Wasabi, (Wasabia japonica) is commonly known as the Japanese horseradish used to enhance the enjoyment of sushi. This spice is a member of the Cruciferae family of plants; its rhizome, the creeping underground stem, is ground into a green paste and used as a condiment. Oral ingestion of wasabi causes a transient burning sensation in the nose, and there is a widely held notion that this produces a decongestant effect. This conclusion is anecdotal, because there have been no scientific studies to prove this concept.
The pungent ingredient in wasabi that causes the nasal burning sensation is allyl isothiocyanate, a chemical also found in mustard and horseradish. The toxicity of allyl isothiocyanate is low, and it is not considered a human carcinogen. It has been produced commercially for more than 60 years.
While there is a subjective improvement in nasal breathing after eating wasabi, knowledge of an objective decongestant effect may have some clinical utility. For example, wasabi may be useful in treating congested patients with hypertension or heart disease, in whom traditional adrenergic decongestants would not be the best regimen. Also, some patients may prefer herbal remedies to traditional western medicines. A temporary decongestant may also have some use if administered before a nasal saline irrigation to improve the lavage.
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