Examples of Specific Ayurvedic Treatments

Though few studies have been conducted using an overall Ayurvedic approach, many in vitro and animal studies have been conducted evaluating specific agents or formulations used in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of cancer or to attenuate anticancer treatment toxicities. At least 200 Ayurvedic plants, for example, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties,5 and at least 6 different Ayurvedic treatments have shown radioprotective properties.6

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Animal studies suggest that Amritaprasham, Ashwagandha Rasayana, Brahma Rasayana, Chyavanaprasha, Narasimha Rasayana, and Triphala prevent radiation-induced toxicities such as body and organ weight loss, and mortality.6 One in-human study was reported, in which Brahma Rasayana taken during radiotherapy improved immune function and reduced serum lipid peroxidase levels, as well as leukopenia, neutropenia, and lymphopenia.

Another example of an Ayurvedic plant that has been studied for its anticancer properties is Withania somnifera (WS), which is used in over 200 Ayurvedic formulations.7 More recent studies demonstrate that a WS root extract selectively sensitized colon cancer cells to chemotherapy by increasing reactive oxygen species, but not normal colon cells.8 Administration of a specific compound derived from WS, Withaferin A, significantly reduced the incidence, multiplicity, and burden of tumors in an induced mammary cancer rat model compared with controls (P = .004).9

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Safety Concerns

Safety concerns of Ayurvedic treatments are primarily of contamination by heavy metals. A study of 230 randomly selected US- and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic therapies sold through the internet found that 21% overall — including 22% and 20% manufactured in the United States and India — contained heavy metals of at least 1 standard deviation greater than acceptable daily intake levels.10

The most commonly detected heavy metals were lead, mercury, and arsenic. Indian-manufactured products frequently contained greater concentrations of lead or mercury compared with US-manufactured products. Of those contaminated with heavy metals, however, 75% were sold by US websites that claimed the product was manufactured using Good Manufacturing Practices.

The contamination of Ayurvedic therapies with heavy metals has resulted in heavy metal toxicities among patients. Several case reports describe patients presenting with symptoms of arsenic and lead poisoning that required chelation.11-14


Ayurvedic medicine includes the use of many different plant-based products that may have anticancer properties. The efficacy and safety of these individual products should be considered, but also the potential risk of contamination during processing. Overall, research is needed to determine if the Ayurvedic approach to cancer treatment or supportive care is an effective alternative to conventional Western therapies.


  1. Patwardhan B. Bridging Ayurveda with evidence-based scientific approaches in medicine. EPMA J. 2014;5:19. doi: 10.1186/1878-5085-5-19
  2. Chauhan A, Semwal DK, Mishra SP, Semwal RB. Ayurvedic research and methodology: present status and future strategies. Ayu. 2015;36:364-369.
  3. Olaku O, Zia F, Santana JM, White JD. The National Cancer Institute Best Case Series Program: a summary of cases of cancer patients treated with unconventional therapies in India. Integr Cancer Ther. 2013;12:385-392. doi: 10.1177/1534735412473641
  4. Deshmukh V, Kulkarni A, Bhargava S, et al. Effectiveness of combinations of Ayurvedic drugs in alleviating drug toxicity and improving quality of life of cancer patients treated with chemotherapy. Support Care Cancer. 2014;22:3007-3015. doi: 10.1007/s00520-014-2294-0
  5. Aggarwal BB, Prasad S, Reuter S, et al. Identification of novel anti-inflammatory agents from Ayurvedic medicine for prevention of chronic diseases: “reverse pharmacology” and “bedside to bench” approach. Curr Drug Targets. 2011;12:1595-1653.
  6. Baliga MS, Meera S, Vaishnav LK, Rao S, Palatty PL. Rasayana drugs from the Ayurvedic system of medicine as possible radioprotective agents in cancer treatment. Integ Cancer Ther. 2013;12:455-463. doi: 10.1177/1534735413490233
  7. Palliyaguru DL, Singh SV, Kensler TW. Withania somnifera: from prevention to treatment of cancer. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2016;60:1342-1353. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201500756
  8. Henley AB, Yang L, Chuang KL, et al. Withania somnifera root extract enhances chemotherapy through `priming’. PLoS ONE. 2017;12:e0170917. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0170917
  9. Samanta SK, Sehrawat A, Kim SH, et al. Disease subtype-independent biomarkers of breast cancer chemoprevention by the ayurvedic medicine phytochemical withaferin A. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2016;109. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djw293
  10. Saper RB, Phillips RS, Sehgal A, et al. Lead, mercury, and arsenic in US- and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic medicines sold via the internet. JAMA. 2008;300:915-23. doi: 10.1001/jama.300.8.915
  11. Pinto B, Goyal P, Flora SJ, et al. Chronic arsenic poisoning following Ayurvedic medication. J Med Toxicol. 2014;10:395-398. doi: 10.1007/s13181-014-0389-0
  12. Mehta V, Midha V, Mahajan R, et al. Lead intoxication due to ayurvedic medications as a cause of abdominal pain in adults. Clin Toxicol (Phila). 2017;55:97-101. doi: 10.1080/15563650.2016.1259474
  13. Gunturu KS, Nagarajan P, McPhedran P, et al. Ayurvedic herbal medicine and lead poisoning. J Hematol Oncol. 2011;4:51.
  14. Datta-Mitra A, Ahmed O Jr. Ayurvedic medicine use and lead poisoning in a child: a continued concern in the United States. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2015;54:690-692. doi: 10.1177/0009922814553397