Shilajit, the Traditional Panacea: Its Properties
by Lalit Tiwari & D.P. Agrawal
Shilajit is the most important drug of Ayurvedic and folk- medicine systems. In the raw form it is a bituminous substance, which is a compact mass of vegetable organic matter composed of dark red gummy matrix. It is bitter in taste, and its smell resembles cow's stale urine. The botanical name of Shilajit is Asphaltum (mineral pitch).
In the Ayurvedic texts it is called as silajatu or shilajatu, but is commonly known as Shilajit. Its Sanskrit meaning is "conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness." Several other terms like dhaturas, dhatusara, shiladhatu, etc. also have been used for it in ancient medical texts like Sushruta Samhita, Charak Samhita, Rasarangini, etc. The term dhau, which was used as synonyms of Shilajit like dhahurasa, dhahusara etc., was simply to emphasise its potentialities as rarayana, which increases the activities of the saptadhatus of the body.
Shilajit usually collected over the ground or is found flowing out from between fissures in the rocks in summer months due to strong heat of the sun. In India, it is found in the romantic surroundings of the Himalayas: from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to Kashmir in the west. It is also found in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet, and Norway, where it is collected in small quantities from steep rock faces at altitudes between 1000 and 5000 m. Shilajit samples from different region of the world have different physiological properties.
Shilajit in Ayurveda
In the Charak Samhita, Shilajit is described as a product of four minerals: gold, silver, copper and iron, whereas Susruta Samhita included two more minerals, lead and zinc in its composition. According to the predominance of the minerals of the source rock, it was classified into four categories: Sauvarna, Rajat, Tamra and Lauha. The last variety Lauha shilajit or blackish-brown Shilajit is common and is supposed to be most effective. Charaka Samhita mentions that without the aid of Shilajit no curable disease can be alleviated.
According to Susruta Samhita 15,32-40, that obesity can be cured by taking enemas of drugs with liquefying properties which contain minerals like Silajatu, cow's urine, the three myrobalans, honey, barley etc. Traditionally people use it with pure milk to enhance energy, sexual and spiritual power.
Origin of Shilajit
Many researchers claim that Shilajit exuding from the rocks of mountains is basically derived from vegetative source. Several shlokas of Susruta Samhita and Rasarangini also maintain this point of view. According to Sushruta, in the months of May-June the sap or juice of plants comes out as gummy exudation from the rocks of mountains due to strong heat of sun and Rasarangini, Dwarishtarang also claim that the Shilajit is an exudation of latex gum-resin etc. of plants which comes from the rocks of mountains in presence of scorching heat. But the exact source of the origin of Shilajit is still under controversy.
There are several hypotheses regarding the origin of Shilajit:
Early work on Shilajit showed that it is mainly composed of humus- the characteristic constituent of soils- together with other organic components.
Some workers think that Euphorbia royleana Boiss. plants are responsible for origin of Shilajit, because this plant is very rich latex.
The chemical analysis of Shilajit by researchers at Bananas Hindu University in India revealed that humification of some resin/latex bearing plants is the most likely source of Shilajit.
The recent discoveries suggest that the humification of resin-bearing plants was responsible for the major organic mass of Shilajit. And chemical analysis showed that about 80% of the humus components are present in Shilajit.
Another recent research claims that the mosses like species of Barbula, Fissidenc, Minium, Thuidium and species of Liverworts like Asterella, Dumortiera, Marchantia, Pellia, Plagiochasma and Stephenrencella-Anthoceros were present in the vicinity of Shilajit exuding rocks and these bryophytes are responsible for formation of Shilajit. The bryophytes reveal occurrence of minerals and metals in their tissue such as copper, silver, zinc, iron, lead etc, which are similar to the elements present in Shilajit.
The composition of Shilajit is influenced by factors such as the plant-species involved, the geological nature of the rock, local temperature profiles, humidity and altitude.
Shilajit and Health
Shilajit is most important drug for many diseases. It was used as a drug in prehistoric periods. There is evidence of Shilajit (Silajatu) in the Indus civilization. Traditionally it is used as power increasing tonic. The following health properties are found in Shilajit:
Helps accelerate processes of protein and nucleic acid metabolism and stimulates energy providing reactions.
Counteracts Diabetes and regulates the blood sugar level.
Purifies blood, improves functioning of pancreas and strengthens digestion.
Reduces fat, dissolves tumours, and counteracts thirst.
Promotes the movement of minerals, especially calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium into muscle tissue and bone.
Stimulates the immune system and improves restoration (recovery) after exercise.
Increases levels of growth hormone in diabetic patients and is a potent anti-ulcer agent.
Shilajit is a humus rich blackish-brown substance, which is very useful in many diseases and serves as a potent tonic. But its source of origin is still under controversy. Traditionally it is also considered to increase virility, cure diabetes, and in Ayurvedic medicine system of India, it is used against various diseases.
Sources and Further Reading
Joshi, G. C., K. C. Tiwari, N. K. Pande and G. Pande. 1994. Bryophytes, the source of the origin of Shilajit – a new hypothesis. B.M.E.B.R. 15(1-4): 106-111.
Ghosal, S., B. Mukherjee and S. K. Bhattacharya. 1995. Ind. Journal of Indg. Med. 17(1): 1-11.
Ghosal, S., J. P. Reddy and V. K. Lal. 1976. Shilajit I.: chemical constituents. Journ. Pharm. Sci. (USA) 65(5): 772-73.
Phillips, Paul. On Shilajit on the Internet.