Heavy metals in Ayurvedic preparations
An interesting piece of news appeared on 17th December 2004, in the English daily Hindustan Times titled “Some Ayurvedic Drugs Toxic–USA study finds high level of Lead, Mercury, and Arsenic” and reported by S.Raj Gopalan from Washington. This piece of news referred to the study conducted by the Harvard Medical School on Indian Ayurvedic Medicine published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Dr. Robert B. Saper, Dr. Stefanos N. Kales and five others. According to the paper, the Harvard team bought Ayurvedic medicines from about 30 South Asian stores in the Boston area and found that these formulations had “potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic.” The metals were found in the products of some of the leading companies within the Ayurvedic community. Our clinic got frantic calls from many patients, doctors, from USA, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and England.
These studies measured the concentration of lead, arsenic and mercury in each of the samples through X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. Further, they proposed a mandatory US testing of all imported dietary supplements for toxic metals. In 1988, when I graduated from Bastyr University to be a Naturopathic medical doctor, I saw a great opportunity to bring Ayurvedic preparations into the United States, but found that many of the Ayurvedic companies used unsanitary practices and some products contained different forms of contamination. In the same year, I saw a patient who was put on a popular Guggul preparation and got lead toxicity. That is when I decided to launch my own line of Ayurvedic formulations.
The Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia is extensive and has many different preparations: powders commonly referred to as Churan, different forms of tablets, commonly known as Gutika, and Avleh preparations which are like jams, (for example: Chavanparyash). There are also wine and alcohol preparations, which are called Asv and Arisht and oil and ghee (clarified butter) preparations commonly known as Tail and ghrit preparations. Then, there is branch which uses burnt oxides of different metals, called Bhasma, and one that contains mercury and sulphur as a base called the Ras preparation. These preparations use heavy metals, which is why I personally have not used any Ras and Bhasma preparations for the last 18 years. For making Ayurvedic herbs safe, the following measures need to be taken.
1. Herbs should be collected from a clean environment. Most of the Ayurvedic herbs are collected from forest land and the native population has been given the rights to collect these herbs. But with the increase in demand, some companies are cultivating these herbs. Many herbs farms have been established in India along the Himalayan Mountains. While heavy metals contamination can come from many sources, it can still be checked by performing heavy metal testing on the individual herbs.
2. Identification of herbs should be done with a thin layer chromatography to ensure consistent species of herbs. For example: Holy basil has 20 different species, Turmeric has 300 different species and its active principals can be different in different species.
3. Herbs should be subjected to Organoleptic testing to confirm the specifications.
4. Microbiological testing should be done to make sure that the herbs do not have harmful bacteria like salmonella and fungus. Although it is next to impossible to make a natural compound completely sterile, some bacteria and fungus are normal.
5. Extraction of the herbs should be done with state-of-the-art latest technology to get maximum active principals using high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) or other methods.
6. Then, the herbal extracts should be spray dried, oven dried or freeze dried.
7. Then, they should go through another inspection for heavy metals, as the extracts are concentrated.
8. Microbiological testing should be done once again to assure it was not contaminated and still meet specifications.
9. Finally, every batch should be hygienically packed and reference sample is kept for future reference and tagged.
In my opinion, Ayurvedic companies have to practice higher standards and not use preparations which include heavy metals. Very few companies follow good manufacturing practices (GMP) and are ISO certified. They need to follow WHO GMP guidelines. Also we need to be careful not to be swayed by the media and a few studies that are negative about Ayurvedic medicine. I like to advise people to be cautious when you read the study in question. There are allowable levels of heavy metals, even the water you drink contains small amounts of lead and arsenic but maximum allowable limits are five parts per million. Similarly a small bacteriological contamination and fungal contamination is normal and even your breads, jams and packed food have small amounts of bacteria, fungus and insect fragments. To me these all are normal because we have been living with bugs for millions of years; however, we have not lived with man-made chemicals and drugs for even a hundred years. We may not know the real side effects of these drugs until a hundred years from now. Ayurvedic preparations with heavy metals should be not used until double-blind, placebo controlled, long-term animal and human studies prove it otherwise. There have been some efforts by some universities to prove the safety of Ras and Bhasma preparations. I have not seen any convincing reports yet. On the other hand most of the Ayurvedic herbs are safe, but we cannot use this statement blindly; herbs like aconite, belladonna, strychnine, podophylin and many more are extremely toxic and should be used only by expert clinicians and with lots of care and only for short time.
For more information about Dr. Virender Sodhi and the Ayurvedic Clinic, please visit www.ayurvedicscience.com. For the herbs listed above, please visit www.ayush.com
Disclaimer: This article is purely informative and should not replace the guidance of your physician. If you suffer from an illness, you should consult a physician before taking any herbs, vitamins, minerals or enzymes. Even at the peak of health, it is best to consult a qualified practitioner before taking any dietary supplement.
by Dr. Virender Sodhi MD (Ayurved), ND
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org * Website: www.ayurvedicscience.com
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