A 39-year-old woman was hospitalized with lead poisoning after taking popular supplements to treat infertility

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A 39-year-old woman was hospitalized with lead poisoning after taking popular supplements to treat infertility
The supplement industry is poorly regulated, making it difficult to know what you're really getting and in what dose. Mariya Borisova/Getty Images
  • A woman got lead poisoning after taking infertility pills from a popular type of alternative medicine.
  • Ayurvedic medicine is a traditional practice with a long history in India, and isn't inherently risky.
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A Canadian woman was diagnosed with lead poisoning after repeated visits to the emergency room for symptoms like pain and nausea, all because of pills she had taken as a popular form of alternative medicine to treat infertility.

The 39-year-old patient went to the hospital three times over six weeks, and initially doctors couldn't determine the source of her symptoms, according to the report published August 8 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

At follow-up appointments, she also reported shortness of breath, headaches, and ringing in the ears, collectively known as tinnitus.

Tests revealed that the level of lead in her blood was more than 25 times the normal amount, resulting in toxicity which explained the symptoms, according to the report. However, it was unclear where the lead came from at first, since doctors determined she hadn't been exposed to common sources of lead such as paint, pipes, or scrap metal at work or home.

The woman eventually told doctors that she had been using Ayurvedic medicine in an attempt to treat her infertility, taking up to a dozen pills daily for the past year. Her symptoms resolved after she stopped taking the pills and completed treatment for lead poisoning.

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Ayurveda an ancient healing system often repurposed by modern wellness trends

Ayurvedic medicine is a traditional medical practice dating back 5,000 years in India. It's based on the concept of restoring a natural state of balance to the body by correcting any factors that may have been disrupted, using strategies like herbal remedies, dietary changes, and lifestyle habits.

Many trendy practices in the wellness industry have, or claim to have, roots in Ayurveda, but may be taken out of their original context. Cleanses, diets, supplements, and tools like tongue scrape with their origins in Ayurvedic medicine have been branded and sold by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian. Despite popular misconceptions around Ayurveda as a type of "folk medicine" or in opposition to mainstream Western medicine, it can be beneficial in the right context, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

However, testing in this case study strongly suggested that the Ayurvedic pills this woman had been taking were behind the lead poisoning.

A local public health agency later investigated the Ayurvedic clinic which provided the patient's pills. Health officials tested samples of the pills and other products and found detectable levels of lead. One sample pill was more than 10% lead, and several contained levels of mercury that were thousands of times over the safe limits recommended by the FDA and EPA.

Subsequent investigations found high levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury in the Ayurvedic products seized by health officials at the clinic in question, according to the report. The products also contained some substances that typically require a prescription such as birth control and other hormonal medications, corticosteroids, and antihistamines often used to treat allergies.

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Use caution with any supplement — unknown ingredients or doses can be risky

Ayurvedic medicines aren't regulated in the same way as prescription medications, but are part of the poorly-regulated supplement industry. Some Ayurvedic products have previously been found to contain potentially risky heavy metals, in part from contamination, but also because in some cases, those substances are believed to have therapeutic effects.

Supplements outside of Ayurvedic medicine can also be risky, as a lack of oversight can make it difficult to know what you're really getting, and how much.

Previously, doctors have warned against liver damage from taking too many supplements. There are also serious health problems that can occur from combining supplements with prescription medications

And lead poisoning in particular can be a serious health risk, according to the Mayo Clinic. High levels of lead can cause pain, high blood pressure, and reproductive issues, as well as neurological issues such as mood problems and difficulty concentrating. It's particularly harmful to children, potentially causing mental and physical developmental delays, hearing loss, and more.

It typically occurs through environmental lead exposure from everyday objects like paint, pipes, drinking water, contaminated food, and even gasoline in cars (prior to the 1970s). The health effects can worsen as lead accumulates in the body over time.

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