Junkfood Science: Healing pants — can you lose weight and be cured by special fabrics?

July 14, 2008

Healing pants — can you lose weight and be cured by special fabrics?

Can special organic cotton pants, treated with Ayurvedic herbs, be infused with healing knowledge? They’re called health fabrics, from the Sanskrit word “ayur” for health and “veda” for wisdom or knowledge. They’re the latest products being marketed through diet and women’s magazines, promising to cure a wide range of health problems. By offering to custom make the special pants for difficult-to-fit bodies, they’re trying to especially appeal to fat customers. While Oprah readers may believe in healing trousers, should you?

A company in Mumbai India says that their pants, made of Ayurveda-treated fabric, enables the medicinal herbs to be absorbed through the skin and treat everything from skin ailments, diabetes, arthritis, obesity to high blood pressure. Each fabric dye is said to contain up to 50 different herbs. They claim their trousers are not only for weight loss, but will heal a long list of medical conditions, including:

Skin infections, diabetes, immune system booster, eczema, energy booster, psoriasis, mood enhancer, hypertension, overall well-being, high blood pressure, calming, asthma, blood purification and cooling, arthritis, digestion, insomnia, rheumatism and general body aches

Their website tells prospective customers that the pants really work, citing an unpublished study of patients with “rheumatism, allergies, hypertension, diabetes, psoriasis and other skin ailments” who saw “marked improvement” after a month of being exposed to clothing and bed linens made of Ayurveda cloth. They claimed the results were so impressive, “the Government of Kerala has granted the college 250,000 dollars for further development.”

Funding, of course, is not a measure of science or even biological plausibility. We’ve seen that in the $250 million a year our own National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), National Cancer Institute, and Bravewell Collaborative spend each year on alternative modalities. In fact, since 1999, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has spent $983.135 million supporting alternative modalities – a 60-fold increase in tax-payer funding since 1992. In actuality, there is no scientific support for healing pants or for Ayurveda.

Ayurvedic medicine is said to have originated in ancient times, but according to Dr. Stephen Barrett, M.D., of Quackwatch, much of it was lost until reconstituted in the early 1980s by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “Its origin is traced to four Sanskrit books called the Vedas — the oldest and most important scriptures of India, shaped sometime before 200 B.C.E,” he wrote. “These books attributed most disease and bad luck to demons, devils, and the influence of stars and planets.”

But rather than give the American perspective, a much more fascinating look at the ancient practices, history and science of Ayurvedic medicine came from a recent article for East Indian readers that appeared in Frontline, India’s National Magazine. The article, entitled “Ayurveda under the scanner,” was written by Meera Nanda, Ph.D., a science and technology professor and former science correspondent for Indian Express in New Delhi, and currently a research fellow at John Templeton Foundation. Dr. Nanda revealed aspects of Ayurveda that’s been fueling considerable controversy there but never made the news here.

As Dr. Nanda noted, yoga and Ayurveda is being mass marketed to the middle-class in India like never before. Currently, there are 361,881 licensed Ayurvedic doctors in India, she reported. Her article begins with the words of a legendary healer who more than 2,000 years ago had compiled the ancient textbook of Ayurveda, Charaka Samhita, which didn’t “mince words when it comes to the subject of quacks.” Charaka called them “imposters who wear the garb of physicians... [who] walk the earth like messengers of death.” These fake doctors, she wrote, are “unlearned in scriptures, experience and knowledge of curative operations, but like to boast of their skills before the uneducated.” Wise patients, Charaka advised, “should always avoid those foolish men who make a show of learning.”

Clearly, this article isn’t going to hold anything back in taking a critical look at this modality. Ayurveda has such feel good connotations here, what’s going on in the birthplace of Ayurveda to curry such intensity?

She likened the fake doctors referred to in ancient text to those “who like to play doctor on Indian television these days.” The most famous TV gurus claim to offer complete cures for diseases from A to Z, including the common cold, cholera, diabetes, glaucoma, heart disease, kidney disease, leprosy, liver disease and more, she said. The swami’s miraculous cures, she wrote, are deceiving consumers by claiming to not be merely confirmed by science, but to be “science in its purest form.” Television doctors selling Ayurvedic modalities are pervasive on Indian TV. “[W]earing the garb of healers and scientists seems to be good for the guru business,” she said.

But all the noise and sloganeering is drowning out the real questions that must be asked ... of all traditional or alternative medicines: how effective are these medicines in curing the diseases they claim to cure? Can their medical claims pass the muster of rigorously conducted clinical tests? Even if the label on the bottle scrupulously identified each and every "vegetarian" and "non-vegetarian" ingredient, the question still remains if the drugs are effective and safe when measured by the modern standards of scientific research.

She described a 2005 scandal that was famous there, but will be news to most readers here. It all began when Swami Ramdev's Divya Yoga Mandir Trust fired 115 workers who had been protesting against poor wages and deplorable working conditions. As she wrote:

These workers complained of having to collect and grind human skulls and bones manually, otter (udbialo) testicles and antelope horns — work that Brahmins among them considered polluting. Acting on these complaints, Brinda Karat, a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a Member of Parliament, sent samples of two formulations meant to treat epilepsy and sexual weakness to relevant government authorities for testing. In January 2006, the results came out positive: the samples were found to contain human and animal DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The swami's "herbal medicines" had been delivering something not very herbal.

What happened after that was a spectacle to behold. Incredibly, the same Swadeshi-Hindutva-vegetarian gang that attacked McDonald's eateries in Mumbai upon discovering a small amount of beef flavouring in their fries sold in the United States, saw no problem with ingesting drugs containing roasted and powdered human skulls. Equally incredibly, Ramdev and his allies ended up painting Brinda Karat, the communists, and other left groups as puppets of Western drug companies, and enemies of Hinduism and the nation. Rather than answer questions about his own dubious manufacturing and marketing practices, Ramdev and his allies succeeded in putting Karat and her allies on trial. The debate got framed entirely in terms of defence of the nation and its traditions, with no room for raising any questions about the objectivity of the medical claim...

Professor Nanda explained that using human and animal products in Ayurvedic formulas is actually traditional. The Ayurvedic tradition considers all substances as medicines, whether they come from animals, vegetables or minerals, as long as they follow traditional practices, she said.:

The ancient doctors recommend the use of the following in medical concoctions: bile, fat, marrow, blood, flesh, excreta, urine, skin, semen, bones, tendons, horns, nails, hoofs, hair, bristles and pigments obtained from a variety of animals. This follows as a logical consequence of the Ayurvedic philosophy that like-nourishes-the-like: flesh is nourished by flesh, blood by blood, fat by fat, bones by cartilage, marrow by marrow, semen by semen, foetus by eggs... and so on.

She described classic Ayurveda curative formulas, such as one that uses cow urine cooked in ghee for epilepsy and skull bones in cow’s urine for ulcers. She negated the value of simply enforcing good manufacturing processes and accurate labels of ingredients in protecting consumers. “Unless the ingredients and methods followed by traditional Ayurvedic books themselves have been subjected to rigorous clinical and laboratory tests, mere disclosure and good manufacturing practices will not do,” she said.

An unsettling revelation she made was that India follows WHO standards, which don’t require clinical tests for traditional medical modalities with historical traditions. The simple truth, she said, is that there is no good quality research in Ayurveda. “Even staunch advocates of Ayurveda, like Dr. M.S. Valiathan, an eminent cardiologist, admit that ‘clinical studies that would satisfy the liberal criteria of [the] World Health Organisation have been alarmingly few from India, in spite of patients crowding in Ayurvedic hospitals.’”

Even NCCAM in the United States has acknowledged that “most clinical trials of Ayurvedic approaches have been small, had problems with research designs, lacked appropriate control groups, or had other issues that affected how meaningful the results were.” Like alternative modalities here, the Indian government’s assurances to conduct research to scientifically validate Ayurveda continue to go undone. As she explained:

This lack of reliable scientific research is partly the result of a deep-seated contradiction between wanting to appear scientific while holding on to ancient traditions. On the one hand, policymakers and the bureaucrats at AYUSH, the government agency responsible for scientific research on Ayurveda, make extravagant promises for "massive research and development" for the purpose of "scientific validation" of Ayurveda. On the other hand, traditional healers and modern gurus continue to insist that no amount of research can alter, or refute, the "Eternal and Absolute Truths" of Ayurveda, which were supposedly revealed to the Vedic seers at the very "beginning of time". Even AYUSH describes Ayurveda as having "originated with the origin of the universe itself". (What could this possibly mean?)

This anxiety to affirm our ancient traditions has led to a deep and widespread confirmation bias in research on traditional sciences. Ayurvedic researchers, in other words, tend to look for and notice only what confirms their existing beliefs, while they either do not look for, or ignore and explain away, the evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Indian intellectuals and scientists, moreover, have been only too ready to find fanciful analogies between advances in modern biology and the traditional concepts of body and disease.

The result, she said, is that claims for curing diseases are based entirely “on ancient lore, anecdotal evidence and the authority of gurus.” The public, however, is being incorrectly told the remedies have been validated by modern science. People are being subjected to worthless and even harmful chemicals, diagnostic procedures and treatments. Her lengthy article is worth reading in its entirety (as well as to see the photos), as she goes on to describe in detail a number of Ayurvedic cures being prescribed and the ingredients never revealed on their ingredient lists. She also describes the traditional remedies that use gold and other heavy metals, and minerals like arsenic, atimony, sand, lime and red chalk.

Heavy metals

A 2004 study by Harvard researchers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association had heightened international attention of contaminants in these remedies. The researchers, led by Dr. Robert B. Saper, M.D., MPH, had systematically tested Ayurvedic remedies being sold in a 20-mile radius in Boston and found 20% contained heavy metals in amounts that, if taken as recommended by adults, would surpass regulatory limits and could result in potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury and arsenic. Some contained levels as high as those associated with toxicity in the medical literature. Lead concentrations, for example, ranged from 5 to 37,000 µg/g. To see if the results were reproducible, they went back 1-6 months later and repurchased the same products and had them retested.

The JAMA study noted that their results were not unlike other studies, such as one in England which had found 30% of the Ayurvedic remedies being sold there contained lead, mercury or arsenic. Studies of products being sold in India have been significantly higher, with 64% of Ayurvedic remedies found to contain lead and mercury and 41% to contain arsenic.

“Recent analysis of the US National Health Interview Survey 2002 Alternative Medicine Supplement estimates 750,000 adults consulted an Ayurvedic practitioner in the past,” wrote Dr. Saper and colleagues. “In India, an estimated 80% of the population uses Ayurveda.” This makes the safety and efficacy of these products more than trivial.

Going back to professor Nanda’s paper, she said that Indian regulatory officials have tacitly admitted that the problems with toxic levels of heavy metals could be integral to the medicines, themselves:

According to Dr. P. Viswanathan, all eight formulations contain heavy metals well-known for their toxicity: Kajjali is a powder of mercury and sulphur, Rasmanikya is tri-sulphide of arsenic, Nag Bhasama is a bhasam of lead, Rasasindoor is a bhasam containing mercury and sulphur. The other four drugs — Basantkusumkar Ras, Arogyavardhini Vati, Mahayograj Guggul and Mahalaxmi Vilas Ras — contain mixtures of all common bhasams, and are extensively used for diabetes, liver disease, arthritis and respiratory diseases.

But proponents of Ayurveda, she said, continue to offer assurances “that the traditional process of turning heavy metals into bhasams ‘detoxifies’ them and makes them harmless.” But these claims are supposed to be accepted on faith alone, she wrote, because they’re not based on any actual research. “It is time now to expose these ancient sciences to the test of medical and biological sciences, as we understand them today,” she concluded.

As Marcia Angell and Jerome Kassirer said in their famous 1998 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine:

There cannot be two kinds of medicines — conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work... Alternative treatments should be subjected to scientific testing no less rigorous than that required for conventional treatments.

But in the ensuing decade, their admonitions have fallen on deaf ears. Even more troubling, as hard as it is to write, the cautions made by Charaka Samhita more than 2,000 years ago are just as needed for patients today. Ayurveda is now part of the core competencies in integrative medicine for U.S. medical school curricula, and medical students are required to experience and be able to implement it at a reasonable level. Ayurveda is part of the complementary and alternative modalities for nursing school curricula.

Wise patients, Charaka had advised, “should always avoid those foolish men who make a show of learning.”

©2008 Sandy Szwarc

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