Ancient ‘Indian’ Herb Has Long List of Medicinal Properties

Studies reveal asafoetida has diuretic, analgesic, antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-diabetic, anti-carcinogenic, and other properties

Asafoetida has been an important herb and spice in Indian cooking and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. India has always had to import it from Iran and Afghanistan, where it thrives in their cold climates. A new experimental crop in the cold Lahaul valley may eventually bring this herb home to India while reducing India’s import cost, which currently averages $100 million a year for 1,200 tons.

What Is Asafoetida?

Asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida) is a wild perennial fennel plant that grows up to six feet and has pale greenish-yellow flowers. It takes about five years to reach maturity. It is a strange astringent ingredient with a foul smell due to its high concentration of sulfur compounds, thus giving it names like Devil’s Dung or Hing. There are two main varieties: the more popular Hing Kabuli Sufaid, a sweeter milky white that is water soluble, and Hing Lal, which is red, very bitter, and oil soluble.

The juice of the roots is processed into a resin that is ground into a powder for Indian cooking and medicinal treatments. The pure, full-strength powder is brown; the yellow powder has flour and turmeric added to reduce its strength. Like other Indian spices, asafoetida works best when it is fried in a bit of hot oil, butter, or ghee for several seconds before starting to cook your dish. Once heated, it smells and tastes almost like garlic or leeks. It is commonly used in lentil and vegetable dishes such as yellow dal, poha, yogurt soups, classic rogan josh, and some curries.

Historical Significance

To understand why this herb is so important to the Indian culture, we must look at its history and religious beliefs. Hindus and the Hindu tradition of Jains do not believe in eating garlic, onions, or any of the plants in the Allium family. All these plants are considered too stimulating to the nervous system and major internal organs. The Hindus believe this detracts from focusing on the spiritual life and practices. Ayurvedic medicine also uses garlic to stimulate sexual desires as it is an aphrodisiac and thus is also a distraction from the spiritual life.

Asafoetida has been around for over 2,000 years. It was first mentioned in the Babylonian catalog of medicinal plants in the ancient library of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria as early as 600 BC. It is also mentioned in Hindu and Buddhist texts of that era. Some scholars believe it was eventually brought to India by way of Afghanistan during Alexander the Great’s expeditions of 336–323 BC.

Current Research Experiment

Farmers in the northern valley of Luhaul, high in the Himalayan mountains of India, have been given 800 plants by the government research group, Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, to cultivate as a pilot project. This area in the Luhaul Valley is a cold desert and ideal because asafoetida thrives in temperatures varying from 10–20 degrees C (50–68 degrees F). The soil is similar to the regions in Iran where a majority of the Indian import of asafoetida grows.

If this experiment is successful, it will make asafoetida a local crop and boost the local economy while cementing the pride Indians already have for asafoetida. The target is to plant 750 acres of the herb over the next five years. Farmers have covered approximately 2.5 acres so far.

Medicinal Uses

Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional medical system of India for thousands of years, is based on three basic cleansing principles for balancing body, mind, and spirit. These three categories, called doshas, are Vata (air), Pitta (digestion), and Kapha (earth and water). As an alternative practice, treatments use holistic and natural approaches to healing. In addition to herbal medicines, it incorporates other healing methods like exercise, meditation, breathing, and physical therapy.

In early Ayurvedic practices, asafoetida, besides having nutritional benefits, was often used for stomach problems as it enhances the activities of the digestive enzymes of the pancreas and small intestine, according to a paper in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. A tincture was topically used to relieve abdominal pain and gas, especially from foods such as lentils or beans. An extract from the dried stem and leaves was known to have an aphrodisiac effect on both men and women, so it was used to treat problems of libido. It was a common herb prescribed for treating hysteria.

Today, Ayurveda uses asafoetida for many other ailments besides those of the stomach, such as those listed in the aforementioned paper. Breathing problems such as asthma and bronchitis are treated using a paste of asafoetida gently smeared around the chest and under the nose so that its aroma enters the body and lungs for a curative response. Often prescribed to kill parasites and worms, a paste can also be used directly on the skin to treat corns and calluses.

There is some scientific evidence that the chemicals in asafoetida might help treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and intestinal gas. It may also protect against high levels of certain fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides, but further studies are necessary.

Recent pharmacological and clinical studies have shown that asafoetida has several important properties, including diuretic, analgesic, antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, antidiabetic, anticarcinogenic, antispasmodic, and hypotensive. For example, records show it was used as a treatment during the swine flu epidemic and for the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

Indian wholesalers who import asafoetida sell it in blocks, coarse granules, or fine powder. Due to asafoetida’s strong properties, they use minimal amounts to make various grades. Mr. Bhatia, a third-generation Indian merchant who sells more than 630,000 kilograms of asafoetida every year, claims all he needs is a whiff of asafoetida to distinguish the Afghani from the fruitier Iranian kind. Today, asafoetida is readily available from many suppliers worldwide and in various forms, including powder, oil, tablets, and capsules.

Side Effects and Risks

Although asafoetida has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic treatments, records show there are possible side effects and risks for some people if ingested in large amounts. Some have reported tingling of the lips, burping, intestinal gas, diarrhea, and headaches. It may cause nausea and vomiting because of its intense flavor.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid using asafoetida. The chemical substances in this spice might cause a miscarriage, and it has not been proven safe for babies.

Asafoetida is known to decrease blood pressure and slow blood clotting. Therefore, it is not recommended if you are taking medications for bleeding disorders, epilepsy, or high blood pressure.

Dosages have not yet been scientifically determined. Ayurvedic practitioners rely on their knowledge and experience to determine the appropriate amounts of asafoetida to prescribe depending on the ailment and the patient’s dosha. Those with questions or concerns should seek a qualified practitioner before taking asafoetida.

Sandra Cesca is a freelance writer and photographer focusing on holistic health, wellness, organic foods, healthy lifestyle choices, and whole-person medical care. Her background includes allopathic medicine, naturopathy, homeopathy, organic and biodynamic farming, and yoga practices.
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