While walking down the isles of grocery stores or visiting the neighbourhood pharmacy, you might have observed a shelf entirely dedicated to dietary supplements, whether they're multi-vitamins or ayurvedic medicines.
There are just so many different kinds, every pill bottle promising to rejuvenate your mind and body, sharpen alertness, boost your memory and give you the ability to read minds. Well, maybe not the last one but they do parade around making tall claims which may be true or solely marketing gimmicks. It all comes down to the claim's proven validity.
If all your life, you've strictly used allopathic medicines, you may have some reservations about alternative medicines. Is this Patanjali immunity booster really going to work or are we being baited into a trap? It is hard to decipher because of the lack of clinical trials on ayurvedic medicines, but the anecdotal evidence is really convincing. Urban Indians are popping more dietary supplements in hopes of improving their health and appearance as part of a new self-medicating trend.
A study by Mintel showed that 37% of Indians take vitamins or other supplements to enhance their skin and nails. One such health-enhancing substance is called Shilajit, the mythical Himalayan elixir for energy and strength, which has gained traction all over the world for the plethora of benefits it offers.
What is Shilajit?
So what's the deal with this mysterious mountainous substance? According to Medical News Today, it is a sticky, black, tar-like substance (Yes, it's not particularly appealing to look at) found in the rocks of high mountain ranges such as the Himalayan ranges between India and Nepal. It has also been found in Russia, Tibet, Afganistan and recently in Chile where it is called the Andean Shilajit. Experts and consumers say it should be taken in its purest form - as shilajit resin since powders and capsules may be processed or altered.
It's a treasure trove of multiple nutrients and organic acids such as fulvic acid and humic acid - the stars of the show. According to the Healthline, Shilajit contains 15-20% of fulvic acid, an organic compound strongly linked to boosting immunity and improving brain function. However, some of these claims are contentious because the studies that showed such promising results were performed on animals namely rats, we're still awaiting human trials to prove Shilajit's efficacy in a few subject areas.
In the Rasayana, Shilajit is continually discussed as a rejuvenator and a mythical compound that holistically improves our health. Rasayana refers to Ayurvedic rejuvenation therapy, it essentially means bringing vitality into one's life.
The word Rasayana (rasa+ayana) refers to nutrition and its transportation in the body; it is one of the eight clinical specialities of classical Ayurveda. Ayurvedic pharmacology classifies natural medicinal substances into different groups (e.g. 'Rasayana') according to their speciality. You may remember Chyawanprash, the brown thing your mom forced you to eat before school; yes, it is also considered to be part of Rasayana.
How is Shilajit formed?
Researchers suggest that similar to fossil fuels, Shilajit is formed as a by-product of centuries of decomposition of plant materials from the species of Euphorbia royleana (a succulent) and Trifolium repens (a white clover).
Based on its 'rocky' origins, you may have visualized Shilajit as a rock but that's not its original form. A study published in the International Journal of Ayurveda Research says, Shilajit is not a rock but a complex mixture of organic humic substance, plant, and microbial metabolites (products of metabolism) and due to warmer temperatures in the summer Shilajit oozes from the cracks and crevices of mountain ranges. To understand exactly why Shilajit is beneficial to us, we need to examine its chemical composition but we'll keep it simple!
According to a study that reviewed Shilajit, here are the bioactive elements in the rejuvenator:
- Over 84 types of minerals, including most essential minerals
- Fulvic acid: According to WebMD, fulvic acid interrupts the worsening of dementia and reduces inflammation. Mainly, it appears to have immune-stimulating and antioxidant effects.
- Humic acid: WebMD says that that people take humic acid for stimulating the immune system and treating the flu (influenza), avian flu, swine flu, and other viral infections but there is insufficient evidence to support this.
- Plant and microbial metabolites
- Small peptides and amino acids
- Some lipids: Lipids are a source of energy, they assist in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, insulate your body, and provide the essential fatty acids that cannot be made in the body.
- Phenolic glycosides: End products of a plant's metabolism, studies performed on animals have demonstrated that phenolic components can slow down the initiation‐progression of different types of cancers.
Shilajit is sold in various forms and it's up to you to choose which form you prefer best; you can do that by weighing each form's pros and cons.
The first is pure Shilajit resin, the most talked-about form; this resin appears as a smooth, waxy black or very dark brown paste. Its texture is sticky, so if you hold it, you can stretch it like slime. When it's refrigerated, the resin will turn brittle and you can break it. People usually take a pea-sized portion of the resin and mix it in warm water or warm tea and drink it. It's one of the forms of pure shilajit.
Liquid Shilajit resembles black paint or melted tar, it has a semi-thick consistency. This black-gooey liquid of Shilajit extract can be easily stored and you can gulp it as it is or mix it in your morning coffee or evening chai.
Solid shilajit appears similar to Shilajit resin, however, it's thicker and less glossy than the resin. When refrigerated it works exactly like shilajit resin, it will harden in the cold and soften in your palms. You can dissolve it in warm water or beverages or allow a small amount dissolve under the tongue akin to taking LSD, the psychedelic but don't worry, shilajit will not make you trip.
In Ayurvedic tradition, this is considered the classic form of Shilajit. It's slightly more processed than the resin form as people dry it out for longer and sometimes at high temperatures; too much heat can alter the potency of the substance. Nevertheless, it's a very stable form of Shilajit with a very high concentration of minerals, assuming it was not boiled before.
Next, we have Shilajit powder available in shades of brown, black, or amber. Considering the stark difference from raw shilajit, you can guess that this form of Shilajit has undergone many degrees of refinement such as freeze-drying to make it a powder. You can dissolve it in water or add it to smoothies, milkshakes, or any of your favourite beverages.
According to Pure Himalayan Shilajit, it's hard to find a trustworthy source of shilajit powder as 95% of all powder is either over-heated or a counterfeit product made by manually mixing together humic substances, minerals, and fulvic acid rather than the natural 100-year-old decomposed substance. In case you notice shilajit powder being sold at a cheaper price than other forms, you can be sure that it's a scam as, considering all the processing it goes through, it should be more expensive.
However, shilajit powder from a reputed brand is a great choice. According to user reviews on Quora, Always Ayurveda, Lost Empire Herbs and Ojio shilajit significantly test the purity of their ingredients and offer quality Shilajit products. Natreon, an internationally known brand, is also a great choice as it is known to have some of the purest shilajit on the planet.
If popping pills is your thing rather than drinking a foul-tasting liquid, you can consider Shilajit tablets. It's simply shilajit powder pressed into tablets, in appearance they can be blackish brown. You don't even need to fret about the dosage since it's pre-worked!
The last of its forms is a Shilajit capsule, generally the least popular; it's again shilajit powder filled in a capsule of any shape, size, or colour the imagination can reckon. To be honest, it's not the best form of shilajit since sellers can add binders and filler agents leaving you with a tampered product.
Traditional uses of Shilajit
Shilajit is a Sanskrit word meaning 'Conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness' and ‘Winner of rock’. It's very popular among ayurvedic communities but not among the so-called modern people, so if you're not an alternative medicine user, this is probably a new discovery for you.
Shilajit users admit that the substance isn't tasty or appealing substance to consume, it has a urinous odour and slightly bitter, saline taste. After all, it is made of decayed plants, so I think expecting it to be a savoury treat would be asking for too much.
According to a study, households in North India and Nepal use this substance regularly and parents often give it to their kids mixed in milk for breakfast, it's much like the Chawanprash of North India.
The Sherpas (Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet, known for their skill in mountaineering) claim that shilajit is a normal part of their diet. The same study observed that Sherpas consisted of a population of strong men with very high levels of strength and longevity; this can be linked to their regular consumption of Shilajit, the rejuvenator.
The study underlined several interesting benefits of the organic substance based on preclinical investigations (trials on animals):
- prevent ulcers
- act as an antioxidant
- help in cognitive and memory enhancement
- stabilize diabetes
- inhibit anxiety
- antiallergic properties
- regulating the immune system
- acts as an analgesic or painkiller
- antifungal properties
- protective properties in high altitudes
- neuroprotective agent against cognitive disorders
Current Research On Shilajit Benefits
In current academia, there is very limited research on Shilajit and its health benefits, there have been only a few well-designed, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed human or animal studies published. However, there are a considerable amount of studies that prove shilajit to be beneficial for health.
Helps Regeneration in Wounds, Burns and Bruises: When your skin is wounded or bruised, your body initiates an immune response that generates redness, swelling, growth factors (proteins).
How does Shilajit play a role in healing?
Well, it's rich in more than 10 amino acids which are crucial growth factors, a healthy immune system, and rebuilding of cells. It also consists of trace minerals (minerals that you only need in a small quantity) like zinc, copper, and magnesium that we need for skin repair and absorption of Vitamins.
Shilajit can help treat Anemia: Shilajit has plenty of iron and copper, both of which are vital components that make up red blood cells and allow for them to transport oxygen and other nutrients around the body. So, it can substantially help people with iron deficiency anaemia.
A study by the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine states "shilajit is safe for long term use as a dietary supplement for a number of disorders like iron deficiency anaemia."
Shilajit helps to enable fat to be transformed to lean muscle tissue as a supplement to exercise: In an experimental trial, subjects took Shilajit supplements orally in combination with exercise, the results showed that people who took Shilajit had their fat transformed into lean-muscle tissue faster than people who exercised without taking shilajit.
Another study showed that 8 weeks of PrimaVie® Shilajit supplementation at 500 mg helped to maintain max muscle strength and lower fatigue in 21 men after intensive exercise.
It can treat trace minerals deficiency: As previously mentioned, Shilajit contains trace minerals phosphorus and magnesium which are utilized by the mitochondria cells to produce ATP - the body's source of energy. A deficiency in trace minerals can lead you to feel easily fatigued and weak. Shilajit can help you regain that lost energy as through studies, it's been documented that it helped boost energy levels in preclinical (animal trials) and human trials.
It can aid in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome: This isn't general tiredness but extreme fatigue that cannot be linked to any underlying medical condition and takes a huge toll on the person. A preclinical study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2012, showed that shilajit has the capacity to reduce symptoms of the syndrome. However, the 21-day study was performed on rats, not humans.
It could aid in treating Alzheimer's disease: Most scientists are excited about shilajit as a possible treatment for Alzheimer's disease, a progressive type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behaviour.
A research study published in the International Journal of Alzheimer's Disease supports this clause, it shows the fulvic acid in shilajit can help block tau tangles to prevent Alzheimer's disease. To explain it in simpler words, tau is a protein found on the nerve cells, and in a healthy brain, tau protein helps to maintain the transport of nutrients within nerve cells but keeping the microtubules - the passage through which nutrients pass - straight and strong. However, in Alzheimer's, the tau collapses into tangles blocking the passage of nutrients leading to cell death which is detrimental to our brain.
“Shilajit has strong cognitive and memory benefits,” Elizabeth Dorow, a herbalist, told the Men's Health. “Research is beginning to support shilajit’s potential to prevent several diseases, with a primary application in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease.
Altitude sickness: If you’re likely to feel nauseous while ascending to high-altitude areas, Shilajit can help, as it improves the ability to handle high altitudinal stresses and stimulates the immune system.
A great supplement for bodybuilders: Fiona Gilbert, wellness advocate and an American College of Sports Medicine-certified exercise physiologist says that it's not just spiritual fanatics that believe in the power of shilajit but also fitness enthusiasts.
"Bodybuilders actually love it and [take it] to help with physical endurance and hypertrophy because it can relieve fatigue,” She tells the Men's Health. Gilbert says she prescribes shilajit as a supplement for her clients and claims that she has seen the results of shilajit firsthand.
“It has been on the market mainly as a male enhancer,” Gilbert continued, “but I recommend it to men and women over the age of 35 to help with balancing their testosterone level, general energy, libido, mental acuity, adrenal health.”
However, she admits that there needs to be way more research on the shilajit for it to be a certified treatment. Apart from these studies, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting shilajit's glorious benefits.
Myths about Shilajit
Yes, this mountainous substance is a hidden gem holding benefits for human health but it's not the cure of all diseases; don't buy into that false hope. If you would have noticed, studies on Shilajit always emphasize that shilajit can aid in treatment not cure most diseases. According to Pure Himalayan Shilajit, here are a few common myths to steer away from:
Shilajit cures diseases: This is false, it does not treat or cure any disease or condition, it's a nutritional supplement so all it can do is improve health and well-being by correcting nutrition deficiencies. Keep in mind that it is illegal to market dietary supplements as treatments or cure for a specific disease so if you see a product claiming that you can be sure it's a scam.
Shilajit treats depression: Yes, in a study Shilajit has been shown to increase Dopamine levels in rats and a depressed may have low levels of Dopamine in their body but it's not that simple. Depression isn't unidimensional, there is a web of reasons that cause depression. Anyone advising you to take Shilajit for depression is doing so based on no existing evidence.
Shilajit cures female infertility: Shilajit has shown to increase testosterone levels in men but there is no research saying shilajit leads to female fertility. There has been a study on rabbits which resulted in higher progesterone levels but no effect on fertility.
The more fulvic acid in Shilajit, the better: Fulvic acid is repeatedly mentioned when talking about the benefits of Shilajit, due to this, companies are now adding more concentration of fulvic acid to their shilajit; more than the natural occurrence. This, again, tampers with the natural product and makes it unreliable. Additionally, too much intake of shilajit may cause adverse side effects.
Shilajit helps burn fat: Just like fat-burning belts, slim teas, and other bogus fat-burning supplements, consuming Shilajit will not help you lose your fat. In a previously mentioned study, the findings were that Shilajit aids the transformation of fat into muscle when combined with exercise but this doesn't mean it can replace healthy food. It only fills a void of missing trace minerals in your body.
How to consume Shilajit?
As we discussed earlier, Shilajit is available in different forms, according to Pure Himalayan Shilajit, the liquid form is the purest form with the least refinements but again, there are no scientific studies to support this. As mentioned earlier, dietary supplements like shilajit are mostly unregulated by the FDA and the agency also doesn't require the supplements to be tested for safety.
Although this organic substance is natural and safe, you shouldn’t consume raw or unprocessed shilajit. According to Healthline, raw shilajit can contain heavy metals, free radicals (highly reactive atoms that can cause damage to cells in the body), fungus, and other contaminations that can make you seriously sick.
1mg, in a medically reviewed article, suggests that Shilajit powder can be mixed with milk and taken twice a day.
According to an Ayurvedic consultant at Nirogram, there are certain points to keep in mind before going out there and buying yourself some shilajit. You should get a consultation and body analysis from an expert Ayurveda physician as the shilajit dosage will be calculated based on your body weight. The physician will be able to tell you how much your body actually requires.
He says, "most practitioners recommend 1-3 portions of Shilajit a day for at least 5-6 weeks with the prescribed dose."
According to the Examiner, a reputed supplement tester, currently, the only human study conducted used 200mg of Shilajit with 50% Fulvic acid content in two divided doses per day after meals for a period of 90 days.
How long does it take for effects to show?
According to Natural Shilajit, there is no exact day or time at which you will see the effects, the results can vary; some may experience benefits within 1-2 weeks, others may experience it earlier. Shilajit is an adaptive substance, meaning depending on the person, benefits may vary.
Brands that sell Shilajit in India
There are several brands selling Shilajit in India such as Shudh Shilajit and Shila G by Pious Ayurveda and Patanjali Shilajit Sat Shudh Capsules but their credibility is questionable as most of their products are tested by their own labs and not independent researchers.
Some Quora users have suggested trying Natreon, a huge renowned supplier of Ayurvedic medicine to major retailers that significantly test their products. They sell dietary supplements, personal care, food, and beverage and medical food and users say, have some of the purest shilajit on the market and but they don't sell it commercially.
Shilajit vs Ashwagandha
Shilajit and Ashwagandha offer similar advantages and many people combine them to reap more benefits. Ashwagandha or Withania somnifera, as it's scientifically called, is revered as a shrub that provides vitality to users.
According to Healthline, it’s classified as an adaptogen, meaning that it can help your body manage stress. It also provides other benefits to your body and brain; for example, it boosts your brain function, lowers blood sugar and cortisol levels (stress hormone), and alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression. Ashwagandha has been more researched upon than Shilajit as all these claims are scientifically proven by peer-reviewed studies, unlike Shilajit where there is some ambiguity.
It can be a life-saving supplement if you suffer from chronic anxiety as in a 6-week study on 64 chronically stressed people, 88% of the participants reported a reduction in anxiety.
It can also assist people looking for a supplement to gain muscle mass as a study, that had people taking Ashwagandha saw greater gains in their muscle strength and size. It also doubled their reductions in body fat percentage.
Research has shown that it promotes antioxidant activity that protects nerve cells from harmful free radicals (unstable atoms that can cause damage to cells and lead to illnesses and the ageing process)
In a preclinical trial, rats with epilepsy were treated with Ashwagandha and you won't believe it but they showed nearly a complete reversal of spatial memory impairment (the cognitive function that allows you to remember locations and distance between two objects)
Even in human trials, Ashwagandha exhibited promising results in people's reaction time and task performance, compared with men who received a placebo. Another 8-week study with 50 adults who took 300 mg twice a day showed improvement in their memory, task performance, and attention.
Can women take shilajit?
Contrary to popular belief Shilajit is not exclusive for men, according to Pharmeasy, Shilajit has a host of benefits for women, due to its high iron content, Shilajit can be used to treat anaemia. Women are more prone to anaemia as they lose blood every month during their menstrual cycle, and prolonged anaemia can make women easily tired and weak. It's also a factor contributing to maternal morbidity and mortality especially in India, where, according to UNICEF women are comparatively more undernourished. Shilajit is an iron-reservoir and can be a great iron supplement.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, during menopause, women experience estrogen deficiency which reduces calcium absorption leading to weaker bones and decrease bone density. Shilajit can save the day as according to Pharmeasy and Medlife, it can boost the transfer of calcium, phosphate and magnesium into the bone and muscle tissues. It reduces the risk of bone fragility and fracture, and even in the event of a bone fracture, Shilajit speeds up the mineralization of the bone for faster healing.
Women are, unfortunately, more susceptible to arthritis, a condition of painful joints. Shilajit may be their saving grace here as well, because of fulvic acid, a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent. Arthritis laden people have high levels of oxidative stress (Oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage) and inflammatory compounds, which Shilajit has the capacity to significantly reduce.
Apart from these, all the earlier discussed benefits also apply to women.
Is Shilajit a testosterone booster?
Shilajit is also called the 'Indian Viagra' as many people claim it can treat erectile dysfunction in men. Studies show that Shilajit increases spermatogenesis, testosterone levels, and sperm count and motility in men.
A 2010 study investigated the effects of the dietary supplement on 60 infertile men. After taking 100 mg of processed shilajit capsules for 90 days, 28 subjects who completed the study showed increases in normal and total sperm count and sperm motility. In another similar study, researchers tested purified shilajit's effects on testosterone levels on healthy men volunteers of age between 45 and 55 years. The men consumed a dose of 250mg twice a day for 90 days and by the end of the study, their testosterone levels had increased compared to the placebo group.
What it's like to take shilajit for a month
A writer for Men’s Health details his journey with Himalayan shilajit that he tried as an experiment. He bought shilajit in its resin form, which is supposed to the purest form and for consumption he would dissolve a pea-sized amount in warm water until it looked like black tea and drink it every day. "Shilajit tastes bad", he says, "disgusting, actually." He explains the taste as bitter, salty, smoky, and tinged with an earthy tang that can very well make you want to throw up but says he gulped it down nevertheless.
This went on for three days but there were no results at all.
On the fourth day, he noticed a change, a huge change. Shilajit was finally starting to take flight; he states that on that day, he ran his fastest ever on the treadmill. He had outdone himself to a surprising extent and was still pulsating with energy post his intense workout.
After experiencing the benefits first-hand, he took shilajit every day without fail and always felt that same rush of energy and excitement like he felt on day four. Is it just me or does this sound like the plot of Bradley Cooper's Limitless?
Unlike the movie, shilajit doesn't make you smarter, rather it improves your cognitive ability, especially in terms of concentration, it also made him feel more level-headed and calm. I can definitely see myself using this in school to help me stay awake, only if I’d known.
By the end of the trial, he was highly impressed with shilajit and wanted to continue taking it, however, he did mention that the results could have been contaminated by the placebo effect. In other words, his mind could have been playing tricks on him. A research reviewer for Examine, Wyatt Brown, says that our mindsets prior to trying a supplement can affect the way we perceive its effects. For example, If you are optimistic about the results of shilajit, chances are you will trick yourself into thinking that you're feeling more energetic and alert.
Brown tells the Men's Health, "Our personal experiences are fallible, especially when it comes to the subjective (fatigue, mood, pain, etc.) areas of health."
"Our thinking can influence how we feel and if we're excited about a new supplement that we think is going to improve vitality, we can convince ourselves that it worked or the shift in mood from something new and exciting can make us feel better," he continues.
The research reviewer, Brown finds that there are possible threats about toxic metals in shilajit.
Side effects of shilajit supplements
He tells the Men's Health, "If it contains minerals and decomposed plant matter, it could very well contain toxic metals. It's best to only buy from companies that are certified and regularly checked by credible, independent laboratories." Shilajit isn't FDA approved so it's even harder to identify a pure product.
In Canada, the sale of Shilajit has been prohibited due to alleged high heavy metal levels found in the Indian products that were being investigated.
The US Food and Drug Administration does not verify ayurvedic medicines that people use for self-medication. Even the Indian market for Ayurveda is largely unregulated, take the case of 'Coronil' that Baba Ramdev was marketing as a 'tested medicine for Coronavirus', a bold claim to make when renowned labs were struggling with a vaccine. The 'Coronil' controversy highlights the role of the government in Ayurveda medicine to ensure safety and verify these tall claims companies make so effortlessly.
Though Ayurveda fanatics like to believe this form of medicine can never be dangerous to health, this isn't true. A report by the Print showed that dangers can arise due to three different reasons - all plants are not safe for consumption, uses of non-plant materials can be harmful, producers illegally add allopathic medicines, and disguise them as naturally sourced.
In relation to shilajit, dietitian nutritionist, and functional foods expert, Christy Brissette tells the Men’s Health that people must wait for strong evidence to emerge before trying popular supplements.
"My main concern with shilajit supplements is they can contain heavy metals and other contaminants," Brissette said. "In Canada, shilajit isn't even sold because of high levels of heavy metals in some of the products that were tested."
Since there is a lack of research, little information exists about the safety of long-term or regular use of shilajit. There are some concerns that shilajit may increase the body's production of uric acid and exacerbate conditions such as gout (a form of arthritis). According to Very Well Mind, shilajit may increase iron levels, so people with hemochromatosis (an excess of iron in the blood) better avoid it.
It is also not advisable for pregnant or breastfeeding women to take shilajit in any form.
Shilajit, the stuff of wonders, is quite intriguing in its uses, especially for people unfamiliar with alternative medicine. Preliminary research shows it has the potential to greatly improve people’s lives however, there need to be more human trials with the substance to ascertain the safe way to consume the mountainous gunk.