X (formerly Twitter) suspended the account of Dr. Cyriac Abby Philips — popularly known as “theliverdoc” — after a Bengaluru civil court passed a temporary injunction, directing it to do so till January 5, 2024, the News Minute reported. The court was acting on a complaint by Himalaya Wellness Company — personal care and pharmaceutical company known for its reliance on ayurveda — against the Kerala-based hepatologist and clinician-scientist, who has built a following based on his criticism of alternate health remedies, including Himalaya’s products.

Arguing that his criticisms are backed by science, Dr. Abby Philips told The Quint:  “[E]very post of mine on their flagship products is backed by scientific evidence… I have cited data from published papers which shows that Himalaya products are dangerous for people to consume, especially patients with liver disease. I have also myself analysed, using my own money, (and found) adulteration, contamination and substandard contents in their products.”

According to him, the lawsuit and the suspension, both, are driven by the company’s vendetta against him. The company’s lawyer alleged that the business of his client had “substantially reduced” following “derogatory statements and materials against the products of the company,” by Dr. Abby Philips.

But the question truly concerning public interest is this: if there is merit to Dr. Abby Philips’ allegations, does it suggest that our reliance — if not over-reliance — on alternate medicines is flawed? If so, does that suggest herbal medicines aren’t nearly as harmless as we might have been led to believe?

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“Many consumers believe that herbal medicines are natural and therefore safe. This is a dangerous simplification. Some herbal medicines are associated with toxicity, others interact with synthetic drugs. The often under-regulated quality of herbal medicines amounts to another safety issue. Contamination or adulteration of herbal medicines are possible and can cause harm,” notes a 2007 research by Dr. Edzard Ernst, a retired British-German academic physician and researcher specializing in the study of complementary and alternative medicine. Interestingly, Dr. Abby Philips, too, had pointed to the “presence of adulteration and contamination in the products [by Himalaya] which have harmed many patients.”

However, with the 2007 research having involved the Novartis Foundation, naysayers of ayurveda-critics might be inclined to take Ernst’s opinion — no matter how informed — with a pinch of salt. Himalaya’s case against Dr. Abby Philips accordingly accuses him of covertly seeking to “push the products of Cipla and Alchem” through his criticism of herbal remedies. But even the website of an ayurvedic clinic states, “[While] ayurvedic medicine is all-natural, one must consult an ayurvedic doctor while consuming the medicine and not [s]elf medicat[e]. One should always check… which medicines should be taken, in what dosage and when (before or after meals).”

The branding around many commercial herbal remedy products revolves around the pervasive idea that common kitchen ingredients can actually cure various issues with no side effects. Speaking to The Swaddle in 2016, Dr. Ramesh Nair, a general practitioner in Mumbai, had listed three other alternate cures — or “home remedies,” as they’ve come to be known, due to their ubiquitious use in Indian houses — that could actually be harmful: castor oil for constipation, butter on burns, and oil in the ear for earaches, “Castor oil is an irritant, and while it may ease constipation, it does so by irritating the stomach and bowels, causing more harm than help… [B]utter on a burn actually traps the heat in the skin, making the burn worse than it would be with no treatment. Plus, it can be absorbed by the skin and potentially cause infection… [I]f the person has a perforated eardrum, [the oil] can cause complications.”

But, unfortunately, with the prevalent perception of ayurveda and herbal remedies having no side effects to worry about — with products sold by multiple brands being household names — the degree of self-medication is high. In September 2020, Dr. Shafi Kuchay, a senior consultant for endocrinology and diabetes at Medanta Hospital in Delhi had tweeted about seeing a patient with “yellow eyes but no symptoms of any liver disease” because they had “consumed two tablespoons of turmeric with water, three times per day, for the last two-three months… for prevention of Covid19.”

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The global health crisis has indeed increased public trust in ayurveda — with influential figures urging citizens to adopt the AYUSH Ministry’s immunity-boosting guidelines amid the pandemic, and with the AYUSH Ministry conducting clinical trials of traditional herbs and an ayurvedic anti-malaria medicine to test their efficacy against Covid19, despite strong criticism.

“In 2020, the focus on AYUSH medicines had gone up due to Covid19. Hence, the promotion of traditional medicines also went up along with an increase in false, misleading ads,” an official from the AYUSH Ministry had told The Print anonymously, after the ministry registered more than 570 complaints of false and ambiguous claims made by ASU (ayurvedic, siddha, and unani) drug manufacturers between March and December 2020.

Further, while ayurvedic medicines may have fewer side-effects to worry about — compared to allopathic drugs — they can still react with other substances, adversely impacting people’s health. “One of the most well-known traditionally used herbal medicines caused severe, sometimes fatal cases of interstitial pneumonia, when used in conjunction with interferon [cytokines secreted by host cells in response to being infected by a virus],” noted a 2011 article by researchers from Uttar Pradesh.

“While using these products in moderation or recommended quantity may not cause any harm, people have started consuming these products without knowing their proper dosage, way of preparation and consumption and their interaction with their ongoing medications. The trend is dangerous,” Dr. Manoj Goel, director of pulmonology at Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram, had noted.

As such, accounts like Dr. Abby Philips’ perform an important public health service: demanding transparency from companies who manufacture alternative medicines.