If asked to think of a camel, many will invariably call up the emblematic image of a humped animal crossing the horizon in a blazing desert. What they probably won’t think of is a cold glass of milk.
But that might soon change, thanks to research uncovering the surprising therapeutic potential contained within camel milk. Although this might seem unusual to many in the Western world, where camel milk remains a relatively obscure dairy product, it would hardly merit a second thought among those most acquainted with these resilient beasts of burden.
“The beneficial effects of camel milk for human nutrition and health had their origin from religious belief and faith within the different Muslim communities in the world, including the Arab countries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” wrote Mohammed Ayoub, PhD, associate professor of biology, and Sajid Maqsood, PhD, associate professor of food science, at UAE University, in a joint interview with Medscape.
For the people of these and other regions where camels thrive, their milk has long been a staple food source, usually consumed in fresh or spontaneously fermented form. It has also been used for centuries as a traditional treatment for ailments ranging from tuberculosis to gastroenteritis.
Numerous studies have since revealed that camel milk has many of the sought-after bioactive properties of so-called “superfoods.” It’s “anti” in the most positive ways: antihypertensive, antimicrobial, antioxidative, antithrombotic, antiulcerogenic. But what has gained researchers’ attention the most are the favorable effects camel milk appears to exhibit in both animal and clinical studies on various markers of diabetes, from glycemic control to insulin resistance. Might this folk remedy have new lessons for contemporary diabetes researchers?
What’s So Special About Camel Milk?
Camels were domesticated around 3000 to 4000 years ago, which is relatively recent among working animals (by comparison, dogs have held their status as “man’s best friend” for at least 14,000 years). Thanks to a host of unique adaptations, including the ability to store about 80 lb (36.3 kg) of fat in those signature humps, camels can walk 100 miles and survive for nearly a week in temperatures up to 120°F (49°C) without water.
Among herbivorous ruminants — the class of animals that ferment their food before digestion — camels get the most from the least. They consume the largest variety of plants and digest it more efficiently than cows. Nomadic peoples considered camels’ diverse diets a key contributor to the purported medicinal value of their milk.
Significant scientific research into camel milk’s properties began only within the last three to four decades. It revealed that at the most basic compositional level, milk produced from camels and cows provides comparable levels of fat, protein, lactose, and calcium. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that camel milk possesses distinct advantages over its bovine counterpart, including greater levels of vitamin C and essential minerals, and a more digestible quality.
Children with known allergy to cow’s milk have been shown to consume camel’s milk without incident, as it doesn’t appear to have the same cross-reactivity in these patients as milk from non-bovine mammals bred in European countries. In fact, camel milk is actually closer in substance to human milk: both feature α-lactalbumin as the major protein and lack β-lactoglobulin, the latter of which is a common contributor to milk allergies.
Beyond its nutritional value, camel milk composition may offer particular antidiabetic properties, according to Nader Lessan, MBBS, MD, and Adam Buckley, MD, PhD, consultant endocrinologists at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, UAE, who are currently conducting a clinical trial on the effects of camel milk on insulin and incretin response.
“Camel milk has been reported to contain an insulin-like protein that does not form a coagulum in the acidic environment of the stomach,” they told Medscape. “It has been suggested that the reported glucose-lowering effects of camel milk might at least in part be mediated through this mechanism.”
A recent in vitro study from Ayoub and Maqsood shed further light on the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying camel milk’s antidiabetic effects
“We identified several bioactive peptide fractions from camel milk whey proteins that showed positive biological effects on the different molecular markers involved in diabetes (dipeptidyl peptidase IV inhibition, as well as human insulin receptor and its signaling at the level of the cell). Such effects were also characterized by an increase in glucose transport inside the cells,” they said. “This provides for the first time a solid scientific basis for the anti-diabetic properties of camel milk.”
Getting the Most Out of Camel Milk
People living in countries with ready access to camel milk are likely already reaping its antidiabetic benefits. For example, a study of a camel breeding community in northern India found that those who regularly consumed its milk had a 0% rate of diabetes.
Global production of camel milk has increased 4.6-fold since 1961 (when data first began to be collected), which indicates its popularity is extending beyond traditional regions. European Union-supported efforts like the CAMELMILK project are aiming to boost interest in the Mediterranean region. More and more consumers, from China to Australia , are seeking out camel milk-based products. In the United States, companies like Desert Farms are partnering with Amish and Mennonite farmers to increase production.
This is not to say that camel milk will be readily available on supermarket shelves anytime soon. Although their numbers are increasing, camels remain a minor dairy species, accounting for <1% of the world’s milk supply. As a niche product, it’s significantly more expensive than bovine and non-dairy milk variations. The daily dose of camel milk thought to improve markers of diabetes markers is around 500 mL, which may be cost prohibitive for many consumers.
There are also uncertainties about how consistent camel milk’s benefits will be in commercial form. Camel milk quality varies depending on factors like lactation stage, geography, and feeding habits. Some have questioned whether moving camels from their wide-ranging eating practices to factory farming will dull the medicinal effects of its milk.
It is also uncertain how widely health attributes vary depending on breed. Milk produced by the 90% of camels worldwide categorized as one-humped dromedaries is not the same as that produced from the less common double-humped Bactrian camels found in central Asian countries, such as China and Mongolia.
Advice for Curious Patients
In the end, camel milk might offer the greatest promise as a blueprint for designing new treatments, as concluded by Ayoud and Maqsood in their recent study.
Yet, as more attention is paid to its proposed antidiabetic effects, it is also likely that curious patients may want to try the real thing in the meantime. For such patients, what considerations must clinicians keep in mind?
First and foremost is to avoid camel milk in raw form. Although camel milk appears to have greater antimicrobial properties than cow’s milk, it carries approximately the same risk of containing E coli and can harbor pathogenic strains such as Streptococcus or Staphylococcus. Evidence suggests that dromedary camels are the only animals that can host the strain of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) that infects humans.
Although several studies have indicated that camel milk improves glycemic control and lowers insulin requirements among those with type 1 diabetes, Lessan and Buckley strongly advise against patients with this disease using it as an insulin substitute. They note that “none of the mechanisms we’ve seen suggested for the effects of camel milk are really applicable to the disease process of type 1 diabetes.”
There is also the matter of setting appropriate expectations for conditions outside of diabetes. The literature surrounding camel milk is slanted toward positive results derived from studies of variable quality, which has led to unfounded claims. This was on display when the US Food and Drug Administration listed camel milk among the products and therapies with no evidence to support their use in autism.
As the use of camel milk moves from basic research to clinical studies, its ultimate therapeutic value in diabetes and beyond should become clearer. For a millennia-old treatment, there’s still much to learn.
John Watson is a freelance writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.