Ayurvedic medicines – herbal mixtures dating back thousands of years in India and increasingly popular in the West – are frequently contaminated with lead, mercury or arsenic, according to a study published today.
A fifth of the nearly 200 concoctions tested contained levels of the toxic metals.
Dr. Robert Saper, a Boston University professor of family medicine who led the study, said the findings should spur the Food and Drug Administration to start clamping down on the largely unregulated world of pills, herbs and powders classified as dietary supplements.
“It shouldn’t be me trying to figure this out,” Saper said.
Ayurveda is a traditional Indian practice that takes a holistic approach to wellness, employing herbal medicine, meditation and exercise to promote good health. It exists alongside modern medicine in India, with its own network of clinics, hospitals and colleges serving hundreds of millions of patients.
It has spread to the U.S. and Europe with the migration of South Asians around the world and been popularized by figures such as Deepak Chopra.
There are about two dozen ayurvedic training programs in the United States. A 2002 survey estimated that 750,000 U.S. residents have used the herbal preparations, sold under traditional Indian names or more marketable labels such as GlucoRite and Ezi Slim.
Saper got interested in the supplements in 2003 after a man of Indian origin showed up at a Boston-area emergency room with seizures. The cause was lead in the man’s ayurvedic medicines. In an initial study published in 2004, Saper bought 70 ayurvedic herbal products imported from India and found that the toxic metals were common components.
It was an unsettling finding, because most of the medicines are intended to be taken as a daily regimen to improve health.
“Many, many studies are showing that even small levels of lead in the blood can increase the risk of high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction and decreased IQ,” Saper said.
Ayurvedic practitioners lashed out at the research as alarmist, saying that it only showed that there were problems with mixtures from India and not with U.S.-made products.
They pointed out that in India, many of these metals are purposely blended with herbs as part of the medicinal recipe. Those metallic mixtures are rarely used in the United States, they said.