The Use of Metals & Minerals in Ayurvedic and Siddha Medicine

Extreme opinions exist about the use of metals & minerals in Indian Traditional Medicine namely Ayurveda and Siddha Medicine.Very often analytical laboratories publish news articles about the existence of heavy metals such as lead and arsenic in well known Ayurvedic formulations such as Chyavanprash. The interesting factor is that the classical preparation of Chyavanprash does not contain any metal or mineral in its list of ingredients.We also hear that the use of metals and minerals, if properly purified and processed is not harmful but actually helpful in patient recovery. Common man is virtually in a crossroad which opinion he should accept.

The Role of Trace Elements

The role of trace elements in normal physiological functions is well known. The below examples justify the importance of trace elements:

  • Zinc is important for wound healing and for the sustained release of Insulin
  • Copper is essential the formation of the skin pigment melanin
  • The antioxidant property of selenium is widely recognized
  • Collodial Gold possesses a disease-modifying feature in cases of Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Iron, which is absolutely essential for carrying oxygen is found in the haemoglobin of the blood. Iron deficiency anemia being one of the major cause of maternal mortality, makes one feel that the traditional form of administration of Iron could be more effective in combating the condition

Shodana (Purification)

In traditional Medicine, great emphasis is laid on the process of detoxification of metals and other inorganics. In the process of Shodhana, the purified metals are further processed in various herbal juices and increnated 100 times to get the final product. This alters the metallic salt forms and the bio-availability. The unabsorbable parts are normally eliminated in the stools after localised activities in the receptor sites of the gut. One may find some of the salts help in the treatment of diseases by simple alteration of the pH.

Heavy Metal Contamination in Ayurvedic Preparations

The sporadic incidence of contamination in plant products occur due to presence of small metal pieces when the plants are collected from the wild (not properly graded) or during the process of pulverising or cooking in equipment not made of pharma-grade stainless steel. With the implementation of GMP, this will not occur in future.

Does Siddha Medicine Use More Metals?

There is a belief that the South Indian Tradition, Siddha, uses more of metals than in Ayurveda.Though Siddhars were authorities in alchemy and iatrochemistry, the use of mercury was introduced only in the later part of Ayurveda. The frequency of use is more in Ayurveda. If one reads the Government of India's Formulary of Ayurveda & Siddha Medicines, they will find that just as many non-metallic preparations exist in Siddha as in Ayurveda. One reason why Siddha is associated with herbo-mineral preparations in ancient time is because South Indian rivers were not crossable, leading to non-availability of herbal drugs. With the improvement of infrastructure, and the use of herbs from other countries by domestication, more herbal remedies are now used.

The Importance of Proper Dosage

The activity of any pharmacologically active substance is based on the dose of administration, duration of administration, frequency of administration and the adjuvant, which may influence bio-availability. In Traditional Medicine, it is all the more relevant as those factors are decided upon based on the normal Prakuthi of the individual, the stage of the disease, etc.

Many of the Bhasmas and Chendoorams are recommended at the dose levels of 16mg-32mg. Exception is in the case of calcium based Bhasmas, where the dose levels are slightly higher. Even this is recommended in divided doses and that too for a specific period of time. 16mg for an adult of 70kg weight translates to 0.21-0.4mg which is normally not unjustified. These levels of elements may even normally occur in water sources. So one has to be very sure about the dose.

When to Use Medicines Containing Metals and Minerals

Neither Ayurveda nor Siddha recommends the use of metals & minerals as the first line of Treatment for common diseases. Greater emphasis is laid on food & action (ahara & vihara) as the first line of treatment. This is to be followed by herbal medications. Introduction of metallic preparations is a last resort. The efficacy of Kajjali (mercury-sulphur combinations) preparations in the treatment of Carcinoma is well known.

Safety of Medicine Containing Metals and Minerals

One common criticism that is heard is renal damage due to the use of metallic preparations. This arises mainly because of the following reasons:

  1. Continous use by patients without consulting the doctor if prescribed for a particular duration
  2. As there is no control on the sale of these drugs, a patient may recommend it to others, leading to self-medication.
  3. In rare instances, the physician may dispense the medicines themselves without informing the patient of its contents. Patient may take more than recommended in anticipation for faster relief from chronic ailments.

Drugs are substances that alter the normal physiological functions and are prone to cause adverse effects in some individuals. Even peanuts are known to cause allergies. Many of the chemotherapeutic agents and other drugs used in Modern Medicine have varying degrees of ill effects. Hence it is not justified fully to blame the Rasa-oushadhis for side effects. This does not justify injudicious use of Rasa-oushadhis. Ayurvedic physicians should use discretion when administering these drugs and only prescribe them when they are absolutely essential.

The Dangers of Self-Medicating 

The majority of the Ayurvedic medicines are sold as OTC (over the counter) products. Since this is traditional practice, many people buy prescriptions on the advice of senior members of the families who have used some of them personally or after they have seen them being prescribed to someone else. This is totally contrary to the established principles of Ayurveda as the physician, patient, drug and the attendant to the patient form the four pillars of successful treatment.

Each individual is considered unique and the drugs cannot be the same for everyone. The physician, after careful study of the patient’s prakruthi and the clinical manifestation of the disease, prescribes the medicines accordingly. The same medicine, even if it is a single herbal ingredient, may act differently if its maturity is different. The classical example is the Terminalia chebula popularly known as Haritaki; Haritaki acts as an astringent when given as the tender fruit, but acts as a laxative when matured.

The process of drug manufacture varies for different conditions, and the ingredients in the shastric formulations also vary. The adjuvant also plays a very significant role as is the case with the various vechicles. Different adjuvants for Bhasmas are recommended for the treatment of different conditions.

The dose also varies with age, prakruti, physical ability and disease condition, including duration of illness. Though many products are plant based they have a dose related pharmacological activity.
A drug which acts as a stimulant in small dose acts as sedative in higher dose. Aswagandha is the most well known example.

The common saying that herbal medicines are without side-effects is only a myth.
Many plant based products like Semscarpus anacardium, Abrus precatorious, and Aconitum ferrox are known to have side-effects.There are instances where overdose of Punarnava has created polyurea and severe dehydration when taken in higher dose.

In many occasions wrong adminstration of drugs without proper diagnosis have complicated the disease, as the same symptoms may be present in different conditions.

Though it is the duty of the physician to explain the features of treatment and the drug in order for a better understanding, self medication is not desirable.This leads to the argument that many practices are traditional, existing in the folklore and disregards dependence on physicians even for common,simple ailments.

Self medication in the case of home remedies can be used only as first aid and if the relief is not seen with one or two doses than it is essential to seek a  physicians advice.


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