Representative image: A variety of packaged herbs lie on a table. Photo: viewfrom52/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
The idea of ‘enhancing’ or ‘boosting’ immunity is almost everywhere these days – just as much as traditional recipes for foods and beverages to help us protect against the novel coronavirus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also batted for some herbal products, renewing interest in studying and developing alternative (i.e. non-allopathic) medicines. Kerala has also embraced Ayurveda and has set up ‘ayur raksha’ clinics at district and taluk levels to distribute medicines.
For its part, the Ministry of AYUSH has also recommended self-care guidelines and has also cited a few spices and medicinal herbs to “boost immunity”.
A number of medicinal plants used in alternative medicinal traditions in India have been reported to have antioxidant and immuno-modulatory properties. Sensing an opportunity, a number of herbal units have joined the bandwagon and launched their own supposedly ‘immunity-boosting’ products. Some in particular have even rebranded older products to capitalise on the unmet need for supplements to protect against COVID-19.
India is one of the world’s top consumers and exporters of raw herbal products. A study conducted by Trans-Disciplinary University, Bengaluru, reported over 960 medicinal plants in active trade in India, including as herbal powders, tablets and syrups. As it happens, many of these plants are sourced from naturally occurring populations in forests, wastelands and agricultural lands. According to one estimate, more than 80% of all herbal drugs come from forests. Collectors – most often belonging to local forest-dwelling communities – collect the materials and sell them to agents and contractors in smaller towns and cities. The material thus collected is then sold in retail and wholesale markets to drug-makers and marketers.
Nowhere in this process is there a mechanism to ensure the plant materials being passed around are authentic, safe and of good quality. With demand for medicinal plants on the rise, the fact that these resources are rare in their natural habitats makes it likely that the final product could be admixed or even adulterated. Both admixtures and adulterations can have adverse health effects and in some cases could prove fatal. Species adulteration currently practiced in the trade isn’t just due to negligence or ignorance; a lot of it is economically motivated. And consumers who buy products that eventually don’t perform the function they’re supposed to could also develop a false sense of security.
Irrespective of the factors that lead to such adulteration, the consequences can be serious. For example, a study published in 2011 reported that more than a hundred women suffered kidney failure after consuming the roots of a species called Stephania tetrandra, an anti-inflammatory agent, that had been adulterated with the roots of Aristolochia fangchi, a toxic herb. In 2004, another study had reported that prolonged consumption of tea adulterated with Adenostyles alliariae and other species, such as Illicium anisatum and Datura metel, can cause severe liver disease and neurotoxicity.
Indeed, our own studies have found rampant and widespread species admixtures and adulteration in the raw herbal trade market in India. For example, in 2016, we found that market samples of Saraca asoca, commonly known as Ashoka, one of the most important medicinal plants in India’s raw herbs trade, were extensively adulterated. Extracts from the tree’s bark have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
More recently, Saraca asoca‘s prevalence in the wild has dropped thanks to indiscriminate extraction. The species is currently classified as ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN Red List. As a result, over 80% of the market samples we tested were found to be spurious. A number of medicinal plants in the Himalaya are threatened for the same reasons – unregulated collection, overexploitation, illegal trade and loss of habitat. Several species used in Ayurvedic herbal formulations are endangered. Further exploitation could push them towards extinction.
Today, there is considerable demand for raw herbal products in India as well as around the world. So it’s imperative that we install strong regulatory mechanisms to control the quality, identity and integrity of herbal products to the same level and extent that we subject ‘processed’ pharmaceutical products. And we must enforce them well enough to allay concerns among consumers.
In cases where an herbal product contains several herbs, it’s important that the individual species be identified before the product is manufactured. For example, Chyavanprash, a popular nutritional supplement, contains 25 to 80 species of herbs, rendering identification of the exact recipe nearly impossible once the herbs have been mixed. If regulators and manufacturers can follow identification guidelines before manufacturing and testers are able to adopt advanced techniques like high-throughput and chemical analysis, a large number of samples can be validated.
Finally, it’s necessary to establish multiple crude-drug repositories that researchers have identified, for different recipes and uses, to be used as reference. Using such databases, industry players, traders and researchers can perform comparative identity tests and help regulate the trade of authenticated products.
R. Uma Shaanker is an emeritus professor at the School of Ecology and Conservation, UAS, Bengaluru. G. Ravikanth is a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.