Shilajit: Neuroprotective Powers of a Legendary Folk Remedy

By Cristina Piñel Neparidze

Approximately 50 million years ago, when the Indian subcontinent collided with the Eurasian plate and created the lofty Himalayas, fossilised forests gradually materialised a nutrient and mineral-rich biomass loaded with remarkable medicinal properties. 

During the summers, when the mountain range increased its temperatures, this substance was timidly excreted from the crevasses in the form of a resin known as Shilajit. Slowly, as human inquisitiveness stepped into the mountains, this millenary product of nature was carefully purified into a blackish charcoal-looking powder and utilised for centuries by the Ayurvedic medicine as an antioxidant, rejuvenating compound. 

Native to the Caucasus and Altai Mountains, it was likewise introduced to the Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, Asian and Greek traditional medicines, and baptised by the latter as Mumijo (“body saver”). Mentioned in works of great men such as Aristotle and written about in the sacred Vedas, it was similarly employed as a popular immune-stimulating, anti-microbial and anti-allergic remedy for centuries (Aiello, et al., 2010). 

The eye-catching therapeutic versatility, millennial exploitation, as well as the widely expanded circulation of this product has intrigued scientists for many years. It is hypothesised that the medicinal properties of Shilajit are attributed to a unique phytocomplex composition (combination of interrelated plants) originated by a gradual degradation of plant organisms such as Euphorbia royleana and Trifolium repens. Such organic breakdown promotes a molecular composition comprised primarily of humic substances such as fulvic acid (Carrasco-Gallardo et al., 2012). 

Humic substances are organic compounds that result of organic matter decomposition through the synergic action of multiple microorganisms, examples including humins, humic acid and fulvic acid. It is believed that the curative features of Shilajit are provided by its significant levels of fulvic acid, a strong antioxidant agent. A study on the properties and composition of Chilean Shilajit (endemic of the Andean Mountains) have demonstrated that its oxygen radical absorbance capacity is substantially higher than that of blueberries for example (Carrasco-Gallardo et al., 2012). 

However, it is imperative to mention that, even-though there is a long history of use of such remedy and some studies (as the previously mentioned) hint at a possible evidence-based robust antioxidant activity, this natural phytocomplex still lacks a substantial scientific evaluation and systemic documentation in order to fully back its acclaimed antioxidant and immune-modulating properties (Wilson et al., 2011). 

Interestingly, in the last decade, a considerable part of such attempted scientific evaluation has laid its eyes on the potential neuroprotective effects of this substance, as current state-of-the-art inspections have enabled the discovery of potentially therapeutic molecular interactions between Shilajit components and pathological processes within the brain. Alzheimer’s disease-focused studies have suggested that fulvic acid functions as an antiaggregating factor of tau protein in vitro. The mechanism hypothesised for such antiaggregation is the possible association between fulvic and tau monomers or oligomers, avoiding the final fibril formation process, as in vitro tau aggregate exposure to the acid triggers a significant decrease in tau protein interactions (Cornejo et al., 2011). This presents fulvic acid (and thus Shilajit) as an attractive natural pharmaceutical alternative (or “nutraceutical”) to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease and, potentially, other neurological conditions.

In addition to its high fulvic acid contents, Shilajit has also been found to contain high levels of fatty alcohols (such as α-glyceryl ethers) as well as polyunsaturated fatty acids. Interestingly, fatty alcohols have been reported to modulate neuroinflammation: in one study, neurospheres (differentiated cell aggregates floating in the culture medium which contain neural stem cells) were co-cultivated with fatty alcohols, resulting in an induction of neuronal differentiation of neural stem cells while promoting microglial activation (Hauss et al. 2007). 

As for the role of polyunsaturated fatty acids, it is well established that they exert beneficial effects on neuronal degeneration: a study performed on the outcomes of dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid consumption on mice with induced Parkinson’s disease found that it potentially promoted dopaminergic neuron regeneration (Bousquet et al., 2007). 

Taken together, these two studies suggest that fatty alcohol as well as fatty acid supplementation could be a beneficial approach to treat (or prevent) such neuropathies, as neuronal regeneration would be likely promoted by their administration. 

However, research in the last decade has not only established an interesting link between the molecular modus operandi of Shilajit and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Recent studies have also suggested that Shilajit may additionally promote an improvement of neurologic outcomes by decreasing brain oedema, disrupting the blood-brain barrier and reducing intracranial pressure following trauma brain injury in rats. These studies found that Shilajit achieved such neuroprotective effects by promoting an increase in blood flow, and it was additionally described that rats treated with the remedy restored neurologic behaviours from early hours after brain trauma compared to controls (Khaksari et al., 2013). 

Collectively, the above-mentioned studies provide an exciting association between the composition of Shilajit and its recently discovered neurological benefits. Not only does the cited research provide evidence for a potentially versatile therapeutic function of this remedy regarding neuroprotection, but it also opens a new avenue for treatment that, paradoxically, was there for centuries. 

Of course, despite the existing research done regarding neuroprotection, academia robustly agrees that evidence-based information regarding Shilajit remains extremely scarce, and hence this remedy still stands as a natural alternative medicine product that essentially stays mysterious to the eyes of science. It is thus necessary for Shilajit to break the cultural paradigm and to be newly introduced into the medical world by the hand of extensive and meticulous research at a cellular and molecular level (Carrasco-Gallardo et al., 2012). 

The result of a more rigorous and systematic scientific examination of Shilajit could be very exciting. Well-developed and safe clinical trials could open the door for a prophylactic or potentially curative supplementation of this remedy for patients with a wide range of neurological conditions, and further research could additionally expand on its traditionally acclaimed properties, like its immune-stimulating, anti-microbial and anti-allergic powers. This is a perfect example of how science and traditional medicine can work hand in hand to craft bright, safe and well-rounded medical care in the coming years. 

References:

Aiello, A., Fattorusso, E., Menna, M., Vitalone, R., Schröder, H.,C. & Müller, W. E.,G. (2011) Mumijo Traditional Medicine: Fossil Deposits from Antarctica (Chemical Composition and Beneficial Bioactivity). Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2011 738131-8. Available from: doi: 10.1093/ecam/nen072.

Carrasco-Gallardo, C., Guzmán, L. & Maccioni, R. B. (2012) Shilajit: A Natural Phytocomplex with Potential Procognitive Activity. International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2012 1-4. Available from: doi: 10.1155/2012/674142.

Wilson, E., Rajamanickam, G. V., Dubey, G. P., Klose, P., Musial, F., Saha, F. J., Rampp, T., Michalsen, A. & Dobos, G. J. (2011) Review on shilajit used in traditional Indian medicine. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 136 (1), 1-9. Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2011.04.033.

Cornejo, A., Jiménez, J.,M., Caballero, L., Melo, F. & Maccioni, R. B. (2011) Fulvic acid inhibits aggregation and promotes disassembly of tau fibrils associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 27 (1), 143-153. Available from: doi: 10.3233/JAD-2011-110623.

Hauss, F., Liu, J., Michelucci, A., Coowar, D., Morga, E., Heuschling, P. & Luu, B. (2007) Dual bioactivity of resveratrol fatty alcohols: Differentiation of neural stem cells and modulation of neuroinflammation. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters. 17 (15), 4218-4222. Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.bmcl.2007.05.037.

Bousquet, M., Saint‐Pierre, M., Julien, C., Salem, N., Cicchetti, F. & Calon, F. (2008) Beneficial effects of dietary omega‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acid on toxin‐induced neuronal degeneration in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease. The FASEB Journal. 22 (4), 1213-1225. Available from: doi: 10.1096/fj.07-9677com.

Khaksari, M., Mahmmodi, R., Shahrokhi, N., Shabani, M., Joukar, S. & Aqapour, M. (2013) The Effects of Shilajit on Brain Edema, Intracranial Pressure and Neurologic Outcomes following the Traumatic Brain Injury in Rat. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences. 16 (7), 858-864.

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