A study published last December in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) caused some alarm about ayurveda">Ayurvedic medicines. Researchers analyzed 70 remedies and found that 14 of them contained levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic that exceeded U.S. Pharmacopeia and Environmental Protection Agency standards. But before you toss out your ashwagandha or gotu kola—or abandon the idea of Ayurvedic medicine altogether—listen to what the experts told us.
First, all the products tested in the JAMA study were produced in South Asia and purchased exclusively from ethnic Indian grocery stores in the Greater Boston area. "These are not products you'd find in Whole Foods or GNC stores," says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, a clearinghouse for herb research.
Second, many of the implicated products are supposed to contain heavy metals as part of their preparation. "A small percentage of classical Ayurvedic formulations do use lead, silver, and mercury for treatment of diseases," explains P.K. Dave, president of Nature's Formulary, a U.S. manufacturer of Ayurvedic medicines. "There are elaborate 5,000-year-old instructions on how to make the mixtures efficacious without building toxicity," he says. But, he emphasizes, "these mixtures are intended for use under an Ayurvedic physician's supervision. They're not intended to be sold in Indian grocery stores." In all likelihood, he says, they were imported illegally.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits heavy metals in any dietary supplements produced or distributed in the United States, so it's important to know what you're buying and from whom. Here are some precautions:
BUY BRANDS MANUFACTURED IN THE U.S.
Companies that manufacture in this country, such as Nature's Formulary and Solaray, state so on their label. If in doubt, call the company. Most list their toll-free number on the package.
Research manufacturers online. Find out if they test their products for heavy metals, what ingredients they use, and where those ingredients are from.
By law, all ingredients in a dietary supplement must be listed on the label. If they're not, that should be a warning; if they aren't listed by their botanical names or common English names, that's another red flag.
PURCHASE PRODUCTS ONLY FROM REPUTABLE RETAIL OUTLETS.
Natural food stores, the primary distribution channel in the U.S., are reliable sources for Ayurvedic medicines.
USE AYURVEDIC HERBS IN THEIR NATURAL FORM, IF POSSIBLE.
For instance, karela (bitter melon), a vegetable that regulates blood sugar, is most effective when eaten fresh, advises Reenita Malhotra, an Ayurvedic clinician in San Francisco. "Ayurveda is a lifestyle methodology, not a drug-taking methodology," she says.
CONSULT A SPECIALIST.
If you've been using herbs imported from Asia and are concerned about your health, see your Ayurvedic specialist or health care practitioner, says Malhotra. Heavy metal toxicity can be detected by a physical exam or through a blood test. Possible symptoms are abdominal pain, fatigue, irritability, muscle or joint pain, and neurological dysfunction, including seizures. For more information on this story, see Are Your Herbs Safe in our exclusive Online Extra section.