Not all types of milk are created equal. Colostrum, a special kind of milk naturally produced for newborns, is full of useful components that aid immune development. In adults, it comes with interesting potential benefits and several drawbacks. This article explains how colostrum works, whether the purported claims can be backed up, and how regular supplements differ from more specialized formulations.

What Is Colostrum?

Colostrum is a type of milk breastfeeding women produce just after giving birth. Aside from humans, as all breastfeeding mammals also produce this nourishing fluid. It is a diverse mix of nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and more [1+].

Newborns are vulnerable to diseases as their immune system is still forming. They especially benefit from the antibodies in colostrum, which boosts their immunity, aids immune development, and protects them against infection. Its composition is unique and loaded with growth factors that newborns require for muscle, bone, and cartilage growth and repair [2].

Colostrum is also known as “first milk”. It becomes “transitional milk” about 5 days after birth and “mature milk” about 2 weeks after. Mature milk is higher in fat, lactose, potassium, and calcium, while colostrum is higher in protein, sodium, chloride, and magnesium. Colostrum is also higher in growth factors such as IGF-1, IGF-2, and VEGF, and immune factors such as lactoferrin [3, 4+].

Colostrum from other animals, especially from cows, is often consumed for its health benefits. Research shows that it may be helpful for a variety of issues, from enhancing exercise performance to leaky gut. Its high antibody levels may also be helpful for adults in battling infections, preventing the flu, and boosting immunity.

However, much less is known about its benefits in grown-ups than about its relevance for newborns. Another reason for skepticism is that many studies used a specialized type of colostrum (called hyperimmune colostrum), which is still not commercially available. The evidence to support the use of colostrum found in most supplements is weaker and applicable only to some health conditions.

Snapshot

PROs

  • May enhance immune defense
  • May help with leaky gut
  • May improve diarrhea in people with a weak immune system
  • Potentially boosts exercise performance and reduces infections in athletes
  • Mild side effects, if any

CONs

  • Conflicting research on some benefits
  • Most benefits are limited to newborns or children
  • Not suitable for people allergic or intolerant to milk/dairy
  • Low-quality colostrum supplements are likely ineffective
  • Most supplements have poor bioavailability

Components

Colostrum is filled with an incredible number of potentially beneficial components. The list is quite long, so bear with us… Colostrum contains all the following [1+]:

Mechanisms of Action

Diverse compounds interact to achieve the overall health benefits of colostrum. To sum it up, this nutrient-dense milk:

Boosts immunity by activating natural killer cells and stimulating IFN-gamma and IL-2 release [16, 17].

Acts as an antioxidant (suppressing harmful myeloperoxidase activity) [18].

May improve athletic performance, potentially by raising IGF-1 and IgA levels, increasing lean body mass and helping counteract acid buildup in muscles.

May relieve diarrhea from HIV because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, in addition to its ability to eliminate bacterial toxins [19+].

Helps overcome leaky gut and overheating from strenuous exercise (by raising heat shock protein levels and lowering Bax-alpha levels) [20].

Lactoferrin binds to NSAID painkillers, which blocks their activity and prevents stomach damage [21, 22].

May help with post-surgery recovery by repairing tissues, lowering gut inflammation, and eliminating bacteria and their toxins [19+].

May be beneficial in diabetes potentially by raising IGF-1 levels, which can help the body use and store glucose more effectively [23].

Colostrinin, a protein mixture in colostrum, may help with Alzheimer’s by blocking the clustering of amyloid-beta and reducing their damage to brain cells [24, 25].

Hyperimmune Colostrum

Hyperimmune colostrum is colostrum with extra antibodies toward a specific intruder, such as bacteria or viruses. It is made when vaccinations are given to pregnant cows, in response to which they produce specific additional antibodies. These antibodies get transferred to their colostrum, which may protect against specific infections in humans [26].

The FDA has approved hyperimmune colostrum for rare conditions (orphan drug status) but is not available as a supplement, unlike regular colostrum.

Health Benefits of Colostrum

1) Improving Immune Function

Although colostrum is best known for its immune-enhancing properties, only a handful of clinical studies have been carried out to investigate this potential benefit in adults. So far, the results are inconclusive.

In a clinical trial with 12 healthy people, colostrum increased white blood cell activity (such as monocytes) and T cell levels (CD3+) after 1 hour. It also briefly reduced blood levels of natural killer cells. Possibly, it caused natural killer cells to leave the bloodstream and enter tissues. After a couple of hours, new natural killer cells entered the blood, which restored their levels [27+].

In another study of 18 healthy people, colostrum did not change total levels of different antibodies after a Salmonella vaccine, but it did increase specific IgA antibodies. Because Salmonella is spread through contaminated food and water, IgA in the saliva and gut lining may help prevent infection [28].

Animal studies support its benefits for immunity. In mice, colostrum boosted the killing ability of natural killer white blood cells. In pigs, it increased total IgA levels and activated cells that monitor and block the growth of harmful bacteria (Peyer’s patches, which form the gut’s immune system) [17, 29].

In Babies

Newborns require the dense, immune-stimulating “first milk” as they just start to adapt to the outside environment. Babies born preterm and those with low birth need to be carefully monitored. They are especially at danger of critical diseases and have a weak, underdeveloped immune system [30].

Colostrum might boost their immunity by raising antibodies and signaling other immune cells to develop. In one clinical trial with 30 low birth weight infants, it raised antibody levels (IgA in the saliva) 1 week after birth. However, there was no difference in antibody levels compared to the placebo after two weeks [30].

In another clinical trial with 64 low birth weight infants, colostrum increased lactoferrin levels (in saliva) 1 – 3 weeks after birth, which may support their immune system [31].

In a clinical trial with 48 premature newborns, colostrum increased both lactoferrin and IgA, decreased levels of inflammatory molecules (IL-1b and IL-8), and reduced the risk of blood poisoning (sepsis). It also lowered bacteria that can cause strep throat (Streptococci ) and reduced the length of hospital stay in another trial of 99 preterm newborns [32, 33].

2) Preventing Diarrhea

The antibacterial and antiviral properties of colostrum help prevent diarrhea. In two studies with over 750 children, it significantly decreased the number of diarrhea episodes. Animal studies strongly support this benefit. However, its benefits for children remain more evident than its effects on common forms of diarrhea in adults [34, 35, 36].

In adults, only hyperimmune colostrum may help prevent diarrhea caused by specific bacteria and viruses, such as the ones mentioned below.

E. Coli

In a clinical trial with 31 people, taking specific IgG antibodies (against E. coli) from hyperimmune colostrum protected against diarrhea. The antibodies were given in powdered form [37+].

In two clinical trials with 90 adults, taking hyperimmune colostrum helped prevent diarrhea from E. coli. In children with E. coli, it significantly decreased the frequency of diarrhea [38, 39].

HIV

People with HIV/AIDS are at high risk for severe and sometimes even life-threatening diarrhea and weight loss. Specific antibodies (Lactobin) from specialized forms of colostrum can help. In two studies with 54 HIV patients, 10 g/day of lactobin greatly reduced diarrhea frequency [40, 41].

ColoPlus, a food supplement made from cow colostrum,  may be another option. Two studies with 117 HIV patients showed that ColoPlus, either alone or combined with regular diarrhea treatment, can reduce the frequency of bowel movements, increase T cell count (CD4+), help with weight gain, and raise energy levels [42, 43]

Rotavirus

Rotavirus most commonly affects children and newborns, causing diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Hyperimmune colostrum may help with this type of diarrhea.

In one study of 80 children with rotavirus-induced diarrhea, taking anti-rotavirus antibodies from colostrum for 4 days greatly reduced the frequency of bowel movements and overall diarrhea. Patients receiving colostrum also got rid of the virus faster than those taking placebo [44].

Hyperimmune colostrum eliminated this type of diarrhea within 2 days in half of the cases in a clinical trial with 75 children up to 2 years of age. This specialized form of colostrum was also effective in babies. In two studies with 33 newborns, it prevented diarrhea from rotavirus without any side effects [45, 46, 47].

Cryptosporidium

Infection with the parasite Cryptosporidium can lead to intense diarrhea, especially in people who have low immunity like those with AIDS [48].

In one study of 5 AIDS patients infected with this parasite, hyperimmune colostrum (given through a nasal tube) for 10 days decreased diarrhea or reduced the parasite levels. Regular colostrum also helped with diarrhea [48].

In another study, 16 healthy people were given either hyperimmune colostrum (with specific anti-Cryptosporidium antibodies) or a placebo before being voluntarily infected with this parasite. Those given colostrum had less diarrhea than those given the placebo [49].

3) Fighting Respiratory Infections

Several studies revealed that colostrum may be beneficial for people with respiratory illnesses and infections. In one clinical trial of 174 people, fewer people reported upper respiratory tract infection symptoms when taking 60 g/day of colostrum protein for 8 weeks compared to whey protein [50].

As expected, this benefit might be even more important in children. In one study with 605 children with either respiratory illness or diarrhea, colostrum decreased the number of respiratory episodes by over 90% after 12 weeks. In another similar study, colostrum achieved similar benefits in just 4 weeks (160 children) [35, 34].

In a clinical trial with 31 children deficient in IgA, taking colostrum 3X/day for 1 week decreased the severity of respiratory symptoms. IgA levels, however, didn’t change [51].

Post-Exercise Immune Suppression

Colostrum may be helpful for preventing infections in athletes and people who frequently exercise, although the evidence is not conclusive. People who are very active can sometimes experience a suppression of their immune system following exercise. Potentially, colostrum might help prevent a drop in immune defense post-exercise.

One study examined 20 healthy men who took colostrum or a placebo for 4 weeks and then completed a 2-hour cycling session. Taking colostrum blocked the decrease of an important immune enzyme (lysozyme) and increased the recovery speed of white blood cells (neutrophils) following the training [52].

In a study with 29 elite cyclists, colostrum protein supplements for 5 weeks improved symptoms of upper respiratory illness. These supplements supported the immune system by preventing a drop in T cells and IgG antibodies after exercise [53].

IgA antibodies are important for protecting against respiratory infections. In long-distance runners, taking colostrum for 12 weeks significantly boosted levels of IgA in the mouth. What’s more, in two studies with physically-active men and highly-trained swimmers, taking colostrum relieved upper respiratory illness [54, 55, 56].

Oxidative burst is a way that immune cells kill bacteria through the release of reactive oxygen species (ROS). One study found that after 2.5 hours of cycling, participants who had taken 20 grams of colostrum per day for 4 weeks had significantly higher levels of the oxidative burst in neutrophils [57].

However, in a study with 9 male athletes, taking colostrum for 10 days did not prevent post-exercise immune suppression [58].

4) Preventing the Flu

Colostrum has been called the “baby’s first vaccination”. Whether it can also act as a natural vaccine-like compound in adults remains to be investigated in large clinical trials. The evidence to-date is encouraging but limited.

Typically, vaccines are used to prevent the flu. Interestingly enough, two studies with 285 people suggest that colostrum, either on its own or in combination with other drugs, may be a superior means of prevention. People who took colostrum had the flu for fewer days than people who received the flu vaccine [59, 60].

These studies only included healthy people, though, and may not hold true for the elderly or those with weak immunity.

In mice, taking purified antibodies from hyperimmune colostrum (either IgG or F(ab’)2) prevented infection after subjected to the flu virus. Mice who took these antibodies and got an otherwise lethal dose of the flu virus survived [61].

In another mouse study, colostrum reduced flu infection severity, prevented excessive weight loss, lowered the viral load in the lungs, and increased white blood cell (NK cell) activity [17].

Taking antibodies (including IgA) from human colostrum after a flu outbreak prevented infection from the influenza A virus in rodents [62].

5) Healing Leaky Gut

In people with leaky gut, a weak gut barrier lets harmful components like bacteria and toxins sneak into the bloodstream. There’s no one cause of IBS, the underlying triggers are very diverse and can be hard to pinpoint. Two less-known causes are intense exercise and excess NSAIDs use over long periods of time [63, 64].

Strenuous Exercise

One study provided 16 athletes with colostrum or placebo for 20 days. 75% of the athletes in the colostrum group initially had leaky gut, but the condition significantly improved after supplementing [63].

Another study examined 12 volunteers who underwent intense exercise. Those who did not take colostrum had a dramatic increase in leaky gut after exercise (about 2.5X compared to before exercise), while the increase was much milder in those given colostrum (1.2X) [65].

A combination of zinc carnosine with colostrum may provide additional support for healing leaky gut after exercise. Taking either zinc carnosine or colostrum alone for 2 weeks prevented an increase in leaky gut by about 70%, while taking both blocked it by 85% in a study with 8 people. Additionally, their combination had an impact after just 2 days (30% block), unlike taking either alone [20+].

Other studies cast doubt on the benefits of colostrum in leaky gut from exercise. In one study with 30 healthy men, taking colostrum every day for 8 weeks actually increased leaky gut caused by exercise. A study with both athletes and non-athletes showed that it did not improve athletic performance or reduce leaky gut caused by exercise [66, 67].

From Painkillers (NSAIDs)

In a clinical trial with 7 men, colostrum prevented leaky gut from the NSAID indomethacin. Those who took this drug without colostrum had a 3-fold increase in leaky gut, while those taking both the drug and colostrum didn’t worsen [64].

In a rat study, administering an NSAID (diclofenac) led to leaky gut. Giving colostrum before the NSAID helped prevent leaky gut [68].

6) Protecting the Gut From Drugs

Aside from leaky gut, colostrum may prevent other gut problems that NSAIDs may trigger. However, these extended potential benefits are currently limited to animal studies. In rats, colostrum lowered small intestine damage, protein loss, and leaky gut caused by an NSAID [68].

Similarly, taking colostrum for 5 days before NSAIDs reduced gut damage and gut bacteria (E. coli) in rats. It also limited the bacteria from spreading to the liver, spleen and lymph nodes [69+].

In another rat study, taking colostrum prior to NSAIDs lowered gut damage by up to 60% [70].

7) Increasing Lean Body Mass

Lean body mass is your total body weight minus body fat. It can be a good way to keep track of your health and muscle gains.

One study looked at the effects of supplementing workouts with whey protein vs colostrum during an 8 week training period. Unlike whey protein, which increased total body weight, taking colostrum significantly increased lean body mass [71].

In another study with 19 people, participants either took colostrum (with other supplements) or protein supplements (whey, casein) while resistance training for 12 weeks. Both colostrum and regular protein supplements increased lean body mass, total body mass, and strength. Based on this study, colostrum may not be superior to whey protein or casein [72].

In a study with 40 middle-aged adults (~ 60 years of age) colostrum increased lean body mass and upper body strength during resistance training. The benefits, however, were similar to those of whey protein [73].

8) Enhancing Exercise Performance

Colostrum may enhance athletic performance in both highly-trained athletes and less fit older adults. Still, its benefits were not superior to whey protein in most studies.

In two studies with 71 elite cyclists, taking colostrum supplements led to faster performance in cycling races. At the end of the training period, the effects of colostrum were similar to those of whey protein [74, 75].

In another study of 51 men who underwent resistance and plyometric training, those who took colostrum supplements had a significantly higher vertical jump, could use more force while cycling and had strength increases after 8 weeks [76].

One clinical trial studied 35 elite field hockey players. They either received colostrum or whey protein for 8 weeks. In this study, colostrum improved sprint speed and vertical jumps better than whey protein [77].

In a study with 40 older adults (average age 59), taking 60 grams of colostrum per day for 8 weeks while working out increased upper body strength, lean body mass, and cognitive function [73].

One study examined people who weight trained recreationally. Participants taking colostrum with other supplements increased their lean body mass, total body mass, and strength while resistance training for 12 weeks. These effects were similar compared to taking casein and whey protein [78].

Colostrum may also aid in recovery after exercise. In one study, taking colostrum for 6 weeks lowered muscle damage from exercise and improved performance in the long run in a group of 18 high-level soccer players [79].

In mice, it significantly lowered the oxidative stress that accumulated in muscles during exercise. Excessive oxidative stress in muscles can lead to damage after intense workouts [80].

9) Surgery Complications

Colostrum may help prevent bacterial infections after surgery. In one study with 40 patients, a specialized colostrum preparation (lactobin) for 3 days prior to abdominal surgery led to significantly lower levels of bacterial toxins [81].

In another study with 60 patients undergoing heart surgery, taking 42 grams of colostrum per day for 2 days before surgery lowered inflammation levels (IL-6, CRP). However, it did not lower bacterial toxin levels [82].

10) Diabetes

In one study with 16 patients with Type 2 diabetes, taking 5 grams of colostrum (twice a day for 4 weeks) lowered blood sugar, cholesterol, ketones, and fat (triglyceride) levels [83].

Another study used tablets made from goat colostrum. In 27 patients with Type 2 diabetes, they reduced blood sugar levels and the required insulin dose (likely by raising IGF-1 levels) [23].

In diabetic mice, a fraction of colostrum (IGF-I fraction) significantly lowered blood sugar levels [84].

Colostrum may also help prevent diabetes but the evidence is limited to animal studies. In rodents, it effectively prevented diabetes from developing [85].

11) Stunted Growth

Nonorganic failure to thrive is a condition where young children do not grow properly due to unknown medical reasons. In a clinical trial with 120 children with this condition, colostrum significantly promoted weight gain after 3 months. More children who took colostrum became healthier compared to placebo. It did not affect their height, however [86].

On the other hand, baby goats and piglets fed colostrum experienced increased growth rates. It is possible that colostrum may help with stunted growth only if administered early on [87, 36].

12) Lowering Gut Inflammation

In a study with 14 patients with colon inflammation, colostrum enemas along with the NSAID mesalazine relieved inflammation symptoms better than the drug alone [88].

In mice with colon inflammation, colostrum lowered many inflammatory markers (TLR4, IL-1b, IL-8). However, it also lowered IL-10, an anti-inflammatory cytokine [89].

In guinea pigs, it blocked ulcerative colitis [90].

Overall, colostrum shows some weak potential for lowering colon inflammation. However, more research needs to investigate this benefit.

13) Alzheimer’s Disease

Colostrinin is a mixture found naturally in colostrum and may be helpful in Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory loss. In a clinical trial with 46 mild Alzheimer’s patients, 15 were who were given colostrinin either improved or didn’t worsen. None of the 31 other patients given placebo or selenium showed improvements [91].

In two studies with 138 Alzheimer’s patients, long-term colostrinin use (~4 – 28 months) slowed down the decline in memory, cognitive function, and daily activity [92, 93].

In aged rats, colostrinin delayed spatial memory loss or improved learning [94, 95].

Colostrinin is a purified mixture of proline-rich polypeptides that needs to be purified from regular colostrum. That said, regular colostrum supplements on the market may only contain it in negligible amounts. Some manufacturers do list colostrinin specifically as an ingredient, but its therapeutic dosage for cognitive dysfunction based on the published studies is unclear [91].

Limitations and Caveats

Although research generally supports the health benefits of colostrum, some studies have also found that it may not be so effective. Its benefits for leaky gut from exercise are mixed. Also, in one study with 138 healthy adults, it did not improve aspects of immunity (lymphocyte growth, oxidative burst, phagocytosis, and more) [96].

In a study with 13 world class female rowers, supplementation did not improve performance. In several other studies that focused on exercise performance, the benefits were similar to whey protein powder [97].

For example, a study with field hockey players showed that although colostrum improved athletic performance more than whey protein, there was no difference in their lean body mass [77].

One study with 9 physically active men found that taking 60 grams of colostrum a day for four weeks had no impact on IGF levels in the blood [98].

What’s more, the benefits are most obvious in newborns, who naturally require it as nutrient-dense milk to properly develop their immune systems. The immune system of adults greatly differs from that in newborns. And although clinical research has been carried out in adults, the results are less convincing.

Additionally, some studies only examined the effects of hyperimmune colostrum, a specialized formulation that’s not commercially available. These benefits cannot be extended to regular colostrum supplements.

Side Effects & Precautions

According to a review of 51 studies, colostrum may cause mild side effects such as:

  • Nausea
  • Gas
  • Skin rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain [19+]

However, it doesn’t cause serious side effects and is generally safe. Many studies have reported no side effects at all [19+].

Colostrinin, a proline-rich polypeptide mixture taken from colostrum, can have mild and brief side effects. It may cause anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and increased talkativeness [92, 91].

Drug Interactions

Colostrum contains lactoferrin, which can bind to NSAIDs and may reduce their effectiveness. Information about drug interactions is lacking and we advise you to consult your doctor if you are taking NSAIDs and plan to use colostrum.

Supplements & Dosage

Pills and powders are the most common forms of colostrum. Alternative forms include liquids, sprays, or chewable tablets. Powders were more commonly used in newborns, while pills were used for immune effects in adults.

Manufacturing processes that expose colostrum to high heat may destroy important components. According to the quality regulations, all colostrum supplements should be produced under a cold process. With this in mind, give preference to reliable supplement brands that comply with good manufacturing practices (GMP).

For pets, chewable tablets and powders are available. The powder can be mixed with pet food.

Since adults have fully formed digestive systems that can break down components of colostrum, bioavailability may be an issue. Besides IGF-1, however, other beneficial components can be absorbed well. Some brands have coated formulations that may help bypass breakdown in the gut, which can increase bioavailability [99].

Bovine vs. Goat Colostrum

Bovine (cow) colostrum is the most popular type. The vast majority of research was done on it, while very few studies looked at goat colostrum. Due to the lack of research, caution should be taken with goat colostrum, as it may have the same health benefits and side effects.

However, reviews on the web are very positive for goat colostrum. Many users claim it that it offers similar benefits as bovine colostrum and some even prefer it.

Dosage

The dosage can vary depending on what your health concerns and the benefits you’re seeking. In the published studies, the following doses were used:

  • 60 g/day of concentrated bovine colostrum protein for 8 weeks for upper respiratory tract infection [50].
  • 10 g/ day of concentrated bovine colostrum protein for 5 weeks for reducing post-exercise immune suppression [53].
  • 500 mg 2X/day of bovine colostrum for 20 days for leaky gut [63+].
  • 20 g/day of bovine colostrum powder for 8 weeks to increase lean body mass (along with resistance training) [71].
  • 20 – 60 g/day of the powder for 8 weeks for enhancing athletic performance [75, 77].
  • 10g/day (split into two 5g doses) for 4 weeks for lowering blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes [83].

Note that the above dosing refers only to regular bovine colostrum or colostrum protein powder. Hyperimmune colostrum is not available as a supplement and was used in clinical studies in lower doses for specific conditions.

User Experiences

There are many colostrum reviews on the web, mostly positive.

Many users have said that it helps with bladder inflammation (Interstitial Cystitis). One person stated that it resolved their sinus infection whereas antibiotics had no effect. Another person mentioned that it boosted their immune system and helped fight off the flu within a few days.

Some stated that it helped with muscle building.

Many people also use it for leaky gut, finding it very effective and reducing bowel problems and gut permeability.

However, a number of people also had negative experiences. One person said that they took colostrum for a few months but did not notice any change in their immune function. Another had to stop taking it because it caused stomach pain. One person got intense diarrhea after taking it for a few days. Some complain of allergic reactions, which can be expected, especially in those with dairy/lactose intolerance.

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Takeaway

Without a doubt, colostrum is extremely important for healthy immune development in newborns.

Bovine colostrum supplements, on the other hand, are widely used by adults to increase immune defense and boost athletic performance. Colostrum may also improve leaky gut and aid in flu prevention, but the evidence is mixed.

Bovine colostrum supplements need to be properly processed to maintain their beneficial compounds. If you plan to supplement, select a high-quality product from a trusted manufacturer.

Consult your healthcare provider if you take NSAID painkillers, as colostrum may reduce their effectiveness.

About the Author

Pranab Karki, BSc

BS (Neuroscience & Behaviour)

Received his BS in Neuroscience and Behavior from Wesleyan University and is getting his MS in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

He loves helping people learn how to improve their overall well being. He is most interested in fitness, how the brain works, mental health, and enjoys sharing that information with others. He believes that the more people understand science, the better the world will be.

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