The branch of Ayurveda that deals with calcined minerals and metals is known as rasasastra (science of mercury). It has a large literature dating from the end of the first millennium A.D. The tradition of rasasastra shares some features with alchemy prevalent in medieval Europe (Wujastyk, 2001). Ayurvedic bhasmas are recommended at very low doses, often in divided doses, and for a specific period of time (Raisuddin, 2004). This suggests that the ancient authors might have been aware of the dangers of improper administration. Mainstream Ayurveda treatises like Susruta Samhita, Caraka Samhita, Ashtangasamgraha and Ashtagahidaya do not deal with calcined minerals and metals.
The identities of many of the tested products were also not clearly described in some earlier reports dealing with heavy metal content of Ayurvedic medicines. Van Schalkwyk et al (2006) reported eight cases of lead poisoning associated with ingestion of Ayurvedic medicines. The identities of only two of these remedies were known, the rest being described as “a mixture of brown Ayurvedic powders and black tablets from India”. There are instances where toxic Ayurvedic products are described as “ten different Ayurvedic tablets” (Dargan et al, 2008) or “small brown tablet” (Roche et al, 2005).
The present study is the first of its kind reporting the absence of heavy metals in ayurvedic medicines prepared exclusively with herbs. 126 ayurvedic formulations manufactured by 32 companies were analyzed in the present study. All of them conform to the heavy metal specifications set by Government of India, according to which, lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury in any Ayurveda, Siddha or Unani medicine should not exceed 10, 3, 0.3 and 1 ppm respectively (Lohar, 2011). This study shows that traditional ayurvedic medicines manufactured in the province of Kerala contain heavy metals below the limits set by Government of India.
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