The myth of heavy metals in Ayurveda – A classic example of Bad Science.

ayur2It all began with a paper published in 2004, authored by RB Saper et al, from the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

This paper concluded that “One of 5 Ayurvedic HMPs produced in South Asia and available in Boston South Asian grocery stores contains potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. Users of Ayurvedic medicine may be at risk for heavy metal toxicity, and testing of Ayurvedic HMPs for toxic heavy metals should be mandatory.”

The paper sparked off a huge halla-gulla in the US, about how Ayurveda is ‘mumbo-jumbo’, and how India is poisoning innocent American citizens with toxic metals, etc, etc. More ‘scientific’ papers were published on the same theme, raving and ranting against Ayurveda and calling for an outright ban in the US.

India-bashing is not new in the US. But what really upset me is that some of our own citizens vigorously agreed with these Western ‘scientists’, and went around gleefully denouncing our ancient medical systems.

I have a PG specialisation in Pharmacognosy, I’ve been in the field of analytical chemistry since 1986 and I’ve spent a large portion of the past two decades in developing analytical methods for herbal and Ayurvedic products.

To someone like me or for that matter, to any analytical chemist, the lack of basic science and the personal bias in RB Saper’s work and similar papers on the subject, are glaring.

Here are the key elements of RB Saper’s paper, with my comments added afterwards.

“DESIGN AND SETTING: Systematic search strategy to identify all stores 20 miles or less from Boston City Hall that sold Ayurvedic HMPs from South Asia by searching online Yellow Pages using the categories markets, supermarkets, and convenience stores, and business names containing the word India, Indian cities, and Indian words. An online national directory of Indian grocery stores, a South Asian community business directory, and a newspaper were also searched. We visited each store and purchased all unique Ayurvedic HMPs between April 25 and October 24, 2003.”

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Concentrations (microg/g) of lead, mercury, and arsenic in each HMP as measured by x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. Estimates of daily metal ingestion for adults and children estimated using manufacturers’ dosage recommendations with comparisons to US Pharmacopeia and US Environmental Protection Agency regulatory standards.

RESULTS: A total of 14 (20%) of 70 HMPs contained heavy metals: lead, mercury and/or arsenic. If taken as recommended by the manufacturers, each of these 14 could result in heavy metal intakes above published regulatory standards.”

You see what’s happened here? The design of the study is grossly flawed and biased. Saper’s sampling methodology was fundamentally wrong. Saper et al conducted a ‘systematic search’ for grocery stores and supermarkets that had Indian-sounding names. They did not look for real Ayurvedic firms that have been authorised by the USFDA to operate in the US. Their ‘systematic search strategy’ only sought out cut-rate grocery shops in the Boston area that had Indian sounding names.

Saper et al took care not to disclose the names of the stores they purchased their alleged Ayurvedic samples from. That one fact is proof enough that the study was dubious and hopelessly biased from the start.

There are genuine Ayurvedic medical stores in the US. There are USFDA approved Ayurvedic manufacturers in America, with certified retail outlets. Why then, did he choose to buy his samples from third-rate grocery stores that are not even authorised to sell Ayurvedic medicines? Would you buy Ayurvedic medicines from a kirana store or would you go to a Himalaya Drugs outlet?

More important, Saper bought some weird herbal crap from these crappy stores in Boston. Not authentic Ayurvedic medicine. Just some weird herbal shit that Saper thought was Ayurvedic. There was no Ayurvedic doctor in Saper’s research team and indeed, no one who had even a passing acquaintance with Ayurveda. How then, could they distinguish between authentic Ayurvedic medicines and roadside herbal garbage?

This then, is the ‘science’ in this scientific paper.

Based on this ‘science’, Saper et al concluded that Ayurveda is a toxic medical system and Indian manufacturers are peddling poison to the American people.

I could go on and on, and systematically tear apart such ‘scientific’ papers that abuse Ayurveda – and my country.

But the bottom-line in such anti-Ayurveda ‘research’ is simply this: Bad methodology = bad test samples = bad analytical methods = bad results = BAD SCIENCE.

The department of AYUSH, Government of India, made it clear “that the above mentioned article of Dr. Saper and his associates is seriously flawed and discloses a strong bias against Ayurvedic medicines. Indian scientists and research institutions will be responding to the issues raised by Dr. Saper, howsoever flawed they may be, through research articles based on their work on Ayurvedic medicines in due course.”

One such article is referenced below.

And guess what, a Canadian study done in 2012, on 121 herbal products and 49 mainstream pharmaceutical drugs established that the mainstream pharmaceuticals also contained heavy metals. 

The Canadian study concluded that, “This study suggests that there is no widespread problem of dangerous contamination of natural products with heavy metals – at least in Canada. We see no reason why things should be any different in any country with stringent manufacturing processes, such as Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), and regulatory oversight”.

One Indian scientist who has done exhaustive work on the safety of Ayurvedic medicines is Dr GP Dubey, now with SRM University, India. In 2006, Dubey met with Saper et al at Boston, and presented his research findings about heavy metals in Ayurvedic products.

After that meeting, Saper said he was impressed with the presentation that Dubey made to him, regarding his findings and is very much looking forward to working with him.

Further, Saper anticipates putting together a team of U.S. researchers from Boston University, Harvard Medical School and other institutions to work in collaboration with a team of Indian researchers that Dubey puts together. The hope is to get a grant from the National Institutes of Health and the Indian government to support the work.

Saper added, “My goal is to apply objective methods of science to this tradition with the hope that Ayurveda will continue in the future and will be helpful to the population.”

Well, only time will tell.

All these ‘scientists’ who abuse India’s ancient medical system do not have any understanding about the basics of Ayurveda.

The fact is, there are two types of Ayurvedic formulations: Kashta aushadi, i.e.purely herbal formulations and Rasa aushadhi, ie, herbo-mineral formulations.

Rasa_Ad_4Rasaushadhis are made from metals like gold, silver, mercury, copper, and non-metals like sulfur and arsenic. These elements are processed by a method known as calcination, that produces a fine oxide powder. Such oxides are not absorbed by the body. And, they are used very sparingly in Ayurveda. Indeed, Ayurvedic doctors prescribe rasaushadi formulations with great reluctance and only after consulting Rasaushadi specialists.

Kasthaushadhi, i.e. herbal Ayurvedic formulations, are purely herbal, and therefore, expected to be free of heavy metals. In Ayurveda, the presence of metals in purely herbal formulations is not allowed. If traces of heavy metals are found in kasthaushadhi’s, it means that there is a contamination somewhere, and it’s taken seriously. In a modern Ayurvedic company like Dabur or Himalaya Drugs, we would discard the entire contaminated batch and look for the source of contamination. The source is usually the water.

Ayurveda is extremely careful about toxicity and adverse effects. Entire chapters in Ayurvedic texts are devoted to the study of toxicology.

NOWHERE in any Ayurvedic texts does it say that Ayurvedic medicines are 100% safe and free from side effects. Like any other medicinal product, Ayurvedic medicines must be prescribed only by a qualified Ayurvedic physician.

The Ayurvedic Pharmacopoiea of India lays down the standards and testing protocols for Ayurvedic products in India. The Pharmacopoeia places a lot of emphasis on the testing methods for heavy metals in Ayurvedic products. Testing protocols for Ayurvedic products are as stringent as mainstream pharmaceuticals, and use exactly the same sophisticated equipment.


No medical system is perfect. And no medical system can cure all ailments. And without exception, every single ‘scientific’ medicine invented in the West and sold in our country has its own share of adverse effects and toxicity.

Does that mean we ban Western pharmaceutical products in our country – based on the arguments used by Saper et al?

Let us not tamely permit foreigners to trample all over our country’s medical systems. We do not need lessons in science from anyone. It is we who taught Science to the world in the first place!

And Bad Science is BAD SCIENCE – no matter which country it comes from.

Stand up for your country!

Cheers … Srini.


1) Kumar G, Gupta YK. Evidence for safety of Ayurvedic herbal, herbo-metallic and Bhasma preparations on neurobehavioral activity and oxidative stress in rats. AYU [serial online] 2012 [cited 2013 Oct 15];33:569-75. Available from:

Genuis SJ, Schwalfenberg G, Siy A-KJ, Rodushkin I (2012) Toxic Element Contamination of Natural Health Products and Pharmaceutical Preparations. PLOS ONE 7(11): e49676. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049676

3) Medical misconceptions

4) U. Subasini, G.V. Rajamanickam , G.P. Dubey , P.C. Prabu , C. Savariraj Sahayam , M. Mohammed Shabi , K. Gayathri and Aruna Agrawal , 2007. Hydroalcoholic Extract of Terminalia arjuna:A Potential Hepatoprotective Herb. Journal of Biological Sciences, 7: 255-262.
DOI: 10.3923/jbs.2007.255.262 

5) The Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India

About SK Srinivas

Young at heart (and elsewhere), generally grumpy (but humorous), chronically worried about the state of Bangalore city (and my hairline), single (and definitely not loving it), dynamic and smart (or so I tell myself), a hit with the ladies (they'd like to hit me), nature enthusiast and bird-lover, man about town, with an opinion on everything and everyone. That it is usually the wrong opinion isn't anyone's business.
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10 Responses to The myth of heavy metals in Ayurveda – A classic example of Bad Science.

  1. M.Sethukumar Kamath says:

    Weldone and really useful article.


  2. Very informative and well of luck for the contest..
    Please have a look on my post..


  3. kitchenmummy says:

    A very thorough write-up.. one of the best I have read so far…good luck!:)

    Do share your thoughts on mine if time permits you…


  4. Dr.S.P.Singh says:

    A great effort and morale boosting article based on facts……Thank you for giving befitting words to genuine Ayurvedic concepts with special reference to so called scientific community…. Bravo!!!!!


  5. dr.nivedita.parekh says:

    Sir,you gave them very scientific answers. Weldone n thanq for sharing


  6. amit says:

    the problem is that we do not need shanti, we are in need of kranti. ayuveda is regarded as alternate medicine, while many allopathic medicines does not cure diseases, but still they are called medicines. for example arthritis, (gathiya-vaat) and such many others.
    if ayurvedic doctors and ayurveda lovers have guts, then they should stand up with scintific research and should prove that allopath is the real alternate medicine system for those diseases which can not be cured by allopath (but can be cured by ayurveda). this will be the best reply to those retards


  7. Balaji S says:

    Good one Sir:-)


  8. Angelle says:

    Dear Srini,

    Thank you so much for writing such a carefully detailed response to the garbage about Ayurveda!

    I am one of those “foreigners” in America – but one indebted to Ayurveda and constantly facing “True Non-Believers” who take my dramatic health improvements as evidence of my not having been really suffering in the first place.

    Truly, anyone suffering from the debilitating pain, fatigue, and humiliation of stress-related auto-immune diseases such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, muscle spasms, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) should run from regular doctors and find relief in a certified Ayurvedic Doctor.

    I have served as an unwitting guinea pig for Western Medicine many years too long and may yet develop kidney, liver, heart issues and cancer from their over-use of liver-killing toxic anti-inflammatories and over-use of x-rays and unnecessary biopsies.

    After my first Abhyanga treatment, I was able to begin yoga. Three days ago, I was able to give hope to fellow sufferers I met in a grocery store, first by straightening my fingers, then, by bending down and touching my toes. (I couldn’t do that when I was “healthy”!)

    The human ramifications of the bad science in Saber’s paper include people who will suffer because they don’t want to waste money on something they think has been “debunked.”

    For example: My stepfather complains of new pain in his hands – he has been dealing with my mother since her dementia deepened (after surgeries using lots of Western pain medicines). But because of Saper’s bad science and all that it generated, my stepfather dismisses Ayurveda as “Mumbo-jumbo-hocus-pocus” that “…only works if a person believes in it.” He refuses to even try it because, “I’m not a believer in that idiotic crap like you.”

    A secondary impact of Saber’s paper are the people affected by the people swayed by his bad science.

    As mean and spite-filled as my stepfather is to me, he takes good care of my mother in ways I cannot. She will suffer terribly if he is unable to care for her.

    Really, it saddens me to see anyone suffer the way he is beginning to. I know what greater suffering he is in for without Ayurveda interventions – and it is needless: he has money to get the full treatments and consultations with the Ayurveda physician that I cannot afford.

    Worst of all, because our US government policy-makers for Medicare insurance share his ignorance (and attitudes), in a $735/month disability income, I pay close to $200/month for treatments that are not covered by insurance such as Abhyanga and recommended herbal supplements – this after food, rent, heat, electric, and telephone. There is nothing left for the recommended panchakarma (I’m saving up for it).

    Still, I get such physical relief, and emotional peace in the face of ongoing struggles, that it’s worth every penny.

    However, because I cannot afford to buy the herbal supplements from the Ayurveda center, I am one of those risking heavy metal exposure at the little grocery stores. (Thankfully, the shop owner where I go is quite knowledgeable about Ayurveda and carries quality products.)

    Thank you for providing the scientific response that I could not. I will save your page for my next mandatory doctor’s appointment and include it in a letter to my state representative.

    Peace and good health to you and yours,



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