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Most Indian traditional medicines with ‘Ashoka’ ingredient are spurious: study

Most Indian traditional medicines with ‘Ashoka’ ingredient are spurious: study
The bark extracts of Ashoka tree are used for the treatment of leucorrhea and other uterine disorders. (Photo: Pixabay)

Bangalore, Karnataka: A joint study by a team of Indian and Canadian scientists has suggested that traditional medicines with Ashoka (botanical name Saraca asoca) as an ingredient are mostly adulterated.

The bark extracts of Ashoka tree are used for the treatment of leucorrhea and other uterine disorders. It also has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-pyretic, anti-helminthic and analgesic characteristics.

The study carried out by scientists from University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, Kuvempu University, Shimoga, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bangalore, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, Punjab and University of Guelph, Toronto, Canada, analysed samples from outlets in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and found 80 percent of the samples were spurious.

This is the first comprehensive and large-scale study to demonstrate the widespread adulteration of market samples of Ashoka in India. The study was published in International Journal of Legal Medicine.

“In this paper, we have confined only to the bark extracts of Ashoka where we found 80 percent are spurious. In other medicinal plants, the adulteration ranges from 20 to 100 percent ,” Dr. G. Ravikanth, Associate Professor at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore told Indian Science Journal.

Indiscriminate and rampant extraction of the wood of Ashoka to meet the ever-increasing market demand has led to a sharp decline of the plant population. Consequently, it has recently been classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“In the absence of any regulatory agency to check the quality of traditional medicines, no studies have been carried out in India to assess the implication of adulterations,” said Dr. Ravikanth.

He added, “Studies abroad have shown adverse consequences of adulteration in Indian traditional medicines. For example, more than 100 women suffered kidney failures due to admixtures of roots of anti-inflammatory agent ‘Stephania tetrandra’ by the roots of a toxic herb Aristolochia fangchi in the United States.

Similarly, Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) barks that were adulterated with C.Cassia and C. Malabatrum have a bitter and burning flavour. C.cassia contains 1 per cent coumarin, a naturally occurring flavouring substance, which causes hepatotoxicity.”

The researchers suggested DNA bar coding to detect and quantify adulteration in raw herbal trade of a variety of medicinal plants. A limitation of this technique, however, is the raw herbal trade material is in the form of powder, billets, or even dried plant material and is extremely recalcitrant to extraction. In such cases, chemical fingerprinting, using techniques such as NMR spectroscopy could be used in conjunction with DNA bar coding to identify herb species and admixtures.

In recent years, there has been great demand for medicinal plants as alternative health care system. India exports over 5000 metric tonnes of herbal products annually and the demand is growing approximately by 10-15 percent.

Most of the herbal medicines are used in the crude forms (unlike the chemical drugs) and have to be taken for a prolonged period. There are no regulatory standards for traditional medicines, as in the case of modern pharmaceutical drugs.