Coronavirus | In rush for ‘immunity’, Ayurveda supplements have an untested run

Companies marketing these products have capitalised on the association between COVID-19 and immunity.

Updated - October 19, 2020 08:26 am IST

Published - October 18, 2020 05:23 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Sales of products like chyawanprash and branded honey have shot up due to COVID-19.

Sales of products like chyawanprash and branded honey have shot up due to COVID-19.

For a chemist shop that’s usually lined with pharmaceutical drugs, Noida-based proprietor Mahesh Agrawal prominently displays his containers of Dabur Chyawanprash. “There’s a lot of demand for them along with honey and sales have increased ever since the unlockdown began.”

Multiple grocers and stores that sell organic-labelled products say they have been seeing a sharp demand for products that are even tangentially linked to “boosting immunity”.

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Amul markets turmeric-flavoured milk called Amul “Haldi Doodh,” that purports to having the “goodness of milk with the centuries old immunity boosting and healing properties of haldi”.

Rising sentiment

A July report by market research company Nielsen says chyawanprash sales have increased by 283% in June, while the sales of branded honey increased by 39%. “There is a rising sentiment towards ‘local’ with increasing support for Atma Nirbhar Bharat and Ayurveda,” the report said.

“From April-June, we saw a nearly 7-fold growth in demand [compared to last year] for Dabur Chyawanprash. Other Ayurvedic products like Ashwagandha, Dabur Giloy Ghanvati, Dabur Health Juices like Amla juice, Giloy-Neem-Tulsi Juice etc, have also reported strong growth,” Mohit Malhotra, CEO, Dabur India, told The Hindu . “People are now more inclined to prophylactic health remedies, especially immunity boosting products. This trend would sustain, going forward.”

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Shoppers told The Hindu that while they didn’t believe immunity products would protect them from COVID-19, they saw it as a way to bolster their immune defences. “I regularly take chyawanprash but will never go to an Ayurveda doctor,” said Swapan Banerjee, a teacher. “These products do no harm and play a role in general good health, from my experience but aren’t substitutes for masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds and getting tested.”

Companies that have been marketing these products have capitalised on the association between COVID-19 and immunity and the government’s encouragement of Ayurveda and yoga for mild and moderate infections as well for aiding recovery post COVID-19.

An 11-member committee led by former ICMR chief recommended that in the “short term... “Guduchi(Tinospora cordifolia) aqueous extract, guduchi+pippali (Piper longum), aqueous extracts and AYUSH 64 (a drug with multiple herbs developed by the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences) be recommended for inclusion in the standard care for mild to moderate cases of COVID-19”.

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However, a perusal of the research studies listed show that none of them have been fully tested for their effectiveness in COVID management and all the evidence relies on the herbs’ effects in controlling fever in malaria and in recovery from “influenza like illnesses”.

High binding efficacy

Ashwagandha has been recommended by the committee because laboratory studies show that it “inhibited the entry” of the SARS-CoV-2 viruses into healthy cells and guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia) showed “high binding efficacy” against SARS-CoV-2 targets involved in attachment and replication of the virus, compared to Favipiravir, Lopinavir/Ritonavir.”

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However unlike the latter, these haven’t been tested in controlled, comparative trials. In fact, the most recent human trials show that all of the drugs that in lab studies showed promising anti-viral activity but weren’t significantly effective in improving disease outcomes.

The viral cells, as it is now understood, infiltrate the lung cells and multiply. The SARS-CoV-2, scientists say, is particularly sneaky and the body’s immune system is frequently unable to detect these viral particles early on to neutralise them and keep them proliferating. As has been seen in instances of those suffering a severe infection, the immune system goes into an overdrive. The body is deluged by chemical messengers called cytokines that, while alerting the body’s defence cells to destroy the virus, also trigger inflammation in multiple organs. It’s to stem such over-reaction, that many a time ends up being fatal, that steroids such as dexamethason are administered.

Thus the holy grail of COVID treatment is to ensure that immune system fights the virus without going berserk.

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Complex mix of herbs

In the Ayurveda system, chyawanprash is a “complex mix of herbs” and several common herbs — like turmeric, black pepper and ginger infusions contribute in varying measures to keeping the immune system in a state of preparedness against fighting pathogens, said an expert.

“Turmeric, Ashwagandha, giloy all confer varying degree of immunity and may confer varying degrees of benefit to different people, depending on their individual constitution,” said Bhavna Prasher, an Ayurveda doctor and scientist at the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology.

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In the modern-science view, there are two kinds of immunity: one is ‘innate’ immunity which is the first line of defence against an infection. A class of cells called “natural killer cells” and produced in the bone marrow directly attack infectious microbes. The other, a so-called adaptive immunity, where specialised cells produced in the thymus gland actively monitor — and produce antibodies that are specific to viruses and bacteria. Both systems work in tandem.

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Ayurvedic literature, said Prasher, suggests that several of the herbs have been tested in immune disorders and there is evidence to show that many of them have ‘immunomodulatory’ properties, meaning they are able to either amplify or suppress immune system responses.

“They are good at keeping the body or moving it towards a state of homeostasis — a state of internal stability that allows the body to keep itself in a state of health. However, Ayurveda is not only about these formulations and depending on the degree of sickness, there are other interventions. These are popular because they aren’t harmful and generally protective.”

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