Colostrum is a dairy derived protein supplement that is commonly sold in both health food and supplement shops. Colostrum is sourced from cow's milk within 72 hours after a calf is born which is where the milk contains a significant amount of colostrum to support the growth and development of the calf.
What’s in colostrum?
Colostrum contains a combination of powerful immune proteins and growth factors, which assist in strengthening the immune system and recovery. Some of these compounds are briefly detailed below;
Immunoglobulin’s: Colostrum contains high levels of IgA proteins, which are an immune protein present within the mucosa (throat, stomach, intestines and lungs) where these proteins fight foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria.
Growth factors: Amongst the various growth factor proteins, the IGF-1 like proteins act to support immunity and growth.
Immune proteins: Beside immunoglobulin’s, colostrum also contains lactoferrin, macrophages, cytokines, and lymphocytes which all help strengthen immunity and eliminate pathogens (infectious bugs).
Antiviral and microbial proteins: There are numerous immune proteins that specifically function to kill viruses and bacteria, therefore supporting the body's immune system to strengthen immunity in those who experience periods of supressed immune function from intense exercise.
Its use in humans is not well understood with surprisingly fairly limited research conducted in this area, however, it’s known that colostrum is rich in immune proteins, growth factors and antimicrobial properties. In humans colostrum is proposed to increases gastrointestinal integrity, immune function and recovery from intense exercise (1).
Research has shown that in exercising individuals, colostrum may decreased upper respiratory tract reports for infectious symptoms 50% more than a placebo (2). However, many studies don’t have very large sample sizes and a number of studies have some limitations in methodological quality which does identify the need for further well-designed studies in exercising individuals. Those published studies that are of high quality but are only limited in their sample size (approx. 50 people) do provide promising data for the use and applications of colostrum for reducing the risk of upper respiratory tract infections during intense periods of training (3).
It has also has been reported to provide an enhancement in anaerobic performance and may assist with the increase of mucosal immunoglobulin A which supports mucosal immunity from infections due to intense exercise (3-5). Although many well-controlled studies indicate beneficial effects with the use of colostrum, others don’t which may be due to the type and intensity of exercise used in the methods as colostrum would most likely benefit those who are participate in high intensity anaerobic training and who are susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections. Overall colostrum is accepted to support gastrointestinal immunity and recovery from intense anaerobic exercise.
Some exercising individuals take colostrum in the hope of increasing circulating human growth hormone levels by consuming growth factors contained in colostrum which have the potential to increase IGF-1 levels which is a hormone involved in growth (6). Even though there are growth factors in colostrum, it doesn’t appear to affect growth hormone levels significantly or alter body composition. Therefore, colostrum does not appear effective for increasing growth hormones or IGF-1 despite the anecdotal reports circulating in the industry.
Colostrum is also used to support gastrointestinal health as it may help with a beneficial gastrointestinal flora, eliminating viruses, bacteria and other pathogens as well as the possibility of immune regulation (7). These are just some of the proposed mechanisms that lead to an enhanced gastrointestinal function and immunity. However, just like probiotic strains, they work better in some than others due to the differences in gastrointestinal flora, external confounding factors and those factors that disrupt this gastrointestinal health.
Who would benefit from this?
The type of person who would likely benefit the most from taking colostrum is anyone who;
Experiences frequent upper respiratory tract infections and trains frequently
Trains with very high intensity and feels their recovery is being impacted
Experiences gastrointestinal discomfort often and who isn’t lactose intolerant or allergic to diary
Someone who is or has experience gastrointestinal disturbances due to a course of anti-inflammatories.
Consuming 500mg of high immunoglobulin G (IgG) is the common dose used in studies that showed a beneficial effect. There is no data to suggest that more is better at present. Products should contain more than 35% IgG content to provide a therapeutic effect otherwise more than 500mg may be required. Colostrum appears very safe to date with no reported side effects or drug interactions.
1. Shing CM, Hunter DC, Stevenson LM. Bovine Colostrum Supplementation and Exercise Performance Potential Mechanisms. Sports Medicine. 2009;39(12):1033-54.
2. Crooks C, Cross ML, Wall C, Ali A. Effect of Bovine Colostrum Supplementation on Respiratory Tract Mucosal Defenses in Swimmers. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism. 2010;20(3):224-35.
3. Crooks CV, Wall CR, Cross ML, Rutherfurd-Markwick KJ. The Effect of Bovine Colostrum Supplementation on Salivary IgA in Distance Runners. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism. 2006;16(1):47-64.
4. Bishop D. Dietary Supplements and Team-Sport Performance. Sports Medicine. 2010;40(12):995-1017.
5. Buckley JD, Brinkworth GD, Abbott MJ. Effect of bovine colostrum on anaerobic exercise performance and plasma insulin-like growth factor I. / Effet du colostrum bovin sur les performances lors d ' un exercice anaerobic et sur la concentration d ' IGF-1. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2003;21(7):577-88.
6. Kelly GS. Bovine colostrums: a review of clinical uses. Alternative medicine review : a journal of clinical therapeutic. 2003;8(4):378-94.
7. Rathe M, Müller K, Sangild PT, Husby S. Clinical applications of bovine colostrum therapy: a systematic review. Nutrition Reviews. 2014;72(4):237-54.