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Year : 2012  |  Volume : 31  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 77-79

Safety of herbal formulations from the Ayurvedic perspective

Managing Editor, Ancient Science of Life, Director and CSO, AVP Research Foundation, The Ayurvedic Trust, Coimbatore, India

Date of Web Publication4-Nov-2012

Correspondence Address:
P Ram Manohar
Managing Editor, Ancient Science of Life, Director and CSO, AVP Research Foundation, The Ayurvedic Trust, Coimbatore
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0257-7941.103178

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How to cite this article:
Manohar P R. Safety of herbal formulations from the Ayurvedic perspective. Ancient Sci Life 2012;31:77-9

How to cite this URL:
Manohar P R. Safety of herbal formulations from the Ayurvedic perspective. Ancient Sci Life [serial online] 2012 [cited 2023 Mar 31];31:77-9. Available from: https://www.ancientscienceoflife.org/text.asp?2012/31/3/77/103178

Given the limitations for preservation of knowledge in the written form, a method of codification was developed in ancient times that aimed at brevity and compression of information in the fewest words and sentences possible. Details were not provided unless necessary and concordances and cross-referencing of passages and ideas created a network of information that had to be decoded and interpreted to make complete sense as well as to reveal hidden meanings.

The classical texts of Ayurveda point out that special rules of interpretation have to be applied to elaborate the topics when the discussions are suggestive and not explicitly mentioned , when the meaning is hidden when the expressions are ambiguous (anirmala), and when the exposition is very brief . [1] The textual written tradition was supplemented with a vibrant oral tradition of interpretation and elaboration.

There are concepts which may escape one's attention on a superficial survey of the texts, but when the intensive textual analysis is done, it becomes obvious that such ideas are indeed implied by the writings . [2] Without acquaintance with the techniques of textual interpretation, the meaning of the text remains elusive just as wealth eludes a person who is stuck by misfortune . [2]

The traditional method of communication is quite different from the modern method of scientific communication. An attempt is being made in this article to bridge this gap by decoding the ancient texts to unravel their richness and depth and at the same time interpreting the ancient ideas in the language of modern science. 
 A yurveda has adopted a very inclusive approach in building up its pharmacopoeia. One of the primary guiding principles that underpin the evolutionary framework of Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia is the axiomatic statement that any substance under the sun can be used as a medicine . [3] There are explicit references to this effect in the works of It is pertinent to note that Ayurveda does not rule out artificial or man-made substances within the purview of its pharmacopoeia. There is a Sanskrit term for artificial substances - . In olden days, there were not too many artificial substances in circulation, but even man-made artificial substances were actually incorporated in medicine if they were found to be useful. So, any natural or artificial substance of plant, animal, or mineral origin can in principle become a potential drug source in Ayurveda.

The another celebrated text book of Ayurveda on surgery, beckons us to search the earth at every nook and corner; the earth is bountiful and there are potential medicinal substances waiting to be discovered everywhere .[4] Although anything in the world can be used as a medicine, we find that very limited number of substances actually got codified and listed formally in the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia. This is because a very stringent process of evaluation, testing, and selection was employed to build and authenticate the Pharmacopoeia. In other words, the Pharmacopoeia endorsed the most effective and tested remedies (atah sid . [5]

Ayurveda also warns against the use of novel or inadequately known substances for medicinal purposes. Any substance which has not been adequately understood in terms of nomenclature, identity, and properties will lead to undesired consequences . [6] Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia was constantly evolving and new substances were being introduced after proper evaluation of their medicinal properties and safety profile. A substance would get incorporated into the Pharmacopoeia as a medicine only when satisfactory knowledge about its safety and efficacy was generated. Using unknown or inadequately known substances for medicinal purposes was as dangerous as fiddling with poison, a sharp weapon, fire, or lightning . [6] It is therefore; quite evident that a safety conscious approach was adopted in developing and expanding the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia.

Ayurveda had developed very elaborate protocols for evaluation of new substances so much so that hardly a thousand and odd substances got introduced in Ayurvedic Pharmacopeia over a period of nearly 3000 years.

There are the three important guiding principles on the basis of which Ayurveda develops its Pharmacopeia: (i) the first principle is that any substance of natural or artificial origin is a potential medicine; (ii) the second principle is that any substance that has not been adequately understood should not be used for medicinal purposes; and (iii) the third principle is that a well-known substance should not be abused or misused.

The ancient pharmacists and pharmacologists were very well aware of the potential harm that can ensue from misuse of well-known substances. Hence, the texts give the warning that even a well-known and effective medicine can be harmful if misused.

Let us look at the major heads of information that provided a comprehensive understanding of any substance that was used as medicine.

I) or nomenclature: A polynomial system of nomenclature was developed and systematized in the tradition of Ayurveda. One substance would be known by several names and one name would be common to several substances. These names were also suggestive of morphological, anatomical, phytochemical, and pharmacological characteristics of the drug source and helped in fixing the identity. The polynomial system of nomenclature also integrated the diverse nomenclature of drugs that were in vogue in a country like India with its astounding diversity with respect to language, culture, geography, and climate.

II) Nomenclature gives only an indication of the identity of the plant. The identity had to be fixed by thorough analysis of morphological, anatomical, as well as pharmacological properties of the plant. To achieve this, whatever techniques were available in those days were utilised. Adulteration and contamination were also dealt with, and there were clear instructions and guidelines for collection of herbs for medicinal use, the type of land on which it should be grown, and the method as well as season of harvesting. A multidimensional approach was adopted to determine the identity of a medicinal substance.

III) The next step is , which includes both pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics. Ayurveda looks at a drug in isolation as well as the outcome of the transformation that it undergoes in the human body. In a nut shell, Ayurvedic pharmacology is complete understanding of what the drug does to the body and what the body does to the drug. Vipβka is the final metabolic state of the medicine in which it exerts its pharmacological action.

IV) The emphasis in Ayurveda is on discovering safer use of a medicinal substance. Even poison can become medicine if properly used . [6] The Ayurvedic approach to safety, therefore, is centered on the concept of using a substance in a safe manner. Ayurveda characterizes an intervention as safe or otherwise, and not a particular medicine . [7]

Even the patient has been warned not to consume a medicine prescribed by a physician without consideration of the above factors.

This is perhaps one of the earliest public warnings issued to safeguard people from abuse of medicines . [6]

The explicitly states that there is no perfect medicine that is absolutely safe. Ayurveda does not claim that a medicine becomes safe just because herbs are used to prepare medicines. A foundational principle in Ayurvedic Pharmacology is the dictum that there is no substance that is without merits and demerits . [8] The relative safety of a substance is determined by assessing the risk benefit ratio.

One can never presume any drug to be intrinsically safe. The text or tradition of Ayurveda does not endorse the widespread myth that Ayurveda is intrinsically safe because it uses herbs as drug sources.

Only those drugs for which adequate information has been compiled under the four heads of information mentioned above, got developed in terms of their clinical applications over several years and sometimes over several centuries. Therefore, out of 9000 or 10,000 species of medicinal plants in Indian ethnobotanical database, only one tenth got recognized and is listed in the classical textual traditions of Ayurveda.

When there is so much hue and cry about safety of Ayurvedic formulations, a fresh look at classical Ayurvedic perspectives on safety of herbals is very much needed. [4]

  References Top

1.Yadavji TA, editor. Sushruta Samhita. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia; 1980. p. 815.  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Yadavji TA, editor. Caraka Samhita. Delhi: Munshilal Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd; 1992. p. 737.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.Harisastri PV, editor. Ashtanga Hridayam. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia; 2002. p. 166.  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Yadavji TA, editor. Sushruta Samhita, Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia; 1980.  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Yadavji TA, editor. Sushruta Samhita, Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia; 1980. p. 471.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Yadavji TA, editor. Caraka Samhita. Delhi: Munshilal Manoharlal Publishers Pvt.Ltd; 1992. p. 23.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Harisastri PV, editor. Ashtanga Hridayam. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia; 2002; p. 214.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Yadavji TA, editor. Caraka Samhita. Delhi: Munshilal Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd; 1992. p. 727.  Back to cited text no. 8


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