Everything natural is not safe

Monika Koul
With foggy mornings and chilly evenings at your doorstep, weather and associated illnesses are increasing rampantly. Respiratory conditions such as upper and lower respiratory tract infections (common cold, flu and pneumonia) occur commonly, while asthma and chronic bronchitis worsen during the cold season. Lack of bright sunlight pushes sedentariness that further leads to lethargy and increase in the fat levels in the body along with low Vitamin D content that affects the bones and joints. Doctors and medical practitioners are busy and hospitals overcrowded. Many people look for alternative therapies for cure of chronic ailments and fortunately, therapeutic herbal treatments, medicinal plant herbs, fruits, roots, rhizomes, corms of various wild plants are used by a vast chunk of population. Besides, herbal drugs are also patronised, advertised more these days because of which we can see many of these products on pharma shelves across the board. Many plants, their products and decoctions made from these have a profound influence on respiratory afflictions. Demulcent herbs contain mucilage which soothes dry, irritated tissues; they are specific treatment for a sore throat or a dry cough. Antitussive agents reduce respiratory spasms and are most beneficial for coughs which have a dry, irritated character and for the treatment and maintenance of asthmatic conditions. Many plants have analgesic, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and hence are used in ointments, syrups and massage oils. However, despite their continuous use in various forms as ingredients of some health boosting stuff available in market, some other major health issues have started cropping up in the users. If one issue is getting addressed, other issues also need immediate attention.
There is a general belief amongst the consumers globally that herbal drugs are always safe because they are “natural”. Herbal drugs and medicines made from these are being overestimated for their efficacy. People have started consuming these in quantities that are undefined and dosage is considered insignificant thing for these. Herbal medicines are managed as food supplements, functional food, health products, or drugs with differential standards and chaotic market.
A recent study conducted by us at Hansraj College, under the Major Research Project funded by University Grants Commission, Government of India looked at some of the common medicinal plants that are used to treat various ailments in North India. We collected Solanum nigrum (makau), Withania somnifera (Ashwgandha) and Adathoda vasica (Vasa/Vasaka) from various places in and around Delhi and found that the plants are eaten as vegetables, used as massage ingredients, applied externally and there are plenty of herbal drug formulations available from various noted brand names. The study revealed that plants grown especially, in nurseries are irrigated with polluted water. The leaves, stems, roots and fruits were subjected to some analytical procedures, the Atomic Absorption Spectrometry (AAS) and biochemical analysis. We deciphered that all the three medicinal plants showed the presence of heavy metals such as Pb (Lead), Cadmium (Cd), Chromium (Cr) and Nickel (Ni).
The plants that were growing in wild had metals much below the permissible limits but those growing in cultivation have high levels that can get absorbed in the body tissues and concentrate there in. The concern is that these heavy metals are going through medicines and have long term health implications that are going unnoticed. Cd, Pb, Ni, Cr are toxic to human health and cause various problems related to bones, kidneys and even dementia in adults. There have been incidents when the herbal medicine consignments from India have been tested in United States for the presence of heavy metals and have been out rightly rejected. However, here in our own country and in many states of North India, use of medicinal plants is in the form of self -medication and local practitioners. The people prescribing the medicines are not supposed to have a mandatory license and most important our claim of grandmas prescription is well justified. Our studies clearly indicate that if the collection of the plants is done from sites where soil is polluted or plants are irrigated with polluted water a cautious approach is required. Plants such as Makau, Ashwgandha and Vasaka should not be randomly prescribed, as these are freely available. The plants if contaminated can be very harmful to pregnant women, the unborn foetus and young children. Besides there is limited data on the efficacy and safety of their formulations on various body ailments hence should not be over-consumed. A regulatory framework for herbal medicines should be set up and all vendors that sell these should come under surveillance to ensure the quality and safety of herbal medicines is maintained. Otherwise, a remedy can be a disaster in the long run. So watch out, ensure the medicine does not turn into a toxin.
(The author is Assistant Professor Department of Botany Hans Raj College, University of Delhi)
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