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Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Toxic Metal Content of Ayurvedic Medicines Available on the Web

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The naturopathic approach to health and wellness often involves administration of medications with which Western medical practitioners are not familiar. Furthermore, these drugs, available both in the U.S. and abroad, are not regulated to the same extent as are drugs manufactured in the U.S. This fact does not per se make them less effective or dangerous, but adds an element of the "unknown" to their use by practitioners and patients.

With the advent of the Internet, people have access to a great many drugs, medical devices, and other remedies more readily than ever before. We are certainly aware that it is safest to operate under the assumption of "buyer beware," but the information available by which to judge the purity and effectiveness of drugs and remedies is commonly incomplete and imperfect. So, whenever there is useful information about efficacy and safety, we should welcome it with an open mind.

In a recent issue (Volume 300, Number 8, pages 915-923, August 27, 2008) of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Robert Saper, M.D. and his colleagues published a paper entitled, "Lead, Mercury, and Arsenic in US- and Indian-Manufactured Ayurvedic Medicines Sold via the Internet." They used a search via 5 Internet search engines to identify 25 Web sites offering traditional Ayurvedic herbs, formulas, or ingredients commonly used in Ayurveda, indicated for oral use and available for sale. They identified 673 products, from which they randomly selected 230 medicines for purchase. The concentrations of metals within these products were measured using a technique known as x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy.

The results were quite revealing. Of the products sampled, approximately 20% showed detectable (and therefore, unacceptable) levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. All of the metal-containing products contained enough metal to exceed one or more standards for acceptable daily human intake of toxic metals. It didn't matter whether or not the products were manufactured in the U.S. or in India - the findings were approximately the same.

Rasa shastra medicines, which traditionally combine herbs with metals, minerals, and gems, had a higher prevalence of metals than did non-rasa shastra types, which only contain herbs.

In their discussion, the authors cited case reports of metal toxicity and called for government-mandated limits on toxic metals in dietary supplements as well as independent testing to confirm manufacturers' claims. These conclusions seem quite reasonable given what was discovered by this study.

Many foreign and wilderness travelers, as well as people who seek "alternative medicine" remedies domestically, are faced with a panoply of drugs and products advertised to improve health. You should be very careful about what you ingest, and do some homework about what is contained in each and every product you ingest before you decide to eat or drink it.

image courtesy of IMIS Pharmaceuticals

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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