Amy Shah, M.D., an Ivy League–trained, double-board-certified physician, masterfully integrates mainstream medicine with Eastern thought and a mind-body approach. In this piece, Dr. Shah shares her favorite herb to naturally boost digestion. To learn more, check out her mindbodygreen class: The 7-Day Gut Reset: How to Get Your Digestion Back on Track in Just One Week.
As a traditionally trained physician in the United States, I was quite surprised to learn that Ayurveda and Western integrative medicine actually have a lot in common.
Ayurveda, an ancient system of healing, believes that weak digestive fire (agni) creates digestive imbalance (ama) that is the root of all disease. In fact, the Sanskrit word for disease, amaya, translates to "born out of ama."
As a physician, I see the validity of this philosophy. In Western medicine, we call it "gut imbalance" or "leaky gut." Simply put, when our digestion isn't strong and working efficiently, it can contribute to many diseases and overall poor health.
With this in mind, I started looking into Ayurvedic foods that patients could incorporate into their diet to strengthen agni and heal a leaky gut. In Ayurvedic nutrition, herbs and spices are used not only to add flavor to dishes but also medicinally to ignite digestive fire (agni) and detox the body of metabolic waste (ama).
In my research, I found one star kept coming up over and over again: the spice Asafetida. Even if you've never heard of it before, you've probably eaten it in Indian food many times. It's a staple in most curry dishes.
But be warned: Asafetida, or Hing, is a bitter, pungent spice with a fetid smell. In fact, one of the many names it goes by is "devil's dung"! However, when cooked, it adds a bold flavor reminiscent of onion or leek. It's often used in Indian cooking with turmeric in pickles, fried meat, curries, or as a stand-alone tea.
Bitter and pungent flavors like Asafetida have been used in Ayurveda for centuries to aid digestion and burn away ama. They are known to:
- Soothe gas and bloating
- Promote circulation
- Relieve heartburn and other symptoms of indigestion
- Encourage digestive enzymes bile and HCL production
- Calm upset stomach and nausea
- Maintain healthy blood sugar levels
- Balance appetite
- Curb sugar cravings
- Ease constipation
- Kill parasites
- Remove phlegm
- Support liver function and healthy skin
Not only does Asafoetida have gut benefits, but it's also great for your immune system, demonstrating antiviral properties. In fact, in 2009 researchers reported that the roots of Asafoetida produce natural antiviral drug compounds that demonstrated potency against the H1N1 virus in vitro. Additionally, it has been used to help treat nervousness, bronchitis, asthma, and whooping cough and is claimed to be effective as an aphrodisiac.
Asafetida is the secret pungent spice you should incorporate into your diet a few times a week. An easy way to do this is with a curry dish or a simple tea like this one:
- ½ cup water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 pinches of Asafoetida
- 1 squeeze of lime
Mix everything except the lime in a pot and bring to a boil. Let it cool, then squeeze in the lime.
Note: If consumed too frequently Asafoetida may cause diarrhea (since it's known to help with constipation). You can get Asafoetida at Asian grocery stores or at many places online.