Colostrum Power, reproduced from the online information service of McGill University, Montreal, Canada
There's a very important gift a new mother gives her baby just after birth? It's her breast. Or at least, the liquid that comes from it. And contrary to what you may think, it isn't milk. It is something much more complex and much more valuable. It is colostrum.
Colostrum is a milk-like material that female lactating mammals produce for a short period after the birth of an offspring. The main components are growth factors, antibodies, various enzymes and proteins. All of these contribute enormously to the proper functioning of the immune system. Of course most of these factors are useless until they can get from the gut into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, the immune enhancing molecules can perform their functions. There is no doubt that the permeability of a baby's gut is such that transfer of colostrum components takes place, but much remains to be learned about the extent to which this happens in adults who take dietary colostrum supplements.
That issue really needs further investigation because these days colostrum emanates not only from women's breasts, but also from the shelves of health food stores. There are colostrum bars, colustrum shakes and colostrum pills to "boost our immune system." What's the rationale? As we get older, we produce fewer and fewer growth and immune factors. This means we become more susceptible to some illnesses and take longer to heal. Colostrum supplements supposedly take us back to our mothers' breast for an immune boost.
There is some interesting history here. In India, colostrum has been a commonly used for thousands of years by Ayurvedic practitioners to "heal" the spirit and the body. In Scandinavia you'll find it on the dessert menu labeled as 'colostrum pudding' whenever a new calf is born. But this of course does not make for scientific evidence as far as any benefits are concerned. Why are we even contemplating potential benefits?
First of all, colostrum does have antimicrobial properties. This is mostly because it contains IgG (immunogloblulin G), a common antibody (or immune protein) that fights viral and bacterial infections. Studies have shown that breast-fed babies are less prone to such infections, most likely due to the IgG in the colostrum passed on to them from their mothers. Other antibodies are also found in the colostrum but it's the IgG type that seems to be most important for supplying a new-born with a passive form of immunity until his own immune system has a chance to develop. Immunoglobulin G from bovine colostrum, which chemically resembles the human variety, has been shown to help fight intestinal viral and bacterial infections, especially in immune deficient patients (e.g. people with AIDS, premature babies, those undergoing organ transplants). These patients have lost a lot of their immune factors which can be replenished through colostrum supplements, at least as far as the gut goes. The IgG antibodies can afford protection against rotavirus and E. coli as well as other viruses and bacteria that can infect the intestine.
In addition to immunoglobulins, colostrum also contains lactoferrin (an iron binding protein that prevents harmful bacteria from getting the iron they need to grow) and cytokines (intermediate immune system messengers). These factors tend to keep infections at bay before they become serious. This especially applies to gut infections (where colostrum seems to have a great deal of effect). Colostrum can even increase uptake of nutrients in the gut which in turn prompts more muscle and other tissue development. Colostrum also contains glycoproteins and protease inhibitors that can protect the important immune factors from digestion by our gut's enzymes. These protease inhibitors were also recently found to help prevent the attachment of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, responsible for stomach ulcers, to the gut.
Some researchers report that blood levels of IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor-1), which is involved in growth and development, can be increased by colostrum. Mention growth and development and people immediately think of human growth hormone which has garnered a lot of publicity recently. But the fact is that growth hormone actually carries out its work through IGF-1. After growth hormone is secreted by the pituitary, it triggers the production of IGF-1, which in turn stimulates growth. The levels of both these substances decrease as we age, so in theory an intervention to increase levels should be welcome.
Athletes will be happy to hear that colostrum also contains a growth factor called FGF (fibroblast growth factor). This stimulates growth of fibroblasts, the body's first line of defense in muscle and tendon injury. FGF also increases the number of IGF-1 receptors on the surface of muscle cells meaning that IGF-1 can have more effect on the muscle cells. They divide faster which in turn leads to more muscle mass. A study published in 1997 in the Journal of Applied Physiology did indeed show that IGF-1 concentrations increased in athletes who took supplemental bovine colostrum during strength and speed training.
Proline-rich polypeptide (PRP) is also found in colostrum. This factor's effects are a bit harder to understand - it has been said to both suppress an overactive immune system (good in the case of patients with autoimmune diseases) and also stimulate underactive immune systems (good for immuno-compromised patients). How it can do both of these remains a mystery. One explanation is that PRP regulates the thymus gland which helps command our immune system. But that's just a theory.
Is there any risk in taking colostrum? There have been no reports of allergic reactions or adverse effects from taking oral colostrum. There have been no reports of cross reactions with other supplements or drugs. There is no worry about mad-cow disease because this has never been known to be passed through milk. And it seems lactose intolerant people are also safe from any reaction, since most of the lactose is removed during processing.
Where do colostrum supplements come from? Cows. But the liquid colostrum is heat treated in order to convert it to a powder. Supposedly, if done right, colostrum's essential factors are nor destroyed. Supplemental colostrum available for consumption is taken from cows within the first 24 hours of lactation. Some companies even claim that processing the colostrum makes the important immune factors more biologically active. In general, colostrum is a difficult product to prepare since cows only produce it for the first 48 hours after giving birth and processing requires careful temperature control to keep the factors biologically active.
Perhaps the best example of the benefits of colostrum comes from its use in the treatment of diarrhea associated with AIDS and autoimmune diseases. The growth factors in the colostrum seem to be able to seal off the gut so bacterial toxins don't take effect, while still allowing for the absorption of certain amino acids and carbohydrates. Children plagued by a specific strain of E. coli also seem to be helped by colostrum. According to a 1999 study in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, kids with this bug who were treated with oral bovine colostrum showed less frequency of loose stools.
In the case of wound healing, there's no direct evidence that topical application of powdered colostrum can heal wounds, but there are many testimonial claims to this effect. Perhaps the growth factors present, especially the IGF-1, TGF-beta and EGF, help to regenerate tissue cells.
For arthritis sufferers, colostrum, though not necessarily helpful in combating the arthritis itself, might prevent those annoying stomach pains that come with taking certain arthritis medications, most commonly the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). It seems again the growth factors in the colostrum keep down swelling in the gut and stomach. This evidence comes from a May 1999 study from the journal Gut.
If you do decide to invest in colostrum supplements, the question is which one? Some brands are processed at such high pressures and temperatures that biological activity is lost. Certain producers claim they obtain their colostrum from "organic herds" that have been pasture-fed and remain free of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. This is essentially irrelevant. It is the presence or absence of biological properties that is important. You can even get chocolate colostrum bars in your local health food store. It is unlikely that any biological activity survives the extensive processing to which these products are subjected.
There isn't enough information to recommend specific doses of colostrum, but 1-2 grams in capsule form taken twice daily is an educated guess. This can be safely doubled or tripled. No overdoses have been recorded. Of course, the important question is whether taking colostrum supplements is worthwhile at all. At this time there is just insufficient evidence to answer that question.
Certainly, there are some legitimate studies showing that colostrum can have benefits in certain cases. But don't be fooled by web site and infomercial hype claiming that colostrum is a miracle cure-all. Yes, colostrum may have some immune system enhancing properties. But reversing the signs of aging? Curing arthritis? Allowing you to gain or lose weight? Turning your immune system on or off? That's a stretch. And don't buy those claims that "medical research has shown that colostrum is possibly the one supplement that can help everyone that's ill. And it's the most important preventative you'll ever find." No research has shown that. Those claims relate more to a bull than to a lactating cow.