Aug. 10, 2021 -- 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 an 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," Mohammed Ayoub, PhD, associate professor of biology, and Sajid Maqsood, PhD, associate professor of food science, at UAE University, said in a joint interview.
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, which resembles yogurt. 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 properties of so-called "superfoods." It's "anti" in the most positive ways: anti-hypertensive, anti-microbial, and is an anti-oxidant.
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 blood sugar control to insulin resistance. Might this folk remedy have new lessons for contemporary diabetes treatment?
What's So Special About Camel Milk?
Camels were domesticated around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, which is relatively recent among working animals (by comparison, dogs have been a part of human families 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 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 supposed 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 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 cause the same issues 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 have the same major protein and lack a common contributor to milk allergies.
Beyond its nutritional value, camel milk composition may offer particular anti-diabetic properties, according to Nader Lessan, MD, and Adam Buckley, MD, endocrinologists at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, UAE, who are conducting a clinical trial on the effects of camel milk on insulin response.
A recent lab study from Ayoub and Maqsood shed further light on camel milk's effects on diabetes.
Getting the Most Out of Camel Milk
People living in countries with ready access to camel milk are likely already reaping its 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 on supermarket shelves anytime soon. Although their numbers are increasing, camels remain a minor dairy species, accounting for less than 1% of the world's milk supply. As a niche product, it's significantly more expensive than cow and non-dairy milk variations. The daily dose of camel milk thought to improve diabetes markers is around 16 ounces, which may be too expensive 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 may also matter what kind of camel produces the milk. Milk produced by the 90% of camels worldwide categorized as one-humped is not the same as that produced from the less common double-humped 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, Ayoud and Maqsood conclude in their recent study.
Yet, it is also likely that curious patients may want to try the real thing in the meantime. For them, what considerations should they 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 about the same risk of containing E coli and can harbor pathogenic strains such as Streptococcus or Staphylococcus. Evidence suggests that one-humped 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 blood sugar 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 research surrounding camel milk is slanted toward positive results from studies of variable quality, which has led to unfounded claims. This was on display when the FDA 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.