A woman in Canada who was repeatedly hospitalized for concerning stomach pain and vomiting had developed lead poisoning from taking Ayurvedic pills — a popular alternative medicine — a new case report reveals.
The 39-year-old woman had taken up to a dozen pills of Ayurvedic medicine daily for a year to treat infertility. Ayurvedic medicine is a form of Indian traditional medicine that has been used for 3,000 years but whose products sometimes contain dangerous amounts of lead, mercury or arsenic.
After weeks of fatigue, nausea and pain in her belly, the woman was eventually found to have more than 25 times the normal amount of lead in her blood, and she was treated for lead poisoning.
The core concept of Ayurvedic medicine is "Ayurveda," or a focus on treating patients with natural therapies, such as herbal remedies, and lifestyle changes, for example diet adjustments or exercise. Around 240,000 American adults use Ayurvedic medicines, but there's little scientific evidence to support this system's purported health effects, and the medicines' contents raise safety concerns.
Heavy metals are sometimes used because of their believed healing properties, and people can obtain Ayurvedic medicines by "importing them privately," the case report authors wrote. "This circumvents regulated pathways that may flag products with toxic substances." In Canada, natural health products like Ayurvedic medicines are regulated by Health Canada, which checks the products' safety and effectiveness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers the medicines dietary supplements, which the agency regulates less strictly than it does conventional drugs.
The woman in this case reported taking between "a few" and "a dozen" Ayurvedic pills daily for more than a year. She told doctors about this treatment regimen after visiting the emergency department three times in six weeks for symptoms like belly pain, constipation, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath and ringing in the ears. She was also found to have low levels of iron.
At one appointment, she showed signs of a rare disorder known as porphyria, which affects how the body makes hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. Further probing soon led the woman to reveal her history of taking Ayurvedic medicines, and blood tests showed she had 55 micrograms of lead per deciliter of her blood — equivalent to more than 25 times normal levels.
People can be exposed to lead from many sources, such as contaminated food, drinking water or household dust, but normally in low levels. Toxic exposure is often associated with a particular job, for example those working in the construction industry, or certain hobbies, including shooting firearms. Symptoms of lead poisoning include belly pain, nausea, high blood pressure and impaired memory. In extreme cases, it can lead to organ damage and death.
As the woman didn't have any other potential sources of lead exposure, doctors instructed her to stop taking the pills immediately, and she was prescribed medication to treat lead poisoning. Within a year, her lead levels stabilized, her energy was back and her nausea and belly pain had gone.
The Ayurvedic clinic that supplied the pills was later investigated by government health bodies; the investigation resulted in the seizure of hundreds of pills from the provider. In a sample of 15 of these pills, public health agencies found that 14 contained "high levels of arsenic, mercury or lead." The investigators issued an official warning to consumers that products sold at the business "posed a health hazard."
The authors of the report, published Tuesday (Aug. 8) in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, think the case should be a red flag.
"This case highlights the risks and clinical manifestations of lead toxicity from Ayurvedic medicines and the importance of collaboration between clinicians and public health authorities to control the health risk from lead in consumer products," they wrote in the report.
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Emily is a health news writer based in London, United Kingdom. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Durham University and a master's degree in clinical and therapeutic neuroscience from Oxford University. She has worked in science communication, medical writing and as a local news reporter while undertaking journalism training. In 2018, she was named one of MHP Communications' 30 journalists to watch under 30. (firstname.lastname@example.org)