Ayurveda Medicine and Supplement Hidden Dangers: Arsenic, Lead and Mercury

2012-03-02 11:59
Ayurveda

The majority of cases of poisoning involving heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic result from occupational exposure; however, medical doctors and researchers have discovered that many cases of heavy metal poisoning result from taking some Ayurveda medicines and supplements.

Ayurveda is an ancient medical practice used by over 1 billion individuals in India and southern Asia. It recently has gained some popularity in the U.S. with people seeking both traditional and alternative medicine as a way toward fighting obesity and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Part of the attraction of Ayurvedic medicine is that it offers a fast path to good health by adjusting your diet and taking supplements based on your body type.

According to Ayurvedic medicine, there are three body types: Kapha, Pitta and Vata. The Kapha body type are individuals who tend to be of larger build with equally wide shoulder and hip regions. The Pitta body type is a medium build person and the Vata type is more slight or petite. Body types, according to Ayurvedic medicine, have a tendency to suffer from particular ills and complications that can be addressed by countering with specific types of foods.

For example, a Vata type person tends to have a predisposition for digestion problems that include gas and bloating. Vata types are advised to avoid dry or cold foods, raw vegetables and carbonated beverages, but encouraged to eat warm, cooked soups and veggies along with nuts and dairy products.

In addition to diet, the Vata type person is recommended to eat supplements like Triphala to help them overcome their digestive system complaints. Triphala is an herbal combination of dried powders of three fruits: Emblica officinalis (Indian gooseberry), Terminalia chebula (black myrobalan) and Terminalia belerica (belleric myrobalan) and is typically supplied as a capsule or tablet. Triphala is believed to aid digestion problems by reducing stomach acidity and the activity of stomach enzymes.

While an Ayurvedic supplement like Triphala is considered to be relatively safe, other Ayurvedic supplements such as Guggul have been linked to severe organ damage in some people. In 2011, an article in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology reported a case of an otherwise healthy young woman who developed complete liver failure after taking a dietary supplement fat burner containing usnic acid, green tea and Guggul tree extract.

Guggul has been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda medicine and is derived from plant resin that comes from the mukul myrrh tree. People who have thyroid disorders and take estrogen are advised by health authorities to avoid taking Guggul without their physician’s consent.

However, a more obvious danger with taking some Ayurveda medicines and supplements lies in the practice of lacing the herbal products with metals such as mercury, lead, iron, zinc as well as with minerals like mica or gems like pearls. The practice of combining herbs with non-herbal components is referred to as “rasa shastra”—a type of ancient mystical alchemy where practitioners believe that combining herbs with other substances can heal a variety of maladies.

The result of Ayurveda rasa shastra medicine in the U.S has resulted in multiple instances of heavy metal poisoning that were subsequently traced to the patients’ consuming Ayurvedic medicines that were bought online.

In an August 2008 issue of the medical journal JAMA, researchers seeking to identify the number and sources of Ayurvedic medicines that contain mercury, lead or arsenic reported that after analyzing 230 Ayurvedic medicines and supplements that up to 20 percent of both US-manufactured and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic medicines purchased through the Internet contain detectable levels of all three heavy metals. Furthermore, the researchers found that:

• Lead was the most commonly found metal, followed by mercury and arsenic.

• The prevalence of metal-containing products did not differ significantly between US- and Indian-manufactured products.

• The median lead concentration in Indian-manufactured vs. US-manufactured lead-containing products was similar.

• Mercury was present in greater concentrations in Indian-manufactured products.

• Rasa shastra compared with non–rasa shastra medicines were more than twice as likely to contain metals.

• Rasa shastra metal-containing medicines had higher lead and mercury median concentrations than non–rasa shastra metal-containing medicines.

• All metal-containing products exceeded 1 or more standards for acceptable daily metal intake.

• Several Indian-manufactured rasa shastra medicines could result in lead and/or mercury ingestions 100 to 10 000 times greater than acceptable limits.

In spite of the scientific evidence that there are hidden dangers to taking some Ayruvedic medicines and supplements regarding lead, mercury and arsenic poisoning, Ayurveda medicine practitioners and experts argue that if the medicines and supplements are prepared according to ancient protocols involving “shodhana”—a purification process—that the metals added then become nontoxic and therapeutic.

However, scientists disagree with this line of argument and point out that even many non-rasa shastra supplements tested positive for heavy metal poisoning and believe that they are the result of environmental contamination of the herbs and/ or incidental contamination during the manufacturing process by some companies. Furthermore, that children are especially at risk of developing neurological problems due to heavy metal poisoning and therefore that new FDA regulations overseeing supplements are desperately needed.

The take-home message is that while some Ayurveda medicines and supplements are safe, there is an undeniably hidden danger that lead, mercury, arsenic and other health-damaging components are present in a large portion of products sold, and that without a lab analysis to check your bottle of supplement, you are essentially playing a game of Russian Roulette.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia

References:

1. “Lead, Mercury, and Arsenic in US- and Indian-Manufactured Ayurvedic Medicines Sold via the Internet” JAMA 2008 August 27; 300 (8); 915-923; Robert B. Saper, MD, MPH, Russell S. Phillips, MD, Anusha Sehgal, MD(Ayurveda), Nadia Khouri, MPH, Roger B. Davis, ScD, Janet Paquin, PhD, Venkatesh Thuppil, PhD, and Stefanos N. Kales, MD, MPH.

2. “Acute liver failure caused by 'fat burners' and dietary supplements: a case report and literature review” Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology 2011 Mar, 25(3); 157-160; Yellapu RK, Mittal V, Grewal P, Fiel M, and Schiano T.

3. “Lead Poisoning Associated with Ayurvedic Medications — Five States, 2000-2003” MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) 2004 July 9; 53(26); 582-584. J Araujo, MD, AP Beelen, MD, LD Lewis, MD, GG Robinson, MS, C DeLaurier, M Carbajal, B Ericsson, Y Chin, MD, K Hipkins, MPH, SN Kales, MD, RB Saper, MD, R Nordness, MD, R Rabin, MSPH, N Jeffery, MPH, J Cone, MD, C Ramaswamy, MBBS, P Curry-Johnson, EdD, KH Gelberg, PhD, J Paquin, PhD, DM Homa, PhD, and RJ Roscoe, MS.

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