Is Asafoetida the panacea we were looking for?



asafoetida stone
Known as devil dung, stink gum etc. ferula, commonly known as 'hing' in Hindi, Asafoetida is a pungent smelling sap of an underground rhizome that grows primarily in Iran, Afghanistan, China and India. Famous in many cuisines as a flavour enhancer, asafoetida has long been an important ingredient in traditional remedies for combating trouble in the digestive tract, respiratory tract and even been used as a traditional contraceptive. Ferula asafoetida is also a popular home medicine for cough, cholera and chronic bronchitis. Because of its pungent odour and taste, it is many times used as a cure for hysteria as well.


But like every traditional remedy, the medical value of Asafoetida is not taken very seriously. This trend of disregarding local medicines and home remedies can somewhere be related to the lack of having sufficient scientific backing. And like many home remedies, the trend of following it blindly through generations, doesn’t really help its cause in an age of growing scientific awareness. Which thus leads to us disregarding it, calling it backward and baseless, only to be corrected a little later when western medicine finally accepts it and it receives recognition.


Asafoetida powder


Asafoetida has long been used as an herb for traditional medicine and as flavouring for the Indian cuisine. But thanks to our quest to unravel nature and bust myths of traditional practice and to finally put an end to our speculation, we have, on many occasions, come to appreciate our findings.

In an interesting study done in 2009, Lee et al, took a closer look at the “claimed” properties of Asafoetida and managed to come up with interesting facts and figures. The study demonstrated that there were many potent antiviral compounds in f. asafoetida. A sum total of more than 30 compounds were isolated with over 20 compounds being antiviral, anti-inflammatory and even anti-cancer in nature. The study goes a step further and tests the isolated compounds for their anti-viral and cytotoxic properties with various bio assays.


sesquiterpene coumarins


Two new sesquiterpene coumarins, designated 5′-acetoxy-8′-hydroxyumbelliprenin (1) and 10′R-acetoxy-11′-hydroxyumbelliprenin (2), and a new diterpene, 15-hydroxy-6-en-dehydroabietic acid (3), along with 27 known compounds, were isolated from a CHCl3-soluble extract of Ferula assa-foetida through bioassay-guided fractionation. Structures of the new metabolites 13 were identified by spectroscopic data interpretation and by the Mosher ester method. Compounds 4 and 613 showed greater potency against influenza A virus (H1N1) (IC500.26−0.86 μg/mL) than amantadine (IC50 0.92 μg/mL), and 11 exhibited the best potency (IC500.51, 2.6, and 3.4 μg/mL) of these compounds against the HepG2, Hep3B, and MCF-7 cancer cell lines, respectively. Image and text credit. Lee et al 2009. PMID: 19691312
The results that were obtained from the bioassays performed showed that the compounds that were isolated from f. asafoetida demonstrated powerful anti-viral properties. In fact the compounds that were being tested did far better than the control, amatadine, which is a popular antiviral drug in the market. The team also looked at the cytotoxic properties of the compound and found a few compounds that demonstrated powerful cytotoxic properties, having inhibited rapid cell multiplication making it a potential therapeutic agent against cancer, 

Traditional medicines and home remedies have been around for a while and seem to have something to offer for every ailment, right from a common cough and cold to psoriasis and migraine. It is high time we took a closer look at them and the properties they offer rather than just disregard them on grounds of having no scientific backing for their claims. Studies like these show us the importance of keeping an unbiased and an open mind to every thing. Just because something has been followed for generations does not necessarily mean it is blind faith. This is exactly what science teaches us, not to accept things at their face value. Rerum Cognoscere Causas, to discover the cause of things.

Reference: 

Lee CL, Chiang LC, Cheng LH, Liaw CC, Abd El-Razek MH, Chang FR, & Wu YC (2009). Influenza A (H(1)N(1)) Antiviral and Cytotoxic Agents from Ferula assa-foetida. Journal of natural products, 72 (9), 1568-72 PMID: 19691312

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