Artemisia princeps (mugwort) is a tall plant that grows along roadsides and in waste places.
This common weed has remarkable medicinal properties that have been used in China and Japan alongside acupuncture for many centuries.
Mugwort leaves are whitish underneath due to many tiny hairs, which contain aromatic oils.
Using traditional methods, the leaves are dried and ground up to produce a yellowish-brown fluffy substance called moxa, that can easily be moulded into different shapes.
When moxa is burnt it smoulders to release heat and essential oils – this “moxibustion” is done close to or directly on the skin to provide various therapeutic effects.
An inserted acupuncture needle can be warmed up by fixing a malteser-sized ball of moxa to its handle. The heat from the burning moxa passes down the needle to warm up the deep tissues, providing relief for conditions such as back pain and sciatica.
The moxa may be rolled in paper to form a cigar-like stick, which is lit and held above the skin to give gentle radiating warmth, similar to an infra red lamp.
Moxa can also be burnt directly on the skin. Medical research in Japan has shown that tiny amounts of tissue injury caused by burning moxa can have immediate beneficial effects on the blood and immune system. This may sound a bit barbaric ! – but don’t worry – modern acupuncturists use a very gentle approach, usually experienced as very pleasant and comforting.
In my treatments I often use small cones of moxa, placed on the skin and burnt only half way down. This gives a lovely feeling of deeply penetrating warmth, wonderful for any cold or tense areas of the body. Or I might use tiny pieces the size of a sesame seed, which burn down to a fine point.
Applied regularly at appropriate places on the body, this can be very beneficial for the circulation and general health and can relieve painful conditions like arthritis.
In the days before antibiotics it was used in Japan to treat patients with difficult illnesses such as TB. It has also been shown to have very specific effects – for example used on the little toe of a pregnant woman it can cause a breached baby to turn.
Direct moxibustion was developed in Japan as a home therapy, since it is most effective when repeated every day. I like to teach my clients how to use moxa so they can apply it themselves between visits to the clinic.