Impurities in Herbs

India introduced Ayurvedic medicine to the world and today it is being practised and used globally by hundreds and millions of people. The basic ingredient in Ayurvedic medicine largely includes herbs of various types. The benefits of these innumerable herbs have been studied since ancient times and subsequently they have been used for their therapeutic properties. However, with rapid industrialization, the methods of herb cultivation and its natural environment have changed drastically. Exposure to industrial effluents and chemicals has raised issues of safety and integrity of the herbal drugs.

Standardisation of herbal drugs has assumed great significance in today’s times.The term ‘standardisation’ in this context means confirming herb’s identity and ascertainment of its quality and purity. The phyto-chemical profile of medicinal herbs is influenced by various factors such as genetic variants, seasonal changes, geographical and nutritional differences in their natural environment and so on. As modern methods of medicine are based on concrete experimental data, clinical trials and toxicity studies, standardisation of Ayurvedic drugs becomes all the more important.

Certain guidelines have been laid down by international health bodies for the standardisation of these medicinal plants. The crude drug materials have to be cleaned off the impurities and are subjected to macroscopic and microscopic examination to determine their identity and level of purity. Other steps include thin layer chromatography, determination of ash, extractable matter, water and volatile matter, volatile oils and level of bitterness. Further on, the level of haemolytic activity, tannins, swelling index, pesticides residue, foaming index, content of arsenic and heavy metals has to be determined.

In today’s context, the existence of heavy metal content in herbal drugs is a cause of major concern. Heavy metals refer to highly toxic metallic chemical elements like lead, arsenic, mercury that can be present in herbal products. They arise mainly due to polluted soils, use of polluted irrigation water, or inappropriate storage conditions and can be cause of various maladies.

In view of rising use of herbal drugs due to their lesser side effects, herbal heavy metal testing has to be given due importance. Moreover, in Ayurveda there are certain metal based drugs known as ‘bhasmas’ which are biologically produced nanoparticles involving the conversion of metal into its mixed oxides.The procedure of preparation of ‘bhasmas’involve elimination of toxics of the resultant metal oxide while retaining its medicinal properties. However, these procedures have to be properly documented and controlled through modern methods so that the issue of Ayurvedic heavy metal testing will be taken care of.

The first step in any herbal drug analysis involves the examination of submitted materials and developing an analytical strategy. Various analytical techniques can be adopted to identify the prevailing ingredients. These can range from simple colour and odour tests to complex techniques like Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy.

To conclude, it can be said that you cannot do away with Standardisation for any Ayurvedic drug analysis as that alonecan ensure the manufacturer’s effectiveness in guaranteeing batch-to-batch reliability of herbal products.