Ayurveda is widely considered the most ancient medical system in the world. It approaches the human being as a combination of three basic humors, or doshas, called vatta, pitta, and kapha. It considers disease to be an imbalance of the doshas. Ayurvedic treatments to balance the doshas involve a variety of approaches, including ayurvedic supplements. There are many such supplements available, formulated with herbs and spices and often combined with metals, to treat ailments as diverse as hepatitis, insomnia, epilepsy, and the common cold.
One of the most comprehensive ayurvedic treatments, panchakarma, involves five modalities for purifying the body and curing disease. Ayurvedic supplements are formulated to support each modality in a different way. In the first, they are encapsulated in a liquid form to be administered into the rectum, while in the second they must be in a form that can be inhaled through the nostrils, usually as a herbalized oil or liquid. The third stage is a rehabilitative stage. In the fourth, ayurvedic supplements may be taken orally to induce vomiting, and, in the fifth, oral ayurvedic supplements aid in the prevention of disease.
The ancient art of ayurvedic pharmaceuticals is called rasa shastra, and chemists schooled in the art combine herbs and minerals by several methods, including sublimation, controlled heat incineration, grinding, mixing, and churning. The resultant ayurvedic supplements may be in a powdered or liquid form that can be encapsulated or pressed into tablets. There is a long list of traditional herbs, spices and minerals that may be included in the supplements, including commonly-used ingredients like fennel and sesame oil, as well as more exotic ones like neem, bitter melon, and ghee. Ayurvedic supplements may also contain heavy metals like lead and mercury, which act as catalysts to make the active ingredients work faster.
Ayurvedic supplements are manufactured in India and the United States, among other countries, and are frequently sold online. Some are formulated according to the principles of rasa shastra and some aren't. According to a 2005 study conducted by Robert B. Saper, M.D., those formulated according to rasa shastra principles were more than twice as likely to contain detectable amounts of metal and had higher concentrations of lead and mercury. Moreover, the study cautioned that rasa shastra ayurvedic supplements could result in ingestion of 100 to 10,000 times the amount of mercury considered safe by medical science. There is no standard for the amount of contaminants allowable in daily doses of ayurvedic supplements, so consumers cannot distinguish between those that are free of contaminants and those that aren't.