Artemisinin in annual mugwort (Artemisia annua)
Artemisinin is a secondary plant substance, chemically a sesquiterpene, which occurs in the leaves and flowers of the annual mugwort (Artemisia annua). Artemisia annua has an aromatic, camphor-like scent and a spicy, bitter taste.
Artemisia annua is related to Artemisia vulgaris, another medicinal herb that is wide-spread in Europe
The annual mugwort has been used as a medicinal plant for thousands of years in China under the name Qing Hao. The plant is native in Asia and Europe, and is now being harvested in North America. It grows 2 to 3 m high and has fresh green, strongly dissected leaves and tiny cream-coloured flower heads. Of the four hundred species of the genus Artemisia worldwide, only three have the secondary phytochemical artemisinin. This substance is actually intended as a food protection for the plant. The leaves of the plant have glands that contain resinous particles in which the natural insecticide is stored, which it deposits in the plant hair.
Artemisia annua seeds hibernate in the ground and germinate in spring. The annual mugwort can be used either fresh or dried. All above-ground parts (stems, leaves and flowers) of the plant are for medical purposes.
The essential oil is extracted from the leaves and flower tips by steam distillation.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Artemisia annua has long been used successfully for prevention, but especially also for curing malaria and for fever and infections.
Since 2002, artemisinin has been recognised by the WHO as a treatment for malaria. In 2015, the Chinese researcher Professor Youyou Tu received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery made in 1975. Today, more than 500 scientific studies prove its healing power.
In the current pandemic, the medicinal plant came into the focus of researchers after the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, reported treatment successes with COVID-19 patients. There, the plant is considered a traditional remedy.
Now the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam is investigating plant extracts and active substances from Artemisia annua together with the American company ArtemiLife Inc. Initial laboratory tests should now provide information about the effect against the new virus.
“Looking at the similarity between the two viruses [SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2], these plant extracts and artemisinin derivatives need to be tested against the new coronavirus, which this international collaboration now makes possible”, says the Professor of Chemist Peter Seeberger from the Max Planck Institute.
Barbara Simonsohn, health expert and author of the compact guidebook “Artemisia annua”, spoke, when interviewed, about the amazing healing power of the plant Artemisia annua (annual mugwort), which is not only used as an important remedy for malaria, but meanwhile also for cancer, Lyme disease, hepatitis, herpes and bacterial infections.
Healing and active ingredients
Artemisia annua contains numerous important minerals in high concentrations, including potassium, calcium, phosphorus and sulphur as well as the trace element boron.
So far, 245 ingredients have been isolated and proven, including over sixty different active substances that have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-parasitic, tumour-inhibiting and immune-stimulating effects. This plant has been successfully applied against malaria, hepatitis B, herpes viruses and hepatitis C viruses, against AIDS and also against cancer.
The secret of the effect of artemisinin lies in its reaction with iron, which is found in high concentration in malaria pathogens. When it comes into contact with iron, a chemical reaction takes place that produces free radicals. These are the real weapon against the pathogens. They attack their cell membrane, literally “burst” it and thus destroy the malaria parasites. Cancer cells have a great need for iron. If artemisinin is administered, an analogous reaction is initiated as with malaria. All resulting oxygen radicals lead to the death or growth-inhibiting effect of cancer cells.
Since the production process is quite expensive and time-consuming, artemisinin is now also obtained biotechnologically with the help of genetically modified yeasts. Since artemisinin itself is quite unstable, its semi-synthetic derivatives artesunate, artemotile, artemether and others are mostly used in medicines.
In Europe, the one-year old mugwort is usually grown as a hybrid, because one specialises in only one of its active ingredients and strengthens it by breeding.
Artemisia annua destroys parasites
Annual mugwort is used to eliminate intestinal worms, especially pinworms and roundworms. Roundworms are parasites that also infect the human intestine.
Pinworms can cause extreme itching in the anal region, while roundworms can cause coughing, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhoea, blood in the stool and weight loss.
Parasites can be treated with natural remedies. The annual mugwort, black walnut (Juglans nigra) and clove (Syzygium aromaticum) are often used together to kill a parasitic infection.
If these three medicinal plants are taken at the same time, you can break the life cycle of the parasite together.
Artemisia annua destroys bacteria
Studies confirm that the essential oils of Artemisia annua have antimicrobial abilities. Artemisia essential oil has a broad spectrum of antibacterial activity against several strains of bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella.
E. coli is another type of bacteria that can cause many problems, from diarrhoea and gastritis to urinary tract infections, pneumonia and other illnesses.
Artemisia can not only kill bacteria, but also destroys fungi. The essential oil distilled from the above-ground parts of mugwort inhibited the growth of a very wide spectrum of tested fungi. The essential oil also showed antioxidative properties during the test.
Artemisia annua against Lyme disease
Artemisia can also be helpful against Lyme disease. Dr. Armin Schwarzbach from the Borreliose Center in Augsburg estimates that there are 1.2 million new cases every year in Germany alone. Borrelia are spiral bacteria that infect a variety of tissues, enter into different organs and are hiding there. “Common diseases”, such as arthritis or cardiac insufficiency, can be late consequences of a tick bite.
Artemisia annua to help people with cancer
A few years ago, the Artemisia derivative artemisinin was also discovered as a promising remedy against cancer and further investigations took place. It probably works via cell-damaging peroxide (H2O2), which falls into two aggressive radicals with the cooperation of iron. Iron is often present in cancer cells in significantly higher concentration, so in theory they should be more susceptible.
A pilot project at the Heidelberg Women’s Hospital with breast cancer patients showed that the drug artesunate (a derivative of artemisin) is effective against black skin cancer and that it is used as an adjunct in leukaemia, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancer, according to Prof. Thomas Efferth. The inhibition of cancer cell growth, especially in the urogenital area, has been investigated and it has been shown that the cancer cells are directly prevented from growing. Unfortunately, there are no comprehensive studies so far.
On the page of the US Library of Medizine you can find 51 studies on the topic of Artemisia annua and cancer alone.
Artemisia can be used both internally and externally. Available are, for example, ointments, capsules, raw leaf powder, herbal extract and tea. The plant can also be grown annually on the balcony or in the garden. The leaves are harvested before the tiny yellow flowers open up and dried in the air or in an oven or dehydrator. The dried leaves can be stored in a paper bag and ground into powder shortly before use.
In Switzerland, it is also known as “Healing World Ointment” (Heile-Welt-Salbe). It is an all-rounder that should not be missing from any house and first aid kit. The ointment helps with eczema, itching, insect bites, couperose (a vasodilatation caused by genetic factors) and warts, among other things. The tincture of the one year old mugwort is long lasting and is taken drop by drop.
It is important that tea preparations from annual mugwort are not taken carelessly to avoid resistance to malaria.
Note: For health conditions, do not use medicinal plants without consulting a doctor or pharmacist.