Rasa Shastra a Potentially Poisonous Alternative

The August 27th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) included a report of a study that showed that one-fifth of both US and Indian manufactured ayurvedic medicines bought on the internet contained detectable amounts of lead, mercury or arsenic. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations currently do not specify a specific acceptable amount or daily dose limits for metals in dietary supplements for domestic use.

Ayurvedic medicine began in India and has been practiced for thousands of years. It incorporates the use of herbs, massage and specialized diets. Rasa shastra is just one of many areas of ayurvedic medicine – it is one well known for combining herbs with metals and/or gems. This practice is also referred to as ‘alchemic medicine.’ The metallic ashes used in rasa shastra, called ‘bhasmas,’ are said to be used in order to carry herbs to sites in the body to start medicinal action faster.

Dr. Robert B. Saper, MD, MPH, of BostonUniversity, led this study, and in an interview with NPI center noted, “I would not recommend rasa shastra medicines, period. I think the high levels of lead and mercury found in these medicines should call this practice into question.”

In this particular study researchers ordered 230 traditional ayurvedic medicine products, bought randomly from online sources, found through five different search engines. 193 products were received and used in the study. The JAMA study results revealed that 21.7% of the US products had exceeded the acceptable level of daily intake of toxic metals. 19.5% of the products sourced from India exceeded those same levels. Of all products exceeding the levels, 40.6% were listed as rasa shastra products, and 17.1% were non-rasa shastra products.

Dr. Saper went on to explain that “the medicines with extraordinarily high lead concentrations, in the tens of thousands, ingestion of such a medicine in an average adult, with average metabolism… would make them very sick.” He added, “For the medicines that are at a lower lead concentration… it’s unlikely that the patients would become symptomatic, although [it] may have an impact upon blood count, intellectual and executive function.”

In total, 95% of all the metal-containing products were sold through US websites. Of those websites, 75% of them claimed to have Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). “The FDA should monitor and regulate the sale of these medicines far more closely than they are currently doing,” Dr. Saper said. “Claiming GMP status should only be done after an appropriate certification process for a manufacturer, and that certification should be periodically renewed.”

Michael McGuffin, President of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) also spoke with NPI center, and explained “I don’t believe we can get to the point of no heavy metals [in products], so the issue has to be a presence below an accepted limit, where the limit is determined by the impact on health.”

“Heavy metals are not added to herbal products,” said McGuffin. “They are added to some ayurvedic products, [but] our members have agreed not to sell those.”

“AHPA is engaged in a process through its committee structure of evaluating other existing limits for heavy metals, and determining whether AHPA should establish limits for heavy metals for our trade.” said McGuffin. “We have an obligation to provide the healthiest products that we can.”

“I think our findings suggest that it would be important for the FDA to establish strict standards for daily dose limits on toxic metals in all dietary supplements,” Dr. Saper concluded.

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