Ayurvedic Heavy Metal

nagarjunaBefore reading on, and specifically before asking why I’ve used a picture of Buddha in an article about Ayurveda…it’s not Buddha, it’s Nagarjuna, redactor of the Sushruta Samhita a sixth century BCE text on surgery, the only treatise for two of the eight branches of Ayurveda. The snake is part of Nagarjuna and is usually depicted as a protective canopy, I’ve never seen Buddha depicted in that way. Apologies for any confusion, but please no more comments or emails telling me I’ve used an inappropriate photo. I don’t believe I have.

Ayurvedic medicines can contain dangerous quantities of heavy metals, including lead, mercury, thallium and arsenic, clinical toxicologists in London have warned. Writing in the International Journal of Environment and Health, they suggest that recent European legislation aimed at improving safety of shop-bought products will have little impact on medicines prescribed by traditional practitioners, imported personally from overseas or bought over the Internet.

The problem is that the heavy metals are not simply inadvertent contaminants of natural herbal products, they are added deliberately in order to supposedly return the body to health by rebalancing allegedly essential minerals. You can read the full article on this via AlphaGalileo.

There are wide and wild claims for Ayurvedic medicine including the ability to treat diabetes, flue, cancer, asthma, flu, acne, boils, diarrhoea, headaches, and that perennial of the alternative remedy market, sex drive. Unfortunately, Ayurveda, although ancient, is no panacea.

Some practitioners are hoping to modernise the Ayurvedic system. However, until it is more widely recognised among users that adding arsenic, lead, thallium and other potentially toxic heavy metals to so-called medicinal preparations is unacceptable, it will remain a practice more associated with the past than contemporary medicine.

Paul I. Dargan, Indika B. Gawarammana, John R.H. Archer, Ivan M. House, Debbie Shaw, David M. Wood (2008). Heavy metal poisoning from Ayurvedic traditional medicines: an emerging problem? International Journal of Environment and Health, 2 (3/4), 463-474

21 thoughts on “Ayurvedic Heavy Metal”

  1. Like everything in India, people in India nowadays can’t draw a line where worship ends and science begins, anything old must be worshiped, anyone trying to say our old systems need a revamp or are redundant is a western ploy to put India down. so, they will try to malign the person who makes any such statements, sadly this leads them to ignore the fact that they are worshiping a once-upon-a-time exact science, the exactness of which are lost under layers and layers of time and scattered documentation in about 26 indian languages. Please forgive them for they know not what they are doing.

    Having said this, I agree with you and Dr. Ershad, that we need to document and build an index of the various active ingredients, in ayurvedic medicine, as this will lead to some measure of transparancy in what is used and what is not used.

    Even in India, today any medicine can be called “proprietary ayurvedic medicine” and sold OTC. No government dares question the efficacy and toxicity and side effects of such medicines. And pray Why?. Because the medicine is Ayurvedic, a Holy Cow, not to be touched or analysed, handed down over the ages. How can these be subjected to that “Western Methods” of controlled-state observation.

    Sadly, what this leads to is many “western” Companies selling us any crap in the form of “Proprietary Ayurvedic Medicine” the bext example is the biggest OTC medicine in India, “Vicks”, a totally useless sludge sold as a balm for colds, which Indians bought with gusto, had they read the package and seen that it was “Proprietary Ayurvedic Medicine” they would have never bought it, and what’s more it’s useless, just gives you a superficial feeling of goodness because of Menthol(An ingredient the West discovered in India) . Because it does not work and if they sell it as a medicine, they would be subject to tests, Multi-Nationals were very clever and bypassed the testing by labelling it as “Proprietary Ayurvedic Medicine” Many drugs are sold in such a way.

    So, this makes a strong case for Ayurvedic Medicine to be tested for active ingredients, including metals, and also testing of various diagnostic and healing methods, of Ayurveda like “Nadi Chikitsa” (which is understanding the imbalances in your body by pressing particular parts of the body and measuring the difference in your pulse rate. A small test done in Podar Ayurvedic College in Bombay showed, that EEG and ECG diagnosis showed marked similarity to the diagnosis of “Nadi Chikitsa” and the practitioner of Nadi chikitsa was using the pulse rate as an indicator of malaise by pressing his fingers on affected body parts, like the pressing particular spots in the neck for analysing brain problems and then taking the pulse rate.)

    Also, if this system is documented and organised then quacks won’t stand up and make dangerous and false promises.

  2. I am a patient of low hemoglobin. Please let me know if ayurvedic medicine can also bring the hemoglobin further down to a dangerous level. Please reply by mail at the earliest.

  3. dear David Bradley, after keen observation u hav given an account on metals and herbo mineral formulations. As a student of Ayurveda I can say that herbo mineral formulations are quiet appropriate in various conditions where various other management fails, or further cripples the patient condition. Herbo mineral formulation validation based on modern parameters has been going on. Certain points i like to add on ur attension are 1. Mercury when enters in body immediatly get converted into sulphide form which is least harmful to body, the same form is used in Ayurveda, along with that it in small amount raise the absorption of other drugs with it removed from body as inert matter. British Pharmocopia shows the use of HgCl and HgCl2 as medicine and not Hgs. Other minerals having similar machenism in small doses, rest on next time. U r free to call them baseless or silly as its ur blog but this very small segment of Ay is still relevent, even today. Its great to read the discussion.

  4. @David Bradley, sir ayurveda doesn’t know about thallium, its recently discovered. Regarding use of metals and minerals in ayurveda, there is a standard mandate to use any metal or mineral, or combination of these, in ayurveda texts there are ref of toxicity of each and every metal or minerals to be used, so is the purification methods (different kinds of procedures, which according to ayurveda detox the metals and minerals and then taken for medicinal usage). I agree that there is more needs to be done in the field of ayurveda like research, pharmacological evaluation, phytochemistry and phytopharmacology, animal trails etc for better understand and to provide broader avenues to ayurveda in the field of medicine. This kind of research will be recognized and highly acclaimed by the international medical societies. Regarding chelating agent etc, bhasmas are incinerated at a constant temp, in constant pressure, in limited oxygen and this would result in the formation of complex compound (Iron Fe into Fes as its done in very limited oxygen, also its easily absorbable and assimilated into human body) rather than a pure metal, the bhasma process is very difficult process to achieve and its possible by an expert only and procedure is repeated several times to attain the quality quoted by the acharyas. There are lot of research being conducted on bhasmas, a sample to it, link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/search/savedquery?ID=121193876&action=runQuery&personalisationMenu=true
    Is ayurveda a science is a debatable question and i leave that to scholars.
    I agree that, there are lot of peoples including ayurveda doctors, who want to make money and I have personally seen many of them mixing modern medicines in ayurveda churnas for better results and to prove that they are good in this system of medicines. I can’t help in that matter.
    Ayurveda system never claims to treat diabetis, cancer etc, its the ayurveda doc, any one who claim that they can treat diabetis, cancer etc are just claims unless proven, If they really can treat then, why don’t they go to research institute and get a detailed research done. Currently I am doing research on a anti diabetic preparation of our family (I don’t claim things, i just prove it).
    I would appreciate it, if the bloggers use this platform for a healthy discussion rather than fight each other.

  5. @Debasis Panigrahi, regarding the ref of the medicines like i said that a herbal preparation is used first, then herbo mineral, and then comes the mineral, all ayurveda doc take books published or available in the market, but our family has the distinction of preserving many of the ancient texts and all are in Telugu language, in one of the book by the name rasabhasmagunadharmalu, he mentions the use as i have stated and in my experience also it has come to light that its better to start with herbal preparations then go for bhasmas, because a simple herbal medicine is more effective than a combination of drugs (yoga or medicine), for ex- in shwitra (vitiligo), application of maricha (piper nigrum)+gomutra(cow’s urine) on the affected area gives u good results clinically than applying haratala(arsenic)+gomutra, a recent research (kings college, London) has concluded that the principle alkoloid piperine of piper nigrum has the effeciency of stimulating melanocyte proliferation in vitro (other alkaloids are also effective). Also internal medication of the same has very good results compared to the use of gandhaka(sulphur), haratala (arsenic), parada (mercury). There are many indirect ref also in many rasa books which need careful evaluation. Regarding the dosage its in correlation with sauvira-5 mg(mercuric chloride), manhashila-10 mg (arsenic ), vanga bhasma-125 mg (or any other bhasma which is milder). Yeah definately there are ref of use of bhasmas for 1-2 years but with cross ref (many other rasa books) and experience makes u understand that there is no use in prescribing the bhasmas for years together, for ex- I have never seen my father prescribing a bhasma for more than 90-150 days, its the highest dose ever given by my father (given only in very chronic cases and most of the time the disease would have subsided by that time) and me too never felt to use bhasma for more than 90 days as the disease would have subsided by that time, more over there is strict mandate for the use of bhasmas for medicinal use. I still use many poisons effectively and its only in emergency conditions and for a short period only, then herbal medicines take over. If there is anything kindly let me know. Thanks.

  6. @Debasis I can only get the gist of what you’re saying, but statements that suggest that just because a practice is old means it is good and valid are moot. Any approach should be able to stand up to testing, this has nothing to do with philosophy or god. Moreover, chelating agents are not a modern phenomenon, there are many natural chelating agents (where do you think chemists got their inspiration for making them?)

  7. Dear David Bradley, kindly note that the mode of action of many things are not known till yet, by the morden science also. By that way we can,t explain every bit of our process, If you are really intersted then kindly go through our classics & you will definietly find something you wish to know.Neither we use the term cheleting agents or we deliberatly use them in our preparations. The so called cheleting agent term is the discovery of todays world,but we in ayurveda use this from the origin of our system.Yes I am agree that Ayurveda is Philosophy or knowledge, when Science ends then Philosophy or GOD starts. Science is also ever changing.Old things are never silly, they are time tested for many many centuries so that thier existance could be found otherwise must have been vanished by Society.

  8. Dear dr.ershad ahmed ,I can’t find any referance in ayurveda about the order of use Herbal, herbo-mineral & mineral preparation as you are quoting. Whre are you find the ref. If possible let me know.Another thing about the doses – Where are you collect the ref. of these doses 5mg, 10 mg to 120 mg & for a period of 1 week to 15-20 days. There are references of taking Metalic preparation for 1-2 years , for example you can get it from Rasarnava or in Astangasamraha where metalic preparation of Chalcopyrite,Iron,Mercury & gold etc are recomended.You are right that now- a-days we are not taking care of Proper Bhasma preparation. So that some zero knowledge, non ayurveda & unadeqetly educated ayurveda people are Dishonoring the glory of Rasa-Rasayana & Metalic preparation like Bhasma & Sindoora

  9. I can see that most of the news letters mention of heavy metals in ayurveda medicines, but no one mentions or has done research on how ayurveda uses it, ayurveda never teaches to use heavy metals for medicinal purposes as a primary treatment but it emphasizes on use of herbal preparations first, then herbo mineral preparations and if there are no improvement in the disease, then comes the use of metals and minerals in the dosage of 5mg, 10mg, to a maximum of 120 mg/ day (not per kg body weight) for not more that 1 week or a maximum of 15 to 21 days, then the use of metals and minerals is completely seized. Moreover there are very thin no of peoples who can effective prepare a metallic preparations (like bhasmas) for medicinal uses. I have scientific analysis of the metallic bhasmas i have prepared and effectively used it in my treatment.

  10. Debasis, what “special processes” based on mixing with herbs could possibly make a toxic heavy metal non-toxic. Yes, you might be able to add a strong chelating agent to a mixture that would essentially mop up the metals, but if that were the case they would then have no bioavailability and so would have no physiological effects. There would therefore be no reason to add them to the concoction. To refer to Ayurveda as science just because it is old is very silly. It is not science. There may be some marginal benefits to certain aspects of this approach. Moreover, please don’t tell me what I can and cannot write about on *my* blog. Please also read the peer-reviewed research paper about which this blog post is writing before criticising the report.

    One more thing, ease off using the capital letters, it looks like you’re ranting.

  11. Dear Sir/Madam,
    Please do a litle bit home work before reporting such type of baseless things we never use thallium as an ingredient, In Ayurveda specially in Rasashastra the metals, Minerals , Herbal As well as animal products are used to make various types of medicines. The so called toxic effects are not correct.
    I may suggest here that before bleming Ayurveda or Mettalic medicine please go through the ancient text try to understand the advise given in sanskrit, interprit it follow the principle & patteren given there then ANY one can challenge AYURVEDA before that, PLease do not try to look or make any IDIOTIC comment to A scince more old then 5000 years.

  12. How the Buddha is related to “Ayurvedic Heavy Metal”. Buddhism and Ayurveda is completely two different things. Just because the both related to India, it doesn’t mean they are related. If fact they are not related at all.

    How can you call this a “science” blog if you do not do even a background study about the things you write?

  13. @Prashant It’s not Buddha, it’s Nagarjuna, redactor of the Sushruta Samhita a sixth century BCE text on surgery, the only treatise for two of the eight branches of Ayurveda.

  14. Thanks for the pointer to the study. This is a big problem in India and blind faith in traditional Ayurvedic remedies makes it worse. People I know are biased also because of the claim that these medicines only contain “natural” ingredients.

  15. Thanks for the input Jo. Yes, I don’t think the team is claim that this practice is anything new, and Edzard has certainly mentioned it at least once. I think they’re importantly trying to get the message across that it’s not just a contamination issue and that practitioners are deliberately adding poisonous metals in some misguided belief that it can “rebalance” the human body (whatever that means).

  16. This is referenced in the above-mentioned paper
    Ernst E (2002) Toxic heavy metals and undeclared drugs in Asian herbal medicines. Trends Pharmacol Sci 23:136-9.


  17. Thanks for that – more useful background information for my document (for pharmacists) on the use of herbal remedies used by people with diabetes. I might have mentioned this article before but it is a case study of a man who managed to improve his diabetes control by taking ‘herbal balls’ bought in India. On checking the pills it was found that they contained a drug that used to be prescription only (chlorpropamide) but which is no longer recommended.

    The advantages and disadvantages of a ‘herbal’ medicine in a patient with diabetes mellitus: a case report – http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=15788849

    If memory serves, and I may be wrong on this, I think plants are generally rather good at hoovering up metals from the soil – I seem to vaguely remember something about barley and aluminium, but forget the particulars. Adding it in deliberately though… not helpful :-)

    P.S. The Musical Box were excellent :)

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