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Another delicious medicine: Asparagus

For some of us, the first signs of spring are a welcome sight after a dreary winter. Outside, springtime may first show up with subtle shifts in light, bird life, or bugs. In some places, asparagus is considered the first sign of spring. After a cold winter, the plant uses long-stored energy from the sun to send up impressive green shoots. What a delicious sign of resurrection and hope!

While slightly different from the asparagus you can buy in the grocery, store, a close relative of asparagus has been used for generations in south Asia as medicine. Western and Ayurvedic herbal traditions consider asparagus to be an important sexual and reproductive tonic for women. Shatavari, as the herb is called in Ayurvedic medicine, means “hundred husbands.” It is used to support female fertility, increase physical strength, and improve female reproductive secretions.[1] Asparagus root is considered an adaptogen, which in herbal medicine means that the herb can help the body be more resilient to stress.1

While asparagus root has long been used as a medicine, the herbal biochemistry nerds are studying the specific effects of asparagus on human physiology. Studies suggest that asparagus root extract may have antioxidant capabilities possibly slowing aging,[2] and support sex hormone production and egg development in females.[3] Additionally, asparagus has been shown to have immune modulating effects in some types of hepatitis and cancer.[4]

Entertainingly, there is a fervent debate about whether asparagus makes your pee smell weird. Researchers have spent quite a bit of time determining whether some people just don’t have the smell receptors “non-perceivers” for the compounds that cause the smell, or whether some people metabolize asparagus differently and don’t even make the scent in the first place “non-producers.”[5] Fun fact: it’s a combination of both! Some people can’t smell the compounds that they make, and other people don’t make the compounds in the first place.

What the research may never describe adequately is how stunningly delicious fresh asparagus can be as a vegetable. When fresh asparagus shoots are cooked just to tender but still crisp the flavors are still fresh, yet earthy and somehow deeply satisfying. Here’s a simple recipe to try at home.

Recipe: Blanched Asparagus

  • Asparagus shoots, one handful, rinsed with tough ends removed
  • Salt
  • Olive oil or butter

Place the asparagus in a pan, spread out to 1-2 layers. Add water to partway cover the first layer of asparagus. Cover with a well-fitting lid and place over high heat until boiling. Let the asparagus boil/steam for 2-3 minutes. Remove and quickly rinse with cold water for about a minute. Place on a serving dish and season with salt and olive oil or butter.

[1] Khalsa KP, Tierra M. The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs, The Most Complete Guide to Natural Healing and Health with Traditional Ayurvedic Herbalism. Lotus Press; 2008.

[2] Lei L, Chen Y, Ou L, Xu Y, Yu X. Aqueous root extract of Asparagus cochinchinensis (Lour.) Merr. Has antioxidant activity in D-galactose-induced aging mice. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017;17(1):469.

[3] Karimi jashni H, Kargar jahromi H, Ghorbani ranjbary A, Kargar jahromi Z, Khabbaz kherameh Z. Effects of aqueous extract from Asparagus officinalis L. roots on hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis hormone levels and the number of ovarian follicles in adult rats. Int J Reprod Biomed (Yazd). 2016;14(2):75-80.

[4] Kaur P, Robin, Makanjuola VO, Arora R, Singh B, Arora S. Immunopotentiating significance of conventionally used plant adaptogens as modulators in biochemical and molecular signaling pathways in cell mediated processes. Biomed Pharmacother. 2017;95:1815-1829.

[5] Ramamoorthy A, Sadler BM, Van hasselt JGC, et al. Crowdsourced Asparagus Urinary Odor Population Kinetics. CPT Pharmacometrics Syst Pharmacol. 2017