As a new mother I recall taking my oldest child to visit his pediatrician for a well-child check-up. The physician joked with me while examining my young son that parents are often too obsessed with sterility and cleanliness and this can have a negative impact on the developing immune system of children. “Let him eat dirt!” She exclaimed. We all laughed at the extreme statement, but Fulvic Minerals/Fulvic Acid serve a purpose in nutritional science that has become more prevalent in recent years.
The Benefit of Early Exposure to Dirt
A research study, led by Pediatric Allergy Specialists Robert Lemanske, MD, and James Gern, MD, evaluated 275 children who had at least one parent with respiratory allergies or asthma. Children who had a dog at home as newborns were much less likely to have AD (12% versus 27%) and wheezing (19% versus 36%) by their third birthday. Early exposure was key; children who got a dog after birth did not seem to have the same health benefits. A 2002 literature review by Johnsons and Hensley reported similarly that across various populations and age groups, the presence of indoor cats and dogs or frequent exposure to livestock during the first years of life reduced risk of sensitization to pet and pollen allergens, hay fever, and to a lesser degree, asthma.
A fascinating 2016 study from Stein and colleagues compared two communities, the Amish and the Hutterites. These U.S. agricultural populations have lifestyles that are remarkably similar in many respects, but their farming practices are distinctly dissimilar; the Amish follow traditional farming practices, whereas the Hutterites use industrialized farming practices. The groups demonstrate striking disparities in asthma prevalence, despite the similar genetic ancestries and lifestyle. The prevalence of asthma and allergic sensitization was four and six times as low in the Amish, while the median endotoxin levels in Amish household dust was nearly seven times higher. Differences in dust sample microbial composition from comparison homes, and profound differences in the proportions and functions of innate immune cells were also found between the two groups of children. The researchers also used mouse models to determine specific immune effects and results of their studies in humans and mice indicate that the Amish environment provides protection against asthma by engaging and shaping the innate immune response.
Some researchers posit that the sterile, limited nature of the standard Western diet (SAD) is the foundation of chronic health conditions that develop across the life course. Not only do we rely on highly processed foods for most of our diet, we also drink highly sterilized filtered water, usually as part of a sugary beverage. Frankly, many of those in the developed world no longer take in the same amount of dirt in our diet that we once did. The use of pesticides and fertilizers, erosion, and mineral depletion from over-cultivation have lead to decreased microbial activity in farming soil. In this case, we simply didn’t know that trace levels of these substances might be part of a balanced diet until they were removed from our food supply in sufficient quantities to cause an effect.
Humic Substances and Shilajit: Fulvic minerals, fulvic acid, and humic acid
Fulvic minerals are a humic substance. Humic comes from the Latin word humus, meaning soil or ground. In soil science, humus is the term used for dark organic matter that forms in the soil when plant and animal matter decays. Humic substances, specifically, result from the partial decomposition of plant materials under low oxygen conditions, for example swamps, peat bogs, or other still, dark, and dank places. The composition of these substances varies, since the substances themselves are complex mixtures of different acids. Fulvic minerals are a combination of trace minerals, electrolytes, fatty acids, silica, and prebiotics (Cagno et al., 2015)
Fulvic acids have lower molecular weights and higher oxygen contents than humic acids, and are unique in that they are able to travel across cell membranes. Without humic substances, soil becomes a sterile and sandy substrate. Humic substances are the nutrient-dense correlate to sandy soil that is nutrient-poor. Researchers have yet to determine a way to synthesize humic substances in a laboratory setting, samples must be extracted from settings that allow for the formation of this substance in rocky, mountainous areas (Hill, 2012). Fulvic and humic acids can also capture heavy metals such as copper, iron, lead, mercury, and zinc in their structure.
Due to increased interest in nutritional sciences and traditional medicines, researchers began examining about how humic substances found in dirt, including fulvic acid, can actually improve human gut health and immune functions, because of the gut’s close relationship with the immune system. Humans previously ingested higher amounts of humic acids from more frequent contact with soil in cultivating and preparing their own foods, today they often turn to food-grade supplements to boost their nutrient intake and improve gut health.
Shilajit is a herbomineral drug which is usually pale-brown to blackish-brown in color, and is composed of a gummy exudate that oozes from the rocks of the Himalayas in the summer months. The material has also been found in Russia, Tibet, Afghanistan, and northern Chile – all in similarly rocky, mountainous areas. Formed for centuries by gradual organic decomposition and microorganism action, the substance is a dense, thick and sticky amalgamation of humus, organic plant materials, and fulvic acid as the main carrier molecules (Carrasco-Gallardo, Guzman & Maccioni, 2012; Meena, Pandey, Arya & Ahmed, 2010). Shilajit is approximately 50-70% fulvic minerals, depending on the source.
If this sounds preposterous, consider vitamin K, which is actually a group of compounds not synthesized in the body. Vitamin K1 is present in green leafy vegetables, while K2 is found in some meats and cheeses, and is also synthesized by a E. Coli bacteria in the human gut! Patients with Crohn’s Disease or other inflammatory gut conditions are often deficient and require supplementation because they are unable to absorb an adequate amount of Vitamin K through diet. Probiotic supplements similarly were not well-understood and languished in nutritional science until the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the increasing prevalence of digestive disease and dysfunction associated with gut dysbiosis became too problematic to ignore.
Current Evidence for Health Applications
High altitude problems like hypoxia, acute mountain sickness, high altitude cerebral edema, pulmonary edema, insomnia, tiredness, lethargy, lack of appetite, body pain, dementia, and depression may occur when a person or a soldier residing in a lower altitude ascends to high-altitude areas. Meena and colleagues (2010) researched the effectiveness of Shilajit at treating high altitude sickness among sherpas. This is one of the benefits of regular supplementation with fulvic minerals has been identified as increased endurance.
Researchers have also examined the applications of fulvic minerals for age-related cognitive decline and as a treatment for the extracellular amyloid plaques and intracellular tangles of tau protein that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s Disease (Carrasco-Gallardo, Guzman & Maccioni, 2012). Cornejo and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that fulvic acid inhibits the aggregation process of tau protein, forming paired helical filaments in vitro, and that the fulvic acid is an active compound that has protective effects against preformed fibrils. This has led to the suggestion that supplementation with fulvic minerals can delay age-related cognitive decline.
In 2016, Pandit and colleagues evaluated the supplementation of shilajit for its effect on testosterone in a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study. Treatment with 250mg Fulvic Acid significantly increased total testosterone, free testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS) compared with placebo without significantly altering levels of other gonadotropic hormones (Pandit et al, 2016). Low testosterone has been implicated in a range of physiological and psychological dysfunction among men.
Additionally other health effects have been studied Cagno (2015) observed broad antiviral activity with some specific actions in vitro studying the effects of fulvic acid-rich shilajit against a panel of viruses including herpes simplex type 1 and 2 (HSV-1, HSV-2), human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), human rotavirus (HRV), and vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV). Historically, fulvic acid has been used as a rash remedy to help treat poison ivy, poison oak, viral infections, spider bites and athlete’s foot. Gandy (2011) examined the effectiveness of a fulvic acid-based treatment for eczema and discovered the added benefit of reduced itch due to the slightly acidic pH of fulvic acid.
Safety and Efficacy
The use of fulvic minerals in traditional medicine for Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions has demonstrated the safety of the supplement, and subsequent research studies in animal models and the few controlled clinical trials that have been conducted suggest that indicate that shilajit exhibits antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and nutritional effects that have a potential for therapeutic application, but more more rigorous research needs to be done in human subjects.
Raw water or Black water?
Raw water is an alarming trend of drinking water that might not have fluoride, but could come with the unwelcome bonus of chemicals from pesticides, dangerous bacteria, and even fecal particulate matter. This is a misguided practice based on an incomplete understanding of fulvic acid and possibly related to the practice of using shilajit.
Black water was first marketed in the United States in 2011, labeled as natural spring water with added fulvic and humic acids. It is this proprietary mineral mixture that gives the water its black color, but because of the proprietary nature of the mineral mixture, it is nearly impossible to convince companies to be transparent about the ingredients of the mixture (Hill, 2012).
Science or Snake Oil?
Until recently the method used to determine the quantities of fulvic acid in a compound was a modified assay developed by Dr. Larry G. Butler, called the modified LGB method, but in 2015 Lamar and colleagues developed a more precise test of fulvic acid quantities that has allowed access to levels of methodological precision that will enable nutritional science and medical researchers to conduct clinical trials with more reliability and accuracy.
The difficulty that researchers experience studying the effects of traditional medicines and plant-based medicines is the lack of regulation in the supplement industry with regarding to their advertising practices. This allows a proliferation of information related to products that may not be grounded in the evidence, which in turn causes a negative association with pseudoscience. Health providers and educators must highlight relevant research that is held up by science so that patients can access reliable information to advocate for their own health choices.
Cagno, V., Donalisio, M., Civra, A., Cagliero, C., Rubiolo, P., & Lembo, D. (2015). In vitro evaluation of the antiviral properties of Shilajit and investigation of its mechanisms of action. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 166, 129-134.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25792012
Carrasco-Gallardo, C., Guzmán, L., & Maccioni, R. B. (2012). Shilajit: a natural phytocomplex with potential procognitive activity. International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3296184/
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. doi: 10.3233/JAD-2011-110623. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21785188
Gandy, J. J., Snyman, J. R., & Van Rensburg, C. E. (2011). Randomized, parallel-group, double-blind, controlled study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of carbohydrate-derived fulvic acid in topical treatment of eczema. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 4, 145. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3173016/
Hill, S. (2012). Black(water) Market: Digging Up the Dirt about Slick Designer Beverages. https://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/blackwater_market_digging_up_the_dirt_about_slick_designer_beverages
Johnson, C. C., & Alford, S. H. (2002). Do animals on the farm and in the home reduce the risk of pediatric atopy?. Current opinion in allergy and clinical immunology, 2(2), 133-139. https://journals.lww.com/co-allergy/Abstract/2002/04000/Do_animals_on_the_farm_and_in_the_home_reduce_the.9.aspx
Kirby, J. (2018). What to know about the “Raw Water” trend. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/1/4/16846048/raw-water-trend-silicon-valley
Lamar, R., Olk, D., Mayhew, L. & Bloom, P. (2014). A New Standardized Method for Quantification of Humic and Fulvic Acids in Humic Ores and Commercial Products. Journal of AOAC International, 97(3). https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/6831f1_83b86a2e3f8e4fa99e5aabaf82f177e3.pdf
Meena, H., Pandey, H. K., Arya, M. C., & Ahmed, Z. (2010). Shilajit: A panacea for high-altitude problems. International journal of Ayurveda research, 1(1), 37. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2876922/
Pandit, S., Biswas, S., Jana, U., De, R. K., Mukhopadhyay, S. C., & Biswas, T. K. (2016). Clinical evaluation of purified Shilajit on testosterone levels in healthy volunteers. Andrologia, 48(5), 570-575. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/and.12482/full
Stein, M. M., Hrusch, C. L., Gozdz, J., Igartua, C., Pivniouk, V., Murray, S. E., … & Neilson, J. W. (2016). Innate immunity and asthma risk in Amish and Hutterite farm children. New England Journal of Medicine, 375(5), 411-421.] http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1508749
Stohs, S. (2013). Safety and Efficacy of Shilajit (Mumie, Moomiyo). Phytotherapy Research, 28(4), 475-479. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1002/ptr.5018/abstract