Ayurvedic Medicine May Contain Toxic Metals

One in five Ayurvedic medicines (search) contain toxic levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. The products put users at risk for metal poisoning, researchers say.

Their study appears in this week’s issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Ayurvedic medicine originated in India more than 2,000 years ago and relies heavily on herbal medicine (search), writes lead researcher Robert B. Saper, MD, MPH. In the U.S., popularity of this ancient medicine has increased, and Ayurvedic remedies are now available from South Asian markets, practitioners, health food stores, and the Internet.

In Ayurvedic medicine, metals are considered to be important in the therapy, he explains. The researchers say practitioners believe the metals to be safe because they are reportedly detoxified through multiple heating and cooling processes.

Yet because Ayurvedic medicine is marketed as dietary supplements, makers are not required to show proof of safety or effectiveness, he notes. Yet lead toxicity from Ayurvedic medicines has been associated with several medical conditions in adults and children, including seizures, paralysis, deafness, and delayed development.

However, no previous studies have measured levels of metal in these U.S.-sold remedies.

Heavy Metal Medicine

In their study, Saper and colleagues collected and analyzed 70 different Ayurvedic medicines produced by 27 companies (26 in India and 1 in Pakistan) and sold in 30 Boston-area stores. Most were sold for gastrointestinal ailments and cost $2.99 per package.

They found:

—20 percent contained lead, mercury, and/or arsenic.

—Seven were specifically recommended for children.

—24 of the 30 Boston-area stores sold at least one Ayurvedic medicine product containing one of these metals.

A few examples:

Mahayograj Guggulu with silver and Makardhwaj had the highest levels of lead, as well as high levels of mercury and arsenic. Swama Mahayograj Guggulu with gold also had high lead levels. Navratna Rasa had the highest mercury levels. Mahalakshmi Vilas Ras with gold also had high mercury levels, as did Balguti Kesaria.

Whether metals in samples he obtained were already present in the plants or intentionally or unintentionally added in manufacturing is not known, says Saper.

Deadly Toxic Metals

The researchers say that if taken as recommended by the manufacturers, each of the 14 products that contained metals could result in intake above published safety standards.

Studies in England have found similar results, that 30 percent of Ayurvedic medicines contain these metals, he notes. Traditional medicines from China, Malaysia, Mexico, Africa, and the Middle East have also been shown to contain metals, writes Saper.

Whether these findings apply to the many other Ayurvedic medicines sold in U.S. stores requires further study, he writes. However, his report plus reports from other public health agencies indicate that a problem exists.

Ayurvedic medicine users should:

—Consult their doctors about these medicines

—Be discouraged from using medicines containing metal

In diagnosing patients, doctors should keep in mind metal toxicity from Ayurvedic medicine.

Saper calls for better regulation of the imported dietary supplements containing toxic metals.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCE: Saper, R.The Journal of the American Medical Association, Dec. 15, 2004; vol 292: pp 2868-2873.