UNITED STATES, December 17, 2012 (KOSU): These days, just about everyone seems to be looking for more natural alternatives to what they eat and drink. So it's easy to see the appeal of traditional medicine. But as two recent cases from New York City highlight, just because a remedy is ancient or holistic doesn't necessarily mean it's safe.
Last week, New York City health officials reported the city's first two cases of childhood lead poisoning related to Ayurveda, an ancient Hindu medical tradition that dates back some 5,000 years. In both cases, the children -- a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old -- were taking Ayurvedic medications that had boosted their blood lead levels far beyond the 5 microgram per deciliter level considered safe for kids under 5.
Ayurveda is practiced by hundreds of millions of people in India and Sri Lanka. Remedies seek to restore balance to the body and usually involve mixtures of herbs, as well as changes in diet and lifestyle. But in one type of ayurvedic medicine, rasa shastra, ground-up gems and heavy metals are mixed in with herbs. Although practitioners believe that their mixing techniques make these formulations safe, the scientific evidence suggests otherwise.
In a 2004 survey of some 70 ayurvedic medications on the market, about 20 percent contained toxic levels of heavy metals -- including lead, mercury and or arsenic -- according to findings published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. That number included not just rasa shastra medications but other ayurvedic drugs that appear to have gotten contaminated during the manufacturing process.
Health officials caution against condemning all ayurvedics. But they urge doctors with Southeast Asian patients to bring up the subject and suggest taking a blood test. "We shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater," Saper tells Shots. "There are lots of traditional medicines that may be beneficial. Turmeric, for example, has been shown to have anti-cancer properties."