METALS & AYURVEDA
Basics: A verse in aSTAGgahRdayam introduces the whole world as a
pharmacopoeia that rests on the applicatory acumen of the physician.
It says that there is nothing in this world, not even sand and dust, that
is non-medicinal. This concept is rooted in the understanding of the
constitutional make-up of everything that is “being”, as caused by the
five great Elements. The body, the plants, the metals and the minerals
are all made of these in proportional variations. Thus we see good physicians using
plants, precious stones and cow’s urine with equal regard and efficacy. There is only
one category of things that is available in the world – that is medicinal. Metals, like
plants, thus become part of Ayurveda pharmacopoeia.
Logic: Paracelsus, a Swiss physician, said in the 16th century: “The
right dose differentiates between a poison and a remedy”. Ayurveda
too advocates the same – a properly used poison acts as ambrosia
and improperly-used ambrosia acts as a poison. In the context of
mercury, it is told that a pure sample kills death and fever, while an
impure one is poisonous. Procedures are then explained to make an impure sample pure
and fit to be used as a medicine. The pharmacological information did not just end with
the saying that everything in the world is medicinal. It also covered the procedures to
make toxic things not only non-toxic, but also medicinally potent.
Ethics: Metals also had lot of mythological significance – gold is
considered as the semen of God of Fire, silver as the tears and
mercury as the semen of Lord Siva, sulphur as the menstrual blood of
Goddess Parvati. This belief, strong in the practitioner, makes him
essentially truthful and righteous in preparing and practicing this style
of Ayurveda. A flaw in the processing or prescription is believed to
bring ill-effect not only to the patient and the physician’s fame, but also to his/her future
generations. This worked more like a quality control measure of spiritual dimension.
Practice: Out of the 23 heavy metals, Ayurveda uses arsenic,
copper, gold, iron, lead, mercury, and zinc commonly. Elaborate
procedures- like the general and specific purification processes,
incineration processing and biologization - are mentioned in the texts
to make them pure, edible and having enhanced potency. Mercury,
for example, undergoes eight levels of processing, lasting for weeks,
before it qualifies as a medicinally useful one. The final product,
bhasma in dust form, undergoes further stringent quality check. This includes checking
the particle size and convertibility to metal. Bhasma that is very fine, from which metal
cannot be extracted by any means, which ensures complete conversion of the metal to a
non-metal form only, is administered. Adaptations of modern technological help in these
procedures ensure higher purity and quality.
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Traditional quality control is nowhere evident like this as in the case
of metallic preparations. Proper guidelines are set in the selection of
raw materials, purification, processing and administration.
The guidelines that are strictly followed in the administration are:
i. Minimal Dose: Such medicines are prescribed in milligrams, and decided
based on the strength and age of the patient.
ii. Shortest Duration: They are not prescribed for longer period, to avoid
any chance even for cumulative effect, as told in the case of chronic
iii. Organic medium: They are administered by mixing
with natural organic media like honey, ghee, milk,
herbal juices etc that further reduces the risk of
Rules: AYUSH (Department of Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and
Homeopathy, India) issued an order stating that the testing for heavy
metals is mandatory for export purpose, in respect of every batch and that the
permissible limits of the metals will be as recommended by WHO. (In case of arsenic,
cadmium and lead. In case of mercury, the permissible level will be 1 ppm).
Apprehensions: A study “Heavy metal content in Ayurvedic herbal
medicine products” was published in the 2004 December issue of the
Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) triggered a fear
wave causing a few countries to ban the use of Ayurveda medicines,
and many individuals to reject Ayurveda treatment under the wake
of suspicion. The impact that the article created persists even after two years. This
particular study is refuted thus:
i. Heavy metals become toxic when they are not metabolized by the body
and accumulate in the soft tissues. Finest particles of such preparations
when mixed in suitable organic medium will not get indigested or
ii. Ayurvedic formulations have synergistic effect; one should not conclude
about the effect merely with the presence of 1 or 2 ingredients.
iii. The study was not able to conclusively ascertain the metal’s chemical
forms which can impact bioavailability and toxicity, especially so in the
case of mercury.
iv. The data is limited and cannot be generalized to all herbal medicinal
v. The study was more on the “quantity” of the metals and not the
“quality” – i.e. whether the available quantity is of toxic quality or not.
Painfully, in India, the political and media power, which are supposed to stand for truth,
only contributed to strengthen that negative impact.
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Truth: Metals that are now “feared” in Ayurveda medicines are
also there in Bombay-mix, frozen prawns and Soya sauce.
Thimerosal, a mercury containing compound is used a
preservative used in vaccines, which are often the single largest
source of mercury exposure post-natally. 9,000 chemicals are said
to be currently included in the personal care products, without we
being sufficiently protected against their potential toxicity. Are we
going to stop any of them?
It should be understood that there is nothing that is universally good or universally bad.
If improper, the use of even a common food item or plain drinking water can be
harmful. It is up to us to understand each from a wider perspective and use them
correctly and ethically.
Visit www.punarnava-ayurveda.com to learn more about Ayurveda education and
treatment, Ayurveda centres in India and various Ayurveda therapies in India
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