Ayurveda coming under attack

Ranjit Devraj

As ayurveda, India’s ancient herbal system of health revives in popularity it is coming under fire from the practitioners of modern allopathic medicine who accuse it of quackery and its preparations of being loaded with toxic metals and even steroids. “Increasingly I have my patients asking me if it is safe to take the ayurvedic preparations I prescribe them,” Sujath Kumar, chief physician of India’s well-known Santhigiri Ashram chain of ayurvedic clinics, told IPS in an interview. Kumar said he explains that the Santhigiri Ashram runs its own herbariums and processes its own medicines according to ancient texts and there is little chance of their getting contaminated with heavy metals or spiked with steroids. There may be people who try to make a fast buck by adulterating ayurvedic medicines or compromise on processing standards, but, he noted, that is happening even with products in allopathic, or conventional medicine.

“What troubles me is that the efficacy of ayurvedic medicines depends so much on the faith of patients in the medicines, and the last thing the system needs is adverse propaganda by people who understand nothing of this ancient science,” he said. Ayu-rveda, developed over 5,000 years, uses herbs, medicated oils and massages to stimulate the body’s natural defence mechanisms to overcome ailments, allergies and conditions after the physician first assesses the patient’s body type. Millions of people swear by the system in India and elsewhere. But doubts have been spreading among users of ayurvedic medicines since the Dec. 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) carried the results of study saying that 20 per cent of packaged ayurvedic sold in the United States contained traces of lead, mercury and arsenic at levels that could be toxic.

In the US, ayurvedic products are sold as dietary supplements, which do not require proof of safety or efficacy. Since 1978, at least 55 cases of heavy metal intoxication associated with ayurvedic products consumed by adults and children have been reported in the US and other countries, Robert Saper of the Harvard Medical School and his fellow doctors said in the JAMA paper. They analysed 70 ayurvedic products available from shops in the Boston area, in the north-east U.S., and found that 14 of them contained lead, mercury or arsenic. If the manufacturer’s recommended dose was consumed, it would greatly exceed permissible levels, according to the researchers.

According to Dr. Krishan Kumar Aggarwal, a well-know cardiologist and president of the Delhi Medical Association (DMA), unlike Chinese medicine, which is licensed, ayurveda has not been promoted by any significant lobby and it is only in recent times that groups like the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, with more than 50,000 members, have decided to take up the issue. Aggarwal, initially trained in pharmacology, said it was unfair of allopathic doctors to “scare” people away from ayurvedic remedies, especially when many allopathic drugs have severe side-effects which are often never properly explained. By attacking ayurveda, many valuable cures for diseases or conditions that are considered intractable in modern medicine, are being denied to patients who may benefit from them, whether in India, the US or elsewhere, Aggarwal said. —IPS