Many Ayurvedic medicines can contain dangerous quantities of heavy metals, including lead, mercury, thallium and arsenic, according to clinical toxicology specialists in London writing in the International Journal of Environment and Health.
The team explains that recent European legislation aimed at improving safety of shop-bought products should go some way to protect the public against some of the potential risks associated with traditional medicines. However, it will have little impact on medicines prescribed by traditional practitioners, imported personally from overseas or bought over the Internet.
Consultant Clinical Toxicologist Dr Paul Dargan of Guy's & St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, London is working with colleagues there and Dr Indika Gawarammana of the Faculty of Medicine and South Asian Clinical Toxicology Research at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, to investigate the risks of heavy metals found in Ayurvedic medicine.
Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient practice based on five elements and stresses spiritual balance as well as the use of herbal remedies for a wide range of illnesses. In India, there are more than 12,000 Ayurvedic colleges and hospital. There, almost 80% of the population uses Ayurvedic and other traditional medicines, often exclusively.
The use of Ayurvedic medicines has become popular in North America, Europe and Australasia and has spread beyond the cultural and ethnic populations from which the traditional medicine practices originated. Dargan and colleagues point out that there have been numerous reports of clinically significant heavy metal poisoning related to its use.
Practitioners may use individual herbal extracts or a mixture of herbal extracts with vegetable, animal and mineral products. It is a basic principle of Ayurveda that practitioners can use anything as a drug. Heavy metals are generally not present as contaminants but practitioners add them intentionally. In Ayurveda a balance of the metals, including lead, copper, gold, iron, mercury, silver, tin, zinc are considered to be essential for normal functioning of the human body and an important component of good health.
Unfortunately, the researchers say, few studies have recorded detailed information about just how common is heavy metal poisoning due to the use of Ayurvedic remedies. They discuss the details of several cases of lead poisoning in patients who had taken an Ayurvedic product containing lead.
"There is an urgent need for studies to quantify the frequency and potential risk of heavy metal poisoning from Ayurvedic medicines," say the researchers. Also needed is "culturally appropriate education" that can inform the public of the potential for toxicity associated with the many different products associated with this practice.
- Paul I. Dargan, Indika B. Gawarammana, Ivan M. House, Debbie Shaw and David M. Wood. Heavy metal poisoning from Ayurvedic traditional medicines: an emerging problem? International Journal of Environment and Health, 2008, 2, 463-474
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