Apr.17: COVER STORY
Beware! Ayurvedic medicines are not as safe as you think
Poor efficacy, toxic heavy metals and drug interactions can make them dangerous
Did you think ayurvedic medicines were natural and hence safe and free from side effects? Not always. First, some ayurvedic medicines may not be any more effective than a placebo as manufacturers may use shortcuts in the production process.
Second, toxic heavy metals may get into the product due to contamination. Or, heavy metals that are part of the formulation may not be properly detoxified during the manufacturing process. Third, some ayurvedic medicines may be dangerous when combined with prescription or even over-the-counter allopathic medicines.Thatâ€™s why it is vital to consume them under the direction of a trained practitioner.
Dangerous side effects
Ayurvedic medicines do sometimes have side effects, though less often than allopathic medicines. Adverse events may arise from the use of the wrong species of medicinal plants or incorrect dosing.
Contaminated raw material
Medicinal plants are easily contaminated during growth, collection, and processing. Apart from toxic heavy metals, contamination with pathogenic microorganisms and agrochemical residues also pose a hazard.
Toxic heavy metals
Heavy metals like lead (naga), mercury (parad) and arsenic (malla) are widely used in the preparation of ayurvedic medicines. According to a report by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, their purification process involves multiple cooling and heating cycles and some may be omitted in the modern manufacturing process. Hence, dangerously high levels of heavy metals may remain in the final product posing a health risk.
The Drugs and Cosmetic Act, 1940 and Rules, 1945 lay down regulatory provisions for ayurvedic medicines. Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) are mandatory and specified in Schedule T of the Rules.
Grahak Sathi interviewed Dr. S.P. Adeshara, former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Control Administration (FDCA), Gujarat. A doctorate in pharmacy, Dr. Adeshara has deep interest in and knowledge of ayurveda. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Today, we have large-scale commercial manufacture of ayurvedic medicines. What is your take on this?
A. I personally believe that ayurvedic medicines should be prepared using traditional methods as prescribed in the ayurvedic texts. The preparation of certain medicines is a time-consuming process. Some commercial manufacturers speed up the process by taking shortcuts. This definitely reduces the efficacy.
Q. What are the concerns that the regulatory authorities are faced with?
A. The state FDCA grants licences to manufacturers. Manufacturers have to mandatorily test every batch of every medicine to ensure that quality is as prescribed by the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia. But, you would be surprised to know, shops which sell ayurvedic medicines do not require licences.
Moreover, there have been instances of unscrupulous people mixing allopathic drugs like steroids, analgesics and sleeping tablets with ayurvedic preparations. Also, unfortunately, there is no provision for mandatory prescriptions.
Q. What is the main strength of Ayurveda?
A. Ayurveda has always provided personalized treatment as it looks at the prakriti of the individual patient.
Q. Do toxic heavy metals present in ayurvedic medicines pose a health hazard?
A. Not if a fully trained person is making the medicine and knows how to carry out the purification process. However, heavy metal contamination because of the source of raw material, pesticide residues and industrial effluents is a serious problem.
Q. What should consumers keep in mind before taking ayurvedic medicines?
A. Not all ayurvedic products are absolutely safe. Consumers should never self-medicate. They should consult an ayurvedic practitioner and understand the rational use, misuse and side effects of the medicine. They should check the label for the expiry date.
Q. To whom should a consumer complain if there is a problem?
A. A consumer can complain to the state FDCA or approach a consumer court if he is not happy with the quality of an ayurvedic medicine or suffers an adverse reaction.
Q. What about the quality of medicines made by vaids in small towns and rural areas?
A. There is no provision in the law to test these medicines. One has to rely on the integrity, knowledge, skill and experience of the individual practitioner.
Q. How should a person choose an ayurvedic doctor?
A.There are many quacks operating in this field. It is very important to ensure that the doctor you consult has a proper degree, at least a BAMS (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery). Avoid a doctor who practices both allopathy and Ayurveda.
Q. What are some of the lacunae in the labelling of ayurvedic products?
A. The law (Rule 161 of the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945) has its provisions. But my belief is that these are not sufficient in the case of ayurvedic medicines. Many products do not give the scientific names of the ingredients or the quantity/composition of extracts. It is the right of consumers to know the exact composition of the formulation.
Q. Finally, what would you like the Government to do?
A. First, I would like the Government to establish a system for collection of raw material, test it and certify it as authentic. Second, the government should increase laboratory testing facilities. Third, the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy), Government of India, should encourage the cultivation of medicinal plants, some of which are endangered.
Be an alert consumer
To avoid drug interactions, tell both your ayurvedic and allopathic doctor about all the medicines you are taking. A final word of caution: Do not discontinue allopathic medicines suddenly without medical guidance just because you have started ayurvedic medicines.