Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ayurveda and Heavy Metals

A recent study in the August 27 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association points out that around twenty per cent of ayurvedic products purchased through the internet have significant levels of arsenic, lead and mercury. About 60 percent of the samples were from U.S. companies and 40 percent from Indian companies. Twenty-one percent had significant levels of lead, mercury and arsenic. The ingestion of these metals “could result in lead and/or mercury ingestions 100 to 10,000 times greater than acceptable limits..". This is not the first time that the Journal has reported this. In 2004, a similar study uncovered very similar facts. The existence of heavy metals in Ayurvedic medicine will not be a surprise to most Indians who are probably familiar with the claims of Ayurvedic Vaidyas, that these, in a suitably processed form are not harmful to the human body. The Wikipedia article on Ayurveda quotes Vaidyas as claiming that the practice of using heavy metals therapeutically as anti-microbials and anti-cancer agents is an old one and they have no toxic effects since as they are "meticulously and elaborately processed to oxides, salts and ashes that do not have the same biological activity as the more active, unprocessed compounds". Unfortunately the detoxification process as described in Wikipedia (called samskara) is not exactly guaranteed to fill one with great confidence. The described detoxification is a simple chemical process which involves four successive rounds of boiling the crude Aconitum root in cow's urine (twice) and cow's milk (twice). This process is claimed to chemically modify both toxic and proposed therapeutic components of the root. It also extracts some of these compounds from the root into the boiling solvents, thereby decreasing their concentration in the final product. Like most of Ayurveda, these are just empirical statements quoting some of the Shastras. The above description of the detoxification of Aconite is from the work of a certain Thorat Dahanukar which was carried out on mice and has not been reproduced. There is no attempt to understand what cow's milk and urine have to do with the detoxification. I think for the moment, I will stick to standard (also known as Allopathic) medicine.


AMOK said...

Morarji would agree with you about this, probably. "Why use cow urine? Be self-sufficient". Not sure about the milk part.

saraswathy said...

if the ayurvedic medicine is harmfull, how it existed through ages giving relief to many patients??

Anant said...

Dear Saraswathy,

Modern medicine is actually quite modern. In fact it can probably be dated to just a couple of centuries. It has come to our country even more recently. Therefore, it is no surprise that Ayurveda survived here through the millenia. I do not think that the eminent host of this blog is suggesting that Ayurveda be done away with, but rather that it should be used with caution. In particular, its practices ought to be subjected to the highest rigorous of a science and I am sure that it will pass many tests. Some sectors will pass all, others will pass none. I am sure this is also true to Unani medicine, and other schools of empirical medicine. Humankind would do well to take the best out of these systems, but not at the cost of blind belief. Correct me if I am wrong, but that is the general drift of the post. Finally, I do not think any one needs to be defensive at all about Ayurveda, but be confident that if it is put through the test, parts of it will survive.


Rahul Basu said...

Perhaps parts will survive -- hopefully the benign parts (classic example is curcumin the main ingredient in turmeric or the medicinal properties of neem). Yes, indeed any completely empirical science needs to be vetted and tested using the standard procedure called the scientific method (briefly, experiments or tests which are reproducible).

About the claim that it has given relief to many people. It's a bit like astrology - people selectively remember if some prediction came true (entirely possible from a purely statistical point of view) but forget the thousands which didn't. Selective amnesia I believe it is called. Ditto for Ayurveda. I personally know people who have gone to Ayurveda in desperation when modern medicine has failed, on being told of its magical properties and being bitterly disappointed. Ayurveda and its practitioners should test all products rigorously to see what works and what doesn't rather than blindly believe what was written down more than a thousand years ago.