There is a surging interest in the west about how an Indian tree called Guggul could dramatically help you bring down your frighteningly high cholesterol levels.
That is not all. It can also help you fight obesity.
The yellowish extracts from the resin of the Guggul tree (Commiphora mukul) is soon going to be one area that is going to come under the spotlight in the west for its magical medicinal properties. What is new in this, you might ask. After all, was this not known in India almost 2,500 years ago? It was.
But, it is only now that scientists in the United States are testifying to its efficacy. Recently, Dr. David Moore of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston has reported “the 2500-year-old traditional Indian medication for lowering cholesterol really works.”
Dr. N.K. Ganguly, director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research says no new research was being done on Guggul in India as the Central Drug Research Institute in India had developed the Guggul drug for cholesterol lowering properties way back in the seventies. It was also patented. A private company marketed the drug and in India the properties and medical efficacy of Guggul was not new to Indian scientists, he said.
The prestigious American journal, Science, has reported Dr. Moore’s findings. The American interest in Guggul is been seen with great interest in India as it might lead to the development of improved drugs.
There are ample references to Guggul and its medicinal properties in “Sushruta Samahita”, the classical ancient treatise on Ayurvedic medicine, which describes the use of Guggul for a wide variety of conditions. Some of these are rheumatism, obesity, and atherosclerosis. It was also used to lower the elevated levels of serum cholesterol and triglycerides (a group of fatty compounds that circulate in the bloodstream, and are stored in the fat tissues). It was also extensively used as an anti-inflammatory agent.
In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used to remove "Ama", or deposits of waste or toxic material in the body, including mucus and mineral deposits in the joints, thus reducing a possible cause of sluggishness, inflamed joints, and many other conditions.
For centuries, this small, thorn tree found all over India was a highly respected traditional medicine. Guggul was basically a yellowish oleoresin that came out of the tree when incisions were made in the bark.
The Guggul tree extensively grown all over India gives out a resinous sap when incisions are made on it. Ayurveda has used it for centuries as medicine.
Today, modern advanced chemistry processes and purifies this resinous sap. It is then standardized for a given amount of its active constituents-Z and E Guggulsterones. These two compounds are plant sterols with a high degree of human bioactivity and have been shown in studies to affect many biological processes including thyroid metabolism, cholesterol management, and skin function. In each of these areas, Guggulsterones were shown in studies to be highly effective modulators with near drug-like potency.
It was more than forty years ago that Dr G. V. Satyavati, who was a former Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research first reported the hypolipidemic action of Guggul in a doctoral thesis submitted to the Benaras Hindu University.
Dr Satyavati tried Guggul on hypercholesterolemic rabbits. She discovered that their serum cholesterol lowered. It was not just that; their obesity reduced as well.
Dr Moore says the Guggul extract lived up to its reputation of lowering cholesterol as mentioned in a number of clinical studies in Indian literature. Dr Moore’s paper credits Indian Ayurvedic medicine using the extract since at least 600 BC to treat obesity and other disorders.
Earlier work by other US-based institutions such as the University of Texas’ Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and Xceptor Therapeutics in San Diego demonstrated an active correlation between Guggul’s active agent – the steroid Guggulsterone – and FXR (Farnesoid X Receptor), which is the key regulator of cholesterol metabolism.
Dr Moore tested these qualities of Guggul in mice. The mice were fed a high cholesterol diet for a week and given specific doses of Guggulsterone. Surprisingly, the cholesterol level remained the same as when they began eating the high cholesterol diet, though it should have shot up under normal circumstances.
Senior Scientist Dr. A.K. Sen who was formerly at the National Institute of Science Communication, New Delhi, points out: “Guggul is an age old phenomenon that is well documented in India. The only thing that is new is that there is now a quest to have it scientifically tested to give it authenticity. The west is moving towards Guggul as it is fed up with the modern allopathic system that has side effects and is also not so effective. The west is finally turning back to nature and plant based medicine.”
Cautions Dr Devendra Sharma, a New Delhi based food policy analyst and a well-known commentator on bio-piracy: “We should be very careful about documenting traditional knowledge unless adequate safeguards are provided to protect the knowledge of traditional communities. One way to do it is to introduce a clause in the US Patent and Trade Mark Office, which should explicitly say that any company, or individual seeking a patent on something, which is traditionally known, would be prosecuted and blacklisted.”
Sharma says that the onus on proving that they have not stolen the idea would be on them and not on poor countries like India that just does not have the money to go in for protracted litigation abroad. When the basmati battle was on, an internal note of the commerce ministry in India had said that it did not have the money to fight the patent war.
Increasingly, Ayurveda is emerging as a strong alternative to allopathic medicine both in the west and India. The effort of the Indian government in now documenting Guggul and thousands of other traditional Ayurvedic medicines into a digital library is to stop pirating of traditional knowledge and stop patenting of traditional Indian medicine by western marauders.
According to Barcelona based Genetic Resources Action International, an international NGO working on genetic resources and bio-piracy, two patents have already been granted on Guggul: US Patent No. 5972341 dated October 26, 1999 and US Patent No. 6113949 dated September 5, 2000. All of them are based on traditional knowledge from India.
Says Dr. Sharma: “Look at China. They have managed 12,000 patents of their traditional medicine. Why cannot India also do it?”