Can You Die From Absinthe? What about hallucinations?
May 15th, 2013
Categories : Blog
So what is this “absinthe,” A.K.A. “The Green Fairy?” Is it just plain, normal alcohol? Is it more poisonous than normal alcohol? Does it makes you throw up; or does it make you hallucinate, and see things that aren’t there, like creatures or bugs or stars or something? Or can absinthe give you delusions, and disconnect you from reality. Can it do that permanently; can it make you drunk permanently? Can’t it kill you; don’t a lot of people die annually from absinthe?
All these questions; and each questions assumes a lot, just as a starting point. Particularly, there are two interesting and well known stories about absinthe: one is about a supposed delusion, and the other is about a hallucination.
A famous poet by the name of Oscar Wilde (who you might have learned about in English class; his works are considered masterpieces and are classics talked about in nearly every general textbook on the subject) describes his strange experience with absinthe. One late night, Wilde had been out drinking at the local bar. Beer, and a lot of absinthe. As the night grew on, the sun began to come up, and as the morning arrived, Wilde made his way home. Looking down, as his legs shuffled back and forth across the sidewalk, he suddenly made out the image of tulips, brightly colored and vivid, sprouting from his legs, winding across them as he walked. As he stared, the hallucination grew more life-like; but he blinked, and it disappeared. Startled, he walked home, experiencing no other adverse effects from the night, other than a lot of exhaustion and a heck of a hangover. Did Wilde actually hallucinate the tulips because of the absinthe? Most clinicians say no. They attribute it to his “creative license,” along with the fact that he had been up all night at a local bar drinking strong alcohol. But, Wilde maintained that the story was entirely non-fiction, and that he had no other explanation for the event, other than the fact that all the absinthe he had drunk ended up making him hallucinate.
By the way, sometimes it gets mixed up that Oscar Wilde killed his family, and even himself, after a long period of drinking absinthe. This isn’t true. Wilde died on November 30, 1900 of cerebral meningitis. However, the notion of murder in this mix-up isn’t out of the blue. Here’s the second story.
Way back in the year 1905, a man named Jean Lanfray lived in his place in Switzerland with his wife and two kids. His wife had another baby on the way. But, still, Lanfray was having a bad time. He had been an alcoholic for a while, and at this point, he had been drinking absinthe throughout the day for almost three days. For that period, Lanfray had woken up in the morning and grabbed a bottle of absinthe and mix it with brandy. He’d finish it and grab another one after breakfast; or sometimes before. Then before lunch, and before dinner…until this morning, he had done it again. Eventually something happened inside his brain. Swiss doctors and researchers still aren’t sure whether he had preexisting mental conditions, whether he had a hallucination from being particularly vulnerable to alcohol poisoning, or if the absinthe he had been drinking simply turned the man psychotic. That day, Lanfray shot and killed his pregnant wife; afterwards, he murdered his two children. At the time, police and doctors in Switzerland blamed the massacre entirely on absinthe and its apparent psychosis-inducing effects. Following a public rage and political controversy in the nation, Switzerland federally banned absinthe in 1908. Soon after, many other nations would do the same; the United States, France, and several other European countries would do the same before the beginning of WWI six years later.
So, with the banning of absinthe around nations worldwide, absinthe got itself a bad name. Numerous myths popped up and circulated around through the mouths of alcoholics, pub regulars, and non-drinkers alike. Criminal activity, gangs, and illegal drugs were all in the same category that absinthe had been suddenly thrust into. Absinthe was eventually accused of corrupting innocent minds, incepting murderous or suicidal thoughts, and luring in children, morphing them from kids to thieves, druggies, and homosexuals (which was frowned upon by most everyone at the time; religious leaders were strict and the church’s presence was much stronger back then), among other things.
Flip back to today. In nearly every single nation that allows the drinking of regular alcohol (which is, nearly, every single nation) includes absinthe, or has separately legalized its use. Nearly 100 years after the United States first banned the drink in 1908, it wrote a bill into law re-scheduling it in 2007, making absinthe completely legal for bars to sell and patrons to drink (as long as the drink didn’t have any of the chemical called thujone, which we’ll talk about more later). Other alcohol companies and distillers in Europe are importing the drink gallon after gallon, and the number increases year after year.
So why the complete 180 degree turn in absinthe-related laws?
The short answer is that, today, most countries are now aware that absinthe is, as far as toxicity is related, no different than any other type of alcohol. It has a very high ethanol content (i.e. alcohol content), yes; absinthe ranges from around 110 to 150 proof, or 55 to 75 percent pure alcohol. If you don’t know your beverages: for perspective, hard liquor, like vodka or whiskey (think shots of Jack Daniel’s) are usually around 80 proof or more at most, which is 40 percent pure alcohol (because of this, absinthe is usually recommended and branded as a spirit that’s meant to be diluted in another flavored drink). But, when brewed right and sanitized correctly, like any good alcoholic beverage should be, absinthe is a perfectly healthy, safe drink with a potent alcohol buzz and a unique herbal taste that makes it a great choice among the various distilled beverages available today.
How’s absinthe made? What’s in it?
A “traditional” absinthe spirit production starts with the gathering of grande wormwood, green anise, and Florence fennel along with other different flowers, roots, and herbs depending on the specific brewer and the recipe they’re using. The three plants are dipped in alcohol and left to soak.
Afterwards, when the wormwood, anise and fennel are well-saturated with ethanol, the mixture is either left out in dry air or heated gently to evaporate the ethanol, taking along with it the saturated oils of the herbs. This is known as the distillation process; it’s done to separate the excess water and plant parts from the final absinthe solution, increasing its potency (and likewise, its alcohol content) and improving its flavor by getting rid of the bitter and harsh essences of the wormwood, anise and fennel.
The vapor alcohol-plant mixture is redirected to a chamber in which it cools and condenses on the surfaces of the walls inside, forming droplets that eventually drip, come together, and build up to flow out as pure, newly-distilled absinthe. After the entire process is finished, the end solution is usually diluted in either water or some other flavored liquid, bringing the drink’s ethanol content down to whatever the specific level for the desired spirit should be (this is actually often based on legal regulations and definitions which vary from country to country and place to place; for example, a local government might define absinthe spirit as having exactly 45 to 74 percent alcohol content).
It ends up as a clean, colorless liquid with a distinct taste. You might be used to absinthe with a green tinge; distillers, breweries, and sellers like to mix other plants or extracts in with the spirit, to both improve its flavor and to give it a touch of its classic light emerald hue (which comes from the chemical chlorophyll: it’s the chemical that plant cells use to absorb light in photosynthesis, and it gives all green plants their natural bright hue).
Why do people think absinthe can make you hallucinate, or go delusional?
Well, the specific substance that brings up all the commotion about hallucinations and such is called thujone. As wormwood grows naturally, it produces thujone, and it stays in some wormwood, through some methods of absinthe production. None of these production methods are legal anywhere in the United States or specifically legal anywhere absinthe is legal in Europe.
In large, concentrated dosages, such as one someone would get by taking extracts and tinctures or only very large amounts of wormwood or thujone-containing absinthe multiple times, regularly, thujone can be poisonous. But, at the levels you get from absinthe with thujone and plain wormwood alike, the substance is hardly harmful.
Thujone shows up naturally in many different types of food; you might have already taken some thujone during a meal today, yourself. Also, standard distillation processes remove almost all of the thujone of the final solution. All of the absinthe you’ll see on shelves and in glasses in pubs, bars, and liquor stores will contain such a small amount of thujone that it’s completely insignificant, health-wise or biochemistry-wise. Legal regulations strictly keep the level of thujone in sellable drinks to a negligible minimum, and if you’re worried about the amount of thujone is self-brewed or moonshine absinthes, don’t, because: a) the amount of thujone still isn’t concentrated enough to have any harmful lasting effects, as far as modern doctors are concerned, and b) unless you’re an experienced drinker who doesn’t need the info in this article anyway, you should be keeping away from moonshine, opting only for high quality, most likely high-priced spirit (but more on that later).
At the high doses we talked about earlier, however, thujone starts to inhibit Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain and body, possibly leading to a decrease in GABA brain waves and the related functions of the GAB A receptors. Symptoms of overdoses of thujone, similar to overdoses of other GABA receptor inhibitors, include loss of motor control and, at times, convulsions and seizures. GABA receptors and GABA brain waves play an important role in the brain’s chemistry and functioning; they’re involved with regulation of mood (especially euphoria vs. dysphoria), the way memories are created and sorted, the way humans learn, and parts of the brain that drive motivation and the human feeling of “will.” Inhibition of GABA receptors can, a lot of times, be rather uncomfortable, and, some of the time at higher levels, be dangerous to GABA’s role as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (because humans have spines, which make them vertebrate; and GABA is the main neurotransmitter in the CNS of all vertebrate animals).
So, with all the shady chemistry and controversy surrounding thujone and its effects, the chemical came into the spotlight as a component or sole cause of absinthe-related hallucinations. But science quickly said otherwise. Thujone, and what it does at the GABA receptors, regardless of its dosage, doesn’t cause hallucinations of psychotic outbreaks in healthy people (changing levels of the GABA neurotransmitter can prove to cause problems in people with pre-existing psychological disorders or family history of them, such as an increased likelihood of a schizophrenic having a psychotic break or a relapse of a manic episode in bi-polar patient previously cured through therapy and psychiatric drugs). Even with its effects at the GABA receptors, thujone shows up in such a small amount in absinthe that its effects wouldn’t be noticeable anyway. In fact, before a drinker felt anything from the thujone they were drinking, they would get hit by traditional alcohol poisoning from the sheer amount of ethanol they were ingesting. On top of this, other than Wilde’s tulips appearing during his drunk, early-morning trip home, there are no well documented accounts of absinthe ever directly inducing hallucinations, anyway.
And what about absinthe deaths?
Don’t forget, absinthe is still alcohol. In fact, it’s one of the most alcohol-potent spirits by volume and weight on the market today. And alcohol is a drug and a depressant that you are perfectly capable of overdosing on, and in bad cases, that overdose can kill you.
Because of this, there have been, of course, some deaths directly attached to the overdose of absinthe and the alcohol in it. A user might’ve drunk too many shots at home, not wanting to call the police or a hospital and worry about the deal of revealing himself as an alcoholic, passing out, going comatose, then, eventually, dying; or, it could have been a younger person at a party, taking shots of it and dancing the night out, misjudging its potency and slamming down shots way to quickly, then passing out, and passing away. Deaths related to alcohol are always tragic, and sometimes they are so because they could have been avoided so easily. But maybe it’s better to take comfort in that fact, for the future: alcohol overdoses, especially from absinthe, which can be nearly twice as potent as vodka, can easily be avoided, if you be smart and be prepared before you get drunk.
As far as the safety of acquiring absinthe, there are a few obvious things you should do.
If you’re new to the drink, don’t buy anything cheap. If you’re not experienced and not a regular drinker of absinthe, you probably can’t really be sure of where what you’re drinking is coming from, if it’s a cheap source; and if you’re trying it the first time, you should test out a quality beverage, anyway! Cheap absinthe can have additional additives and side-ingredients from poor distillation or brewery (including an excess of thujone, though still, the amount won’t be harmful to health). Who knows; one of these additives might actually make you hallucinate. So know what you’re putting in your body, and make your first absinthe experience a good one.
As a side note, if you’re going to brew up some moonshine absinthe at home, be careful. A lot of those “sketchy” absinthe sources we just talked about sell exactly that: their own, homemade moonshine. Done by an amateur, that’s how measurable amounts of thujone as well as other unwanted chemicals get into absinthe, leading to more alcohol and absinthe-related health problems and even deaths, which could all have been prevented. And as a side-side note, moonshine and home-made brew never tastes as good as a real, professionally-distilled beverage. According to some, trying out absinthe from a DIY kit (a lot of these types of packages are sold online, advertising a setup that can create pub quality absinthe in your own home that is, of course, never up to par) for the first time is like “tasting liquor-soaked-herb beverage, not absinthe.”
So, we know now that absinthe isn’t any more harmful than regular alcohol. It is just as harmful as alcohol can be, and it’s stronger by volume. But it won’t cause hallucinations to break out, and it won’t send you into a psychotic delusion. That’s a relief!