free,” meaning it must contain less than 10 parts per million of thujone.7

Though thujone was effectively removed from continued production, the compound may have been unfairly blamed for the symptoms that were linked to “absinthism”—a syndrome purported to arise in regular absinthe drinkers comprised of various afflictions such as convulsions, insomnia, and hallucinations. Much of what may have been linked to this chemical may simply be the effects of acute alcohol intoxication, dependence, and withdrawal as well as other health conditions of those who consumed it regularly.2

These days, people can order absinthe in bars across the US. While some mystique remains around the drink’s true side effects, it is now just another strong spirit one can enjoy that will produce effects similar to any other potent cocktail.

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Absinthe: Fact or Fiction?

There are many stories that still circulate around the effects, ingredients, and legalization of absinthe. For the most part, absinthe these days is just another liquor, like gin or brandy. Below are some of the enduring myths associated with absinthe.

  • You’ll see green fairies. Green fairies were rumored to be part of the hallucinations people experienced after consuming the green alcohol. Researchers have found that it is not possible to drink enough thujone for it to adversely affect the central nervous system; the person would be far too intoxicated to continue drinking long before that could happen. They also found a negligible difference in amounts of thujone present in pre-ban and modern-day absinthes when testing both.8
  • Absinthe is illegal in the United States. With a long history of being prohibited in many countries around the world, it is understandable that people would be confused about its legal status. Though it once was a banned substance, the production and sale of absinthe is now legal, as long as certain regulations are followed.7
  • Absinthe will make you go mad. This is a myth that was perpetuated at the height of the drink’s popularity. In the early 20th century, not long before the drink was banned in several countries, a Swiss man who had been drinking absinthe murdered his family. Combine this story with those like Van Gogh cutting off his own ear because of absinthe and it’s easy to understand how societal panic over the drink grew until it was eventually outlawed. Absinthe was the most popular drink of the day and prohibitionists were quick to link it to hallucinations and a kind of temporary insanity.9

Effects of Absinthe

When it comes down to it, the effects of absinthe are similar to any other hard liquor available, and they vary in intensity with the quantities consumed. Researchers have debunked the myth that absinthe can cause hallucinations. The amounts of thujone in any recipe of absinthe are so small that no pharmacological effects could be observed. Instead, the troublesome effects that have historically been reported from drinking too much absinthe really boil down to just consuming too much alcohol.

Absinthe that was produced in the 1800s, when it got its reputation for being a uniquely dangerous substance that caused mind-altering effects, was simply a much stronger alcohol than commercial liquors produced today. Absinthe back then was measured at about 140-proof, whereas spirits today are typically 80-proof to 100-proof.10

Some of the more adverse effects may also have come from unregulated production in which industrial-strength alcohol and cheap chemicals were used to manufacture low-cost versions of the drink.9 Effects of absinthe produced under regulations will not differ from the effects of other forms of alcohol.

Health Issues and Risks

The health risks of drinking absinthe are the same as those of consuming any alcoholic beverage. Any type of alcohol consumed in excess can have dangerous consequences. Drinking too much can lead to accidents, injuries, memory loss, coma, and even death.11

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) explains that alcohol depresses the central nervous system, impairing control of various involuntary processes, such as breathing and the gag reflex. Consuming an excessive amount of alcohol can suppress breathing to the point that it stops.12

What is particularly dangerous is that a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will continue to rise even after they have stopped drinking, as alcohol in the stomach and intestines will continue to be absorbed into the bloodstream. This means you’re not safe simply because you’ve decided to call it quits.12

Be aware of signs that you or someone you’re with might be suffering from alcohol poisoning. These signs include:12

  • Confusion.
  • Stupor.
  • Unresponsiveness.
  • Vomiting.
  • Seizures.
  • Slow and/or irregular breathing.
  • Low body temperature.
  • Paleness or bluish tint to the skin.

If you suspect alcohol poisoning, get emergency help immediately.

Acute alcohol poisoning is just one concern of consuming too much alcohol. It is also important to be aware of the long-term effects of drinking too much, such as liver disease, alcohol dependence and addiction, heart problems, increased cancer risk, and a range of other health issues.13

Absinthe Is Just a Strong Form of Alcohol

When it comes down to it, absinthe is a form of alcohol, just like any other hard liquor. Its alluring color and high potency, however, have made for an intriguing past. Though fantastical stories continue to swirl about hallucinations of green fairies and absinthe-induced insanity, research has shown them to be just what they are: myths.

If consumed in high doses, absinthe can impair cognitive abilities and give rise to other dangerous health issues. Like any alcohol, it should be consumed with caution.

Sources:

  1. Webley, Kayla. (2010). Top 10 Ridiculously Strong Drinks. Time.
  2. Strang, J., Arnold, W. N., & Peters, T. (1999). Absinthe: what's your poison? Though absinthe is intriguing, it is alcohol in general we should worry about. BMJ (Clinical research ed.)319(7225), 1590-2.
  3. Ciabattari, Jane. (2014). Absinthe: How the Green Fairy became literature’s drink. BBC.
  4. Isenberg, Barbara. (1988). Did Absinthe Make Van Gogh’s Mind Wander? Los Angeles Times.
  5. Hicks, Jesse. (2010). The Devil in a Little Green Bottle: A History of Absinthe. Science History Institute.
  6. Kulp, Kayleigh. (2015). Absinthe Is Back: The Green Fairy Returns. The Daily Beast.
  7. Department of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. (2007). Use of the Term Absinthe for Distilled Spirits.
  8. Ritter, Stephen K. (2008). Absinthe Myths Finally Laid To Rest. Chemical & Engineering News, 86(18), 42-43.
  9. Hepola, Sarah. (2007). Everything You Know About Absinthe is Wrong. Salon.
  10. American Chemical Society. (2008). Absinthe uncorked: The “Green Fairy” was boozy – but not psychedelic.
  11. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2016). Alcohol.
  12. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). A Word about Alcohol Poisoning.
  13. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.