Latin Names: Ferula foetida / Ferula asafoetida

Other Names: Hiltit (Arabic), Ah Wei (Chinese), Asafoetida / Devil’s Dung (English), Narthex (Greek), Hing / Hingu (Hindi / Sanskrit), Shira’ yi angadan (Persian), Balega diavolului (Romanian)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom, Apiaceae / Umbelliferae (Parsley family)

Part Used: The exuded gum; although Avicenna mentions using the root and other parts of the plant in his Canon of Medicine, by far, the most commonly used part is the exuded gum.

Basic Qualities: Avicenna tells us that Asafoetida gum is Hot and Wet in temperament. He tells us that there are basically two types of Asafoetida gum – the white and the black, with the black being hotter in temperament, even to the point of being burning. According to Avicenna, the adulteration of Asafoetida gum is common, with the most common adulterants being Sagapenum and Broad Bean flour.

Other Qualities: Attenuating, blood thinning, dissolving, gas relieving (gum); expelling, purgative (root)

Taste: Quite pungent and aromatic; slightly sweet and salty

Humoral Dynamics: Sanguine – thins and attenuates the blood; also stops bleeding.  Phlegmatic – concocts and dissolves stagnant and turbid phlegm in the intestines and GI tract via its heating properties.  Choleric – Asafoetida gum can aggravate excess heat and choler if used excessively, or in sensitive individuals.  Melancholic – Expels excess gas and flatulence, strengthens the nerves, calms pain and spasms, removes blockages.

Tropism: Asafoetida is primarily a remedy that targets the stomach, intestines and GI tract; beyond these areas, it is a metabolic and digestive stimulant in general, useful in many cases in which the digestive and metabolic fires of the body are frail or weak. Asafoetida also has a strengthening and calming effect on the nervous system in general. Asafoetida’s warming and stimulating properties also benefit the throat, lungs and respiratory tract, as well as the female reproductive system.

Constituents and Pharmacology: The strong sulfurous odor of Asafoetida gum, which is similar to onions and garlic, provides a key to understanding its chemical constituents and composition. A typical Asafoetida plant is composed of about 40 – 64% resin, 25% endogenous gum, 10 – 17% volatile oil, and 1.5 – 10% ash. The resinous portion is known to contain asaresinotannols A and B, ferulic acid, umbelliferone and four unidentified compounds. The volatile oil component is rich in various organic sulfide compounds, such as 2-butyl-propenyl disulfide, diallyl sulfide, which is also present in garlic; and dimethyl trisulfide, which is responsible for the odor of cooked onions. – 1. The gum portion of Asafoetida contains glucose, galactose and rhamnose. Other constituents of the volatile oil include polysulphides, sulphated terpenes, pinene, cadinene and vanillin. Asafoetida also contains other coumarins, including Asafoetidin and foetidin. – 3.

Medicinal Properties: Gum – Analgesic, antidote, antiflatulent, antidiarrheic, anthelminitic, antimicrobial, antiparasitic, antiperiodic, antirheumatic, antispasmodic, antitussive, carminative, emmenagogue, expectorant, nervine, stimulant, stomachic, tonic

Cautions and Contraindications: Asafoetida gum is quite heating in temperament, and may provoke undue irritation and pathological heat reactions in sensitive individuals. Avicenna says that it irritates the bladder.

Medicinal Uses: Asafoetida gum is used for digestive weakness, flatulence, bloating and colic, for treating parasites and intestinal infections, as well as intestinal flora imbalances.The regular ingestion of Asafoetida gum is said to be a digestive tonic that strengthens the stomach and intestines with daily use.Its warming stimulant action is also beneficial to the lungs, throat and respiratory tract, helping to concoct and expel phlegm, clear the throat and the voice, and to make breathing easier, even in asthma; it also has a protective effect against colds and respiratory infections.Avicenna recommends its topical use for cosmetic purposes, in improving body odor, treating thinning hair and balding, and for treating pimples and abscesses.The warming properties of Asafoetida gum also have antirheumatic propertieswhen used with oil of Violet or Henna.The analgesic properties of Asafoetida gum were used for toothache and filling dental cavities in Avicenna’s day, and its topical use in mouthwashes was recommended for strengthening the teeth and preventing tooth decay.Combined with Castoreum (the scent gland essence from a beaver) as well as Opium and Rue, Avicenna recommends Asafoetida gum for treating contusions of the ear.Avicenna recommends inhaling Asafoetida powder as a snuff for treating chronic nasal catarrh.Used as a collyrium when mixed with honey, Avicenna tells us that Asafoetida is useful in treating the initial stages of cataracts.Avicenna also recommends Asafoetida as an antidote for the poison of scorpion and tarantula stings.Sexually speaking, Asafoetida has a reputation as an aphrodisiac due to its warming, stimulating properties; it also acts as an emmenagogue to stimulate the menstrual flow and relieve menstrual cramps in women, as well as to treat leuorrhea, especially when it is due to a cold, wet Phlegmatic imbalance.All in all, Asafoetida gum is very useful and versatile as a handy remedy for many different conditions and complaints.

Other Uses: Aside from its medicinal uses, the main use of Asafoetida gum is in cooking; although its culinary use was once more widespread, Asafoetida gum is now used mainly in Indian cuisine, where its strong aroma, similar to that of garlic and onions, is used either as a substitute for the latter, or in combination with them.

Preparation and Dosage: Asafoetida gum is a fairly potent medicinal substance, so it is useful and effective even in relatively small doses.Taken orally, a pinch or two of the powdered gum is all that is needed to stimulate the appetite and digestion, and to treat digestive complaints like colic, bloating, flatulence, and intestinal infections and flora imbalances.Because the pure, raw gum is quite sticky, Asafoetida gum, particularly in powdered form, is mixed with other excipients and neutral substances, such as rice or wheat flour, that serve to prevent cohesion of the particles together and to keep the Asafoetida in powdered form.This mixing of the raw Asafoetida gum with other excipients and neutral substances can be overdone, however, leading to excessive dilution and adulteration of the main ingredient.One of the common English names for Asafoetida is Devil’s Dung – but let’s hope that that is not one of the adulterants!Another common form of preparing Asafoetida gum is as an alcoholic tincture, a form in which it is very convenient and serviceable.

Herbal Formulation: Because Asafoetida gum is one of the more powerful herbal remedies, it is best used in small doses, in combination with other ingredients.In combination with other heating or warming and pungent digestive spices, Asafoetida can be a powerful stimulant to the appetite and digestion, and to the digestive fire. Asafoetida can also be a very useful and versatile ingredient in herbal formulas to promote intestinal health, and to heal parasitic infections and intestinal flora imbalances. Asafoetida’s strong aromatic properties to clear and unblock the subtle channels of the body can also be utilized and accentuated synergistically when used in combination with other super-aromatic substances, like the Rue and Castoreum that we saw above.

Classic Combinations: In Ayurvedic medicine, Asafoetida gum is a key ingredient in the traditional formula Hingashtak; the other ingredients are Ginger, Black Pepper, Long Pepper, Celery Seed, Rock Salt, Cumin Seed and Nigella Seed.To stimulate the appetite and digestion, Asafoetida can also be combined with Ginger, Cardamom and Fennel seed.In combination with Calamus root (Acorus calamus), Asafoetida can be used to treat epilepsy and convulsions.

Description: Asafoetida gum is the resinous exudation on the stalk of Ferula asafoetida, which is a large plant of the Apiaceae or Parsley family, which is similar in height and stature to a large Angelica plant.Horizontal incisions are made in the stalk, and then the exuded gum is collected.The plant appears to be indigenous to the Iranian plateau and central Asia, from whence it spread outwards towards the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and East Asia.Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Asafoetida gum is its strong odor, which resembles that of garlic and onions.So strong and pervasive is this odor that it is a commonly used cooking spice in Indian cuisine, either as a substitute for garlic and onions, or in addition to them.In the central Asian countries to which it is indigenous, Asafoetida is often consumed as a daily tonic, which is said to strengthen the intestines and digestion with regular use.And so, the best place to buy Asafoetida gum is usually in Middle Eastern or Indian supermarkets.The best indicator of quality in Asafoetida gum is a strong odor; if there is no strong odor, do not buy it.

For me, Asafoetida gum is an essential item for my first aid kit whenever I go traveling, especially in third world countries with poor sanitation.You see, I have a weak and sensitive digestion and intestinal tract, and Asafoetida gum is a handy remedy for most of the cases of turista – of intestinal bugs that one gets if one eats something problematic in a questionable roadside restaurant – or even if you have been too lax about washing hands before meals.Asafoetida isn’t guaranteed to knock out every kind of intestinal infection there is, but it is sufficient to handle a great number of them.So, my little plastic canister of Asafoetida gum, bought in an Indian grocery store, goes with me whenever I go overseas.The heating energy of the Asafoetida concocts or burns off the microbes that are causing the problem, while also stimulating the digestive fire to burn off more of them.Asafoetida will also remedy chronic diarrhea or loose stools caused by a chronically cold and weak digestion if one takes it on a regular basis, strengthening the intestines and GI tract with regular use.

Ayurvedic medicine provides a deeper look at how exactly Asafoetida benefits the stomach and digestive tract.Its heating and unctuous properties are good at pacifying aggravated Vata, or gas and the Melancholic humor, in the digestive tract, moving the Samana Vayu, or centering vital air in the stomach, while bringing Apana Vayu, or the descending vital air in the colon and intestines down to counteract intestinal gas, distension, bloating, colic and reflux symptoms.The heating energy of Asafoetida stimulates the digestive fire and burns off toxins that have accumulated from a weak or inefficient digestion, but excessive use in sensitive individuals can aggravate excess Pitta, or heat and choler, which could then lead to digestive upset – so proper dosage and prescribing is important.Avicenna, in his Canon of Medicine, says that Asafoetida is useful for warming a cold stomach, and for strengthening the stomach, appetite and digestion.However, overuse can harm the stomach and liver, he tells us.Asafoetida is also great for treating chronic candidiasis and correcting intestinal flora imbalances.

Asafoetida’s warming, stimulating and penetrating aromatic properties are also useful in treating many other conditions affecting other parts of the body as well.Its warming, loosening, expectorant and antispasmodic properties are useful in clearing phlegm congestion from the lungs and throat, opening the airways, facilitating breathing, and in treating spasmodic coughing and asthma, as well as loosening intestinal and abdominal cramps and spasms.Ayurvedic medicine considers Asafoetida to be a tonic for the entire nervous system, reducing the pain of sciatica and other neuralgic conditions, and even being beneficial for treating epilepsy and paralysis.Asafoetida is useful for treating many kinds of stagnation and blockage in the nervous system leading to pain and fatigue, and its analgesic properties make it a valuable ingredient in topical plasters and cataplasms.Asafoetida also warms the uterus and stimulates the menses, treating dysmenorrhea, as well as leucorrhea of a cold, wet, Phlegmatic nature; it shares this stimulating effect on the female menses with other herbs in the Apiaceae or Parsley family, such as Dong Quai and Angelica root.

Related Species: Asafoetida is generally thought to have come into the Mediterranean world by an overland route from Iran, with an expedition of Alexander the Great into northern Persia usually thought responsible for its introduction.Alexander thought that he had found a plant that was almost identical to the famed Silphium of Cyrene from North Africa, even though it was less tasty.Dioscorides, in the first century, wrote: “The Cyreniac kind (Silphium), even if one just tastes it, at once arouses a humor throughout the body and has a very healthy aroma, so that it is not noticed on the breath, or only a little; but the Median (Iranian Asafoetida) is weaker in power and has a nastier smell.”This notwithstanding, the newly introduced Asafoetida could be substituted for Silphium in cooking, which was indeed fortunate, because a few decades after Dioscorides’ time, Silphium became extinct.And so, physicians and cooks alike had to settle for Asafoetida, the nasty smelling “Devil’s Dung” of today.Silphium was used as a seasoning, a perfume, an aphrodisiac, and a contraceptive by the ancient Greeks and Romans.Silphium was the cornerstone of commerce and the local economy in Cyrene, and ancient coins minted in that city bear an image of the plant, which was said to be worth its weight in denari (Roman money), or even gold.Although the exact identity of Silphium is unknown, it was believed to be of the same Ferula genus as Asafoetida.Overharvesting and overgrazing are thought to have led to its extinction.Hippocrates even recommends its use in the following passage:

When the gut protrudes and will not remain in its place, scrape the finest and most compact Silphium into small pieces and apply as a cataplasm.
 - Hippocrates, from “On Fistulae, Section 9”, translated by Francis Adams.

My sources for this material on Silphium are the Wikipedia articles on Asafoetida and Silphium, cited in sources 1. and 2. below.

Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice by Sebastian Pole, pp. 197 – 198. @ 2006 by Elsevier, Ltd., Philadelphia, PA USA.
The Canon of Medicine, Vol. 2: Natural Pharmaceuticals by Avicenna, pp. 58 – 68.Compiled and translated by Laleh Bakhtiar, edited by Seyyed Hossain Nasr.@ 2012 by Laleh Bakhtiar.Published by Great Books of the Islamic World, Inc., distributed by Kazi Publications, Chicago, IL, USA.

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.