In the BioStar Lab: Shilajit
Shilajit is a resin formed during the late Triassic period when geological shifts in the continents caused plants and ammonites (extinct marine mollusks from the Cretaceous period) to be trapped under sediment and rock, particularly in the Himalayas, the Caucasus mountains, the Altai Mountains, and the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan.
Two hundred million years ago, India was part of the super-continent Pangaea. When Pangaea started to break apart, the Indian continental plate drifted northward, colliding with the Eurasian plate some fifty-five million years ago. The collision gave rise to the Himalayas. As the mountains were formed, the lush, tropical forests and vegetation were crushed and compacted under massive boulders; the forests broke down under rock, transforming over time to a nutrient-dense biomass resin that now seeps out of mountain crevasses in warm weather.
The Himalayans are one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots; the region is home to well over 3000 species of plants, some of which are found only in this region. The range of climatic conditions in the region supports diversity: alluvial grasslands, subtropical and temperate forests, coniferous forests and alpine meadows. The ancestors of many of the flowering plants in the region first appeared in the wet, tropical, lush regions of Pangaea.
The discovery of shilajit
Legend has it that early human inhabitants of the Himalayas observed large white monkeys migrating to the mountains in summer and often chewing on a substance that flowed between layers of rock. The villagers attributed the monkeys’ strength, longevity, and wisdom to the substance. The villagers began to eat it too, and word soon passed to some Ayurvedic seers who examined the substance, experimented with it, and proclaimed it a worthy medicine.
Shilajit has been used for over 3,000 years, and is listed in the Ayurvedic Sanskrit texts as an important rasayana food—one that rejuvenates and revitalizes. It translates from Sanskrit to “conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness.”
Some scholars maintain that Aristotle vividly described the utility of shilajit 2500 years ago, and that Alexander the Great added shalijit to the rations of his generals and personal guard units to give them strength and endurance on the battlefield.
Composition of shilajit
Shilajit is a nutrient-dense biomass consisting of 60-80% humus (decomposed organic matter) containing fulvic acid, dibenzo-a-pyrones, and 85 different ionic minerals.
Fulvic acid contains a broad spectrum of bioavailable nutrients including minerals, fatty acids, phenols, and flavonoids. It also has many different carbon and phenol-based bonding sites, which are ideal for chelating with ions of macro- and micro- nutrients. When nutrients are bound to fulvic acid, they are more easily absorbed by cells.
What’s so important about fulvic acid?
Fulvic acid is the result of the breakdown and recycling of plant matter and contains all the phytochemical protective substances, amino acid peptides, minerals, enzymes, nucleic acids, carbon, oxygen, and sulfur from the original plant matter in a highly concentrated and bioactive form. Due to its low molecular weight, fulvic acid can interact with plant and animal tissues and cells, including those of humans. Because fulvic acid can also chelate minerals, it increases mineral bioavailability. It is available to the cell as an electron donor, and other times an electron acceptor, which makes it a potent antioxidant molecule, helping to reduce oxidative stress.
Soils, humus, and fulvic acid
Humus, including peat, is the decomposition end-product of organic matter. Compost, which is still decaying, is not humus. It can become humus in time, as beneficial microbes, fungi, and soil organisms work to decompose the organic matter. This is important to understand, because fulvic acid is a critical component of humus not found in compost, which is still in the decaying state.
Why do we care about humus? Because our industrial farming approach of the last seventy-five years has made our soils sick from chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, erosion, and mineral depletion. Compaction of the soil combined with deep tillage disrupts the microbial and fungal web of the soil, making it more difficult for worms to aerate and create the worm superhighways for microbes, fungi, and the roots of the plants. Without the microbes, worms, and fungi, organic matter cannot be broken down into humus.
No humus, no fulvic acid.
My journey to shilajit
I became very interested in humus several years ago for our organic garden, which led me to fulvic acid. There are a lot of health claims about fulvic acid for humans and I was curious to experiment on myself.
One of the challenges of getting older is that my GI tract doesn’t always behave as it used to. I will not use antacids or acid blockers on principle. One of the claims frequently made about consuming fulvic acid is how it supports the GI tract, so I bought several different fulvic acid liquid supplements and began testing them on myself. Several had no impact at all, and then I found a product called Restore, created by a board-certified MD from the University of Virginia. I felt the difference in two days.
Now my curiosity was brimming, so I went further down the rabbit hole and learned that the fulvic acid in Restore was from a humus deposit in New Mexico, which led me to investigate where other deposits might be, and then I discovered this strange word: shilajit. I was even more intrigued as I learned that shilajit was actually a resin and a part of Ayurvedic medicine.
I found an obscure little company that collects shilajit from the Himalayas and sells it as the actual resin without extraction or purification. I could barely get a thumbnail of it, mixed in water, down my throat because it was so strong and unpleasant to drink (now I know why the sherpas put it in tea with milk), but it did give me energy.
Then I found a study on arthritic dogs in the Journal of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry, published Dec. 16, 2013 called, “Anti-Inflammatory and Anti-Arthritic Efficacy and Safety of Purified Shilajit in Moderately Arthritic Dogs.” The study found that shilajit “is an effective and safe supplement that exerts anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effects in osteoarthritic dogs.”
Off I went in search of this purified shilajit…and found it from an innovative Ayurvedic company that combines the knowledge of Ayurvedic medicine with Western science. Their shilajit is called PrimaVie®, and it is this very shilajit that the study was based on. Eureka!
During the summer of 2016, I experimented with this purified version on nine horses ranging in age from 19 to 29. I know these horses well because they live in my “backyard”. I wasn’t looking for anything at first other than palatability, but within a few days, one horse with normally hard fecal balls had softer, less dehydrated manure, which continued to improve over the 90 days he was on shilajit, until he had what I considered pretty perfect stool.
These horses are all retired, healthy, and live a fairly stress-free life in a herd, on pasture, hay, and whole food. By the 60-day mark there was a noticeable vitality in the horses. I don’t know how to describe it any other way. They just felt really good within themselves. Even Mr. Laid Back, who prefers the walk to any other gait, was trotting and even cantering up hills.
We did another test while I was in Florida for the winter circuit. I wanted to see how the horses would look after not seeing them for over two months. We all know how tough winter can be, especially for older horses.
I was shocked when I came home. They all looked good! Yes, they were shaggy-coated and hadn’t shed out yet, and they were fed their usual winter feeds and hays in normal winter feeding amounts. Not one had lost weight, or put on an excessive hay belly. But the real eye-opener for me was running my hands over Lionheart’s body and just feeling how good his body felt under all that hair—and he was one month shy of his 30th birthday. When he trotted away from me, he actually flexed his hocks, which I hadn’t seen him do for a long time.
When we started testing shilajit this summer on some BioStar customers’ horses for palatability, one customer reported that her FEI dressage horse, after two doses, was more loose and supple. “Please send me more!” she texted to me.
How does shilajit work?
Although shilajit was studied quite extensively in the former USSR, those studies have not been published and are deemed classified by the Russian government. What we do know is that the Russian military and elite athletic programs have been using shilajit for forty years.
The current research on shilajit is being conducted in India, the US, and Chile. Countries such as Germany, the US, and the UK have been studying fulvic acid for more than thirty years.
At present, the identification of the constituents of shilajit such as fulvic acids, dibenzo-a-pyrones (DBPs), and humic acids are hypothesized to be the important factors in shilajit’s efficacy. What we don’t know is whether the specific botanical decomposition that forms shilajit plays a crucial role in how it works. The composition of shilajit from botanical sources is quite different from the fulvic acid from the deposit in New Mexico.
Scientists can deconstruct shilajit into its various components, but this won’t answer all of our questions. Similarly, a blueberry contains a multitude of phenolic compounds, but it is not just the phenols that give blueberries their antioxidant benefits; it is the whole blueberry itself—the matrix of fiber, carbohydrates, enzymes and phenolics—that carries these benefits. We can say the same thing about any other whole food; it is the whole combination of components in shilajit, a resin, that makes it work in the body.
Certain herbs are classified as adaptogens: plants that increases the body’s resistance to adverse influences by a wide range of physical, chemical, and biochemical factors, and have a normalizing or restorative effect on the body as a whole. An adaptogen helps the body to adapt to physical and mental stress. Common adaptogenic herbs include ashwaganda, holy basil, eleuthero, ginseng, Cordyceps mushroom, heshouwu, Schisandra, Astragalus, Rhodiola, reishi mushrooms. Shilajit is the first resin to be classified as an adaptogen.
Traditionally, Ayurvedic medicine has used shilajit as a revitalizer, as a rejuvenating food, as support for digestive disorders, for metabolic imbalances, and for increasing longevity. In India, it is currently classified as yogavaha—a substance that enhances other medicines.
Current research has identified some of the health benefits of shilajit, including its antioxidant properties, its anti-inflammatory actions, and its role in enhancing physical performance and reducing fatigue.
According to a Creighton University Medical Center study from 2013: “Various research studies indicate that shilajit exhibits antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, adaptogenic … properties. Furthermore, animal and human data support its use as a ‘revitalizer’, enhancing physical performance and relieving fatigue with enhanced production of ATP.” (Stohs, SJ et al., 2013)
How shilajit supports the mitochondria and ATP
The mitochondria component of cells is essential for energy production as well as cell signaling, cell repair, and cell growth. The jobs of the mitochondria are dependent on the presence of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and the mitochondria are in fact responsible for converting oxygen, food, and nutrients into ATP. This energy is commonly referred to as “the currency that powers the cell’s activities”.
ATP production relies on oxygen and glucose. Lack of oxygen can result in excessive lactic acid production, which creates muscle fatigue.
When the mitochondria are not functioning well, it is sometimes because of a genetic mutation or induced by oxidative stress, toxins, diet, or medications. Injuries such as connective tissue strains can be a sign of the low functioning of the mitochondria. Repair of tissues is one of the roles of the mitochondria, and if the mitochondria are not functioning at their full capacity, healing of connective tissue can be prolonged. Progressive loss of function of the mitochondria can increase fatigue, speed up the aging process, and has been linked to a variety of chronic illnesses including metabolic diseases, neurological disorders, joint deterioration, immune system imbalances, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Mitochondrial dysfunction can be both the cause and the consequence of inflammation. Research has shown that shilajit supports the mitochondria in converting fat and sugars into ATP, improves mitochondrial function, and protects mitochondrial membranes from oxidative damage. By supporting the mitochondria, shilajit can increase cellular energy, and protect the mitochondria so that the other important functions such as cell signaling, and cellular repair can perform efficiently.
Further published studies show how shilajit actually supports and enhances coenzyme Q10. “CoQ10” is a compound found within the mitochondria, and a vital participant in the chemical reactions that generate energy within cells. It is required for the conversion of fats and sugar into cellular energy and is a powerful antioxidant. The studies have demonstrated a powerful, synergistic effect between shilajit and CoQ10.
Shilajit for collagen and bone
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed that in human subjects administered shilajit (patented as PrimaVie), there was a significant up-regulation of genes including collagen (types I, II, III, V, VI, XIV), elastin, fibrillin and fibronectin. The conclusion: “Oral supplementation of shilajit in human subjects resulted in skeletal muscle adaptation through upregulation of extracellular matrix (ECM) genes that control muscle mechanotransduction properties, elasticity, repair, and regeneration.” (Amavita Das et all, 2016)
Previous research (“Shilajit, a novel regulator of bone/cartilage healing”) concluded that “shilajit promotes osteoblast survival due to its effects on altering the balance between pro-apoptotic and anti-apoptotic proteins. In addition, in vivo studies revealed that shilajit enhanced cartilage formation…” (Proquest Dissertations Publishing, 2013)
Benefits to your horse
- For high-performance horses, energy isn’t just the “go button”; it is the muscles operating efficiently. It is the ability of the horse to do more, and to be able to recover quickly from strenuous athletic endeavors. It is the reduction of muscle fatigue and lactic acid burn. These are the benefits of shilajit for performance.
- For the horses who, energy-wise, are more like diesel trucks than Ferraris, shilajit increases the source of energy in the body: ATP. Shilajit helps the mitochondria to utilize fats and glucose, which translates into more impulsion for the horse.
- For the metabolics or easy keepers, the actions of shilajit on cellular metabolism help to burn more fat for energy. We know that metabolic imbalances are related to oxidative stress, and shilajit helps reduce oxidative stress and inflammation through its partnership with CoQ10.
- For horses recovering from tendon or ligament injuries, and horses recuperating from muscle strain or stress, shilajit is an important support food that protects the mitochondria so that healing can be accelerated. Shilajit’s ability to reduce oxidative stress by its synergistic role with CoQ10 in turn helps to reduce cellular inflammation. Shilajit’s ability to increase ECM genes (particularly collagen) is particularly important for healing and repair of connective tissues.
Bone remodeling is an ongoing process in humans and horses. It is triggered by a need for calcium in the extracellular fluid and it also occurs in response to mechanical stresses on the bone. The osteoclasts break down old bone to make room for the new bone, which is formed by osteoblasts. Shilajit supports the osteoblasts and new bone formation, helping avoid a situation where osteoclast breakdown of bone occurs faster than the osteoblasts can rebuild it.
In India, one of the common uses of shilajit is to augment foods and herbs. No drug interactions have been noted for shilajit, and in fact some studies indicate that certain human drugs such as metformin are enhanced by shilajit.
Shilajit for your horse
BioStar uses the patented, purified shilajit extract PrimaVie® developed by Dr. Shibnath Ghosal, who has been studying this resin since the 1970s. His extensive research can be found in his book, Shilajit in Perspective (available at Amazon.com).
The interest in shilajit supplementation has grown considerably in the last few years, which unfortunately has created a market for varying grades of shilajit. Some shilajit supplements contain counterfeit shilajit with less than 10% fulvic acids. The best shilajit is collected at altitudes between 16,000 and 18,000 feet. That is one of the many reasons we chose PrimaVie®.
How fast does it work?
Generally it takes several weeks on shilajit before you see a difference in your horse’s energy levels, but some horses respond very quickly, within days. Shilajit takes time to support the mitochondria, and often the more low-functioning the mitochondria are, the more time it takes to see a difference in your horse.
Update: See our whiteboard video for more explanation:
Amavita Das, et al. The human skeletal muscle transcriptome in response to oral shilajit supplementation. 2016 J Med Food 19 (7) 701-709
Bhattacharyya S, et al. Shilajit dibenzo-a-pyrones: Mitochondria targeted antioxidants. 2009 Pharmacologyonline; 2: 690-8
Roy, S. Human skeletal muscle extracellular matrix fortification in response to orgal supplementation with PrimaVie shilajit. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, Ohio (pending publication).
Bhattacharyya S et al. Beneficial effect of processed Shilajit on swimming exercise induced impaired energy status of mice. 2009. Pharmacologyonline; 1:817-25
Lawley S, et al. Anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic efficacy and safety of purified shilajit in moderately arthritic dogs. 2013. Journal of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry, Vol 1, Issue 3 ISSN: 2348-9790
Acharaya SB, et al. Pharmacological actions of Shilajit. 1988. Indian J Exp Biol. 26:775-777
Bhattacharaya SK, et al. Effects of shilajit on biogenic free radicals. 1995. Phytother Res 9: 56-59
Tripathi YB, et al. Antilipd peroxidative property of shilajit. 1996. Phytother Res. 10: 269-270
Harsahay M, et al. Shilajit: a panacea for high-altitude problems. 2010. Int J Ayurveda Res. Jan-Mar; 1 (1): 37-40
Stohs SJ et al. Safety and efficacy of shilajit. 2013. Phytother Res 28 (4), 475-479
Bhattacharya K, et al. Effects of Shilajit on biogenic free radicals. 1995. Phyotherapy Research, vol 9, no.1, pp.55-59
Duberley KE, et al. Human neuronal coenzyme Q10 deficiency results in global loss of mitochondrial respiratory chain activity, increased mitochondrial oxidative stress and reversal of ATP synthase activity: implications for pathogenesis and treatment. 2013. J Inherit Metab Dis. Jan: 36(1):63-73