It 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 loopholes in Saper’s work 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 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. Their ‘systematic search strategy’ only sought out cut-rate grocery shops in the Boston area that had Indian sounding names, as obtained from the yellow pages.
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 hopelessly biased from the start. I obtained the list later, by the way.
There are genuine Ayurvedic medical stores in the US. 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’s team bought some weird herbal stuff that they thought was Ayurvedic.
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 about such ‘scientific’ papers that abuse Ayurveda.
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.
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.
Rasaushadhis 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: http://www.ayujournal.org/text.asp?2012/33/4/569/110514
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
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.