Asafoetida, also commonly spelled asafedtida, is a very pungent herb, commonly used to flavor meatballs, curries, and other dishes. It is indigenous to parts of Afghanistan and Iran, but is also commonly grown in the United States. Asafoetida has many uses in traditional folk medicine, most notably for the relief of intestinal gas and flatulence.
The asafoetida resin is commonly harvested for medicinal use. This is done by cutting the stalks close to the ground just before the plant flowers, then exposing and cutting open the roots. A gummy substance collects at the cuts, which dries into a resin and is then harvested. The process can be repeated many times over the course of about three months. After this time, the plant dries out and the harvest is complete.
Over the years asafoetida has been used for many medicinal purposes, though there is no clinical support to back up any claims of its effectiveness. The resin from this herb is frequently used to prevent flatulence, or to relieve internal gas. This continues to be one of the most common reasons for taking it, and many people claim it is highly effective for this purpose.
Other medical uses for asafoetida include help for irregular or painful menstruation, as an antispasmodic, and as an expectorant. People have also used asafoetida for things as diverse as ridding the body of parasitic worms and as an aphrodisiac. Often the herb’s resin, or gum, is mixed with various other ingredients to cause it to deliver different benefits, and it may be ingested, inhaled, or used in an enema.
Historically this powerful resin was sometimes hung on a string around the necks of children, to prevent them from getting sick. The idea was that it would help to prevent disease by repelling the causes of many health problems because they — the diseases — were sensitive to the strong odor. Some people have postulated that it may have helped to prevent illness because the smell was so strong that people would keep their distance from anyone wearing it, thus minimizing the transmission of germs to the wearer.
Despite the unproven nature of the many claims about asafoetida, there is some evidence that it may, indeed, have significant health benefits. It has been demonstrated under laboratory conditions that this herb is effective against the H1N1 virus, when tested in vitro. Further testing is needed to see what the benefits may be when used by people to combat illness, but no matter how the tests come out, it is likely that the many users of asafoetida will continue to take this herb for a wide variety of medicinal purposes.