Ayurvedic medicines are used throughout South Asia, especially in India, and are available throughout the world through Internet purchase. While there are many proponents of its usage, it has recently been found by researchers that over 20% of internet purchased Ayurveda has unhealthy amounts of mercury, lead and arsenic.
Ayurvedic medicine, or Ayurveda, is an ancient medicinal practice based on the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism based in India. In addition to nearly all of India’s growing population (currently estimated at approximately 1.1 billion people), the majority of people in Nepal and Sri Lanka also adhere to Ayurveda. Ayurveda has also been growing in popularity throughout the western world through preachings of spiritualists and proponents of alternative medicine. With this increasing western demand, the market for internet purchased Ayurvedic medicine was born, but with few standards and regulations. “New FDA regulations and current Indian policies do not specify any maximum acceptable concentrations or daily dose limits for metals in dietary supplements for domestic use,” according to the authors.
According to the study, “Ayurvedic medicines are divided into 2 major types: herbal-only and rasa shastra. Rasa shastra is an ancient practice of deliberately combining herbs with metals (eg, mercury, lead, iron, zinc), minerals (eg, mica), and gems (eg, pearl).” Past research has supported (though not necessarily conclusively) the benefit of many herbal only Ayurvedic medicines, such as turmeric, which can be used as an antiseptic and might help with cardiovascular disease and perhaps diabetes due to anti-inflammatory properties, and sage, which can help with memory and preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s claimed by many Ayurvedic medicine experts that rasta shastra medicines are safe if correct dosage and manufacturing practices are performed. While the current researchers did not aim to combat this claim, they used the findings of some past research that showed many rasta shastra medicines contain unhealthy traces of toxic substances (lead, arsenic and mercury). The authors were also aware that “many rasa shastra medicines are made with bhasmas, which are elaborately prepared with various forms of metals including cinnabar (mercuric sulfide), galena (lead sulfide), realgar (arsenic sulfide), and white arsenic (arsenic trioxide).” In addition, in the last 30 years, 80 cases of lead poisoning have been diagnosed being due to Ayurvedic medicines.
The study had three main objectives, “(1) to determine the prevalence of Ayurvedic medicines available via the Internet containing detectable lead, mercury, or arsenic; (2) to compare the prevalence of toxic metals between US- and Indian-manufactured products; and (3) to compare the prevalence of toxic metals in rasa shastra vs non–rasa shastra medicines.”
The medicines analyzed in the study were selected by the following process: “An Internet search was conducted in November-December 2004 using 5 search engines (Google, Yahoo, AOL, MSN, and Ask Jeeves) and the key words Ayurveda and Ayurvedic medicine. Web sites listed on the first page of results from each search engine were reviewed and all products that met the following inclusion criteria identified: (1) traditional Ayurvedic herbs, formulas, or containing ingredients commonly used in Ayurveda; (2) indicated for oral use; and (3) available for sale.” 673 products met this criteria, representing both Indian and United States manufactured products, and 230 were randomly selected for analysis in the study (193 arrived in time to actually be analyzed, and came from 37 different manufacturers).
Each medicine’s metal content was observed via x-ray spectroscopy. “Overall, the prevalence of Ayurvedic medicines containing detectable lead, mercury, and/or arsenic was 20.7%,” states the study. More specifically, 21.7% of US manufactured medicines, and 19.5% of those made in India, contained these toxic substances, which is statistically comparable given the analysis techniques.
Both US and Indian medicines contained high enough levels of the metals to exceed recommended healthy limits. Many of the Indian manufactured medicines contained extremely high doses of lead and mercury compared to US medicines however. “All metal-containing products would cause ingestion’s exceeding at least 1 regulatory standard. Indian-manufactured rasa shastra medicines would cause the greatest lead and mercury ingestion’s, often substantially exceeding all standards,” conclude the authors. These doses were found to be “100 to 10,000 times greater than acceptable limits” for lead and mercury.
While both Indian and US manufactured medicines were found to contain these metals, 95% of the web sites that distributed these potentially harmful substances were US operated. Further more, 75% of these web sites claimed “Good Manufacturing Practices.”
It’s hard to stress any general conclusions regarding Ayurvedic medicines from this study, but the regulations of such medicines should certainly be revised. It is impossible to know the effect these chemical are having on the excess of one billion people taking them in India, who have used this form of medication for thousands of years. For American websites though, the study author make this firm statement: “We suggest strictly enforced, government-mandated daily dose limits for toxic metals in all dietary supplements and requirements that all manufacturers demonstrate compliance through independent third-party testing.”
Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Saper, Robert. Phillips, Russell. Kales, Stefanos. et al. JAMA. Lead, Mercury, and Arsenic in US- and Indian-Manufactured Ayurvedic Medicines Sold via the Internet. August 2008.