Colostrum is a thick yellow fluid, rich in protein, growth factors, and immune factors. It is secreted by the mammary glands of all female mammals during the first few days of lactation. It also contains essential nutrients and protease inhibitors that keep it from being destroyed by the processes of digestion. Humans produce relatively small amounts of colostrum in the first two days after giving birth, but cows produce about 9 gallons (36 L) of colostrum. Bovine colostrum can be transferred to all other mammals, and is four times richer in immune factors than human colostrum.
Although colostrum has received widespread attention as a dietary supplement only since the late 1990s, it has a lengthy history of medicinal use. Ayurvedic physicians in India have used colostrum as a treatment for thousands of years. In the United States, mainstream medical practitioners recommended colostrum as a natural antibiotic before the discovery of penilcillin and sulfa drugs. In the 1950s, colostrum was used to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Dr. Albert Sabin, the researcher who developed the first oral vaccine for poliomyelitis, found that colostrum contains antibodies against polio. He recommended colostrum as a dietary supplement for children who were vulnerable to polio.
The major components of colostrum include the following substances:
- Immunoglobulins. Immunoglobulins are globulin proteins that function as antibodies. They are the most plentiful immune factors found in colostrum. Immunoglobulin G (IgG) counteracts bacteria and toxins in the blood and lymphatic system; immunoglobulin M (IgM) seeks out and attaches itself to viruses in the circulatory system; immunoglobulins D and E (IgD and IdE) remove foreign substances from the bloodstream and activate allergic reactions. High-quality colostrum is certified to contain a minmum of 16% immunoglobulins.
- Lactoferrin. Lactoferrin is a protein that transports iron to red blood cells and helps to deprive viruses and harmful bacteria of iron.
- Proline-rich polypeptide (PRP). PRP is a hormone that regulates the thymus gland, helping to calm a hyperactive immune system or stimulate an underactive immune system.
- Growth factors. The growth factors in bovine colostrum include insulin-like growth factors (IgF-1 and IgF-2), an epithelial growth factor (EgF), transforming growth factors (TgF-A and TgF-B), and a platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF). Growth factors stimulate normal growth as well as the healing and repair of aged or injured skin, muscle, and other tissues. In addition, growth factors help the body to burn fat instead of muscle for fuel when a person is dieting or fasting.
- Growth hormone. Growth hormone slows some of the signs of aging.
- Leukocytes. Leukocytes are white cells that stimulate production of interferon, a protein that inhibits viruses from reproducing.
- Enzymes. Colostrum contains three enzymes that oxidize bacteria.
- Cytokines and lymphokines. These are substances that regulate the body's immune response, stimulate the production of immunoglobulins, and affect cell growth and repair.
- Vitamins. Colostrum contains small amounts of vitamins A, B12, and E.
- Glycoproteins. Glycoproteins, or protease inhibitors, are complex proteins that protect immune factors and growth factors from being broken down by the acids in the digestive tract.
- Sulfur. Sulfur is a mineral that is an important building block of proteins.
Colostrum is presently used to treat a variety of diseases and disorders. Applications that have been investigated in clinical trials include the following:
Bacterial and viral infections
A number of recent clinical studies have shown that colostrum is effective in reversing the inflammation of the digestive tract in HIV/AIDS patients caused by opportunistic infections. The antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties of colostrum enable it to kill such pathogens as E. coli, Candida albicans, rotaviruses, and Cryptosporidium.
In 1980, a British researcher showed that a large proportion of the antibodies and immunoglobulins in colostrum are not absorbed by the body but remain in the digestive tract. There they attack food- and water-borne organisms that cause disease. More recent clinical studies have demonstrated that colostrum is effective in preventing intestinal infections by first keeping the bacteria from attaching themselves to the intestinal wall, and secondly by killing the bacteria themselves. Colostrum has proved to be capable of killing Campylobacter, Helicobacter pylori, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigellosis, and five types of streptococci.
Allergies and autoimmune diseases
The PRP in colostrum has been demonstrated to reduce or eliminate the pain, swelling, and inflammation associated with allergies and autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, myasthenia gravis). These effects are related to PRP's ability to inhibit the overproduction of lymphocytes (white blood cells) and T-cells.
Recent research suggests that cardiovascular disease may be caused in part by alterations in the patient's immune system. One study indicated that 79% of patients with heart diseases had a certain type of Chlamydia (an intracellular parasite closely related to certain bacteria) associated with the formation of plaque in their arteries. The PRP in colostrum may be able to reverse heart disease in the same way it counteracts allergies and autoimmune diseases. In addition, the growth factors and growth hormone in colostrum appear to lower the blood levels of "bad" cholesterol while raising the blood levels of "good" cholesterol. These growth factors also repair damage to heart muscle and support the growth of new blood vessels in the part of the circulatory system that surrounds the heart.
Since 1985, the cytokines contained in colostrum have been a major area of research in seeking a cure for cancer. Researchers have found that the lactoferrin in colostrum has some anti-cancer activity. In addition, the combination of immune factors and growth factors in colostrum appears to inhibit the growth of cancers.
The growth factor called IgF-1 that is contained in colostrum is needed by the body in order to metabolize fat. As humans grow older, their bodies produce less IgF-1. These lower levels of growth factor are associated with a higher rate of type 2 diabetes in older adults and with increased difficulty losing weight in spite of exercise and careful attention to diet. While colostrum by itself will not cause weight loss, it appears to be a useful part of a weight reduction program because of its IgF-1 content.
The immune factors in colostrum appear to be helpful in protecting athletes from infections caused by the physical and emotional stress of competition. Using colostrum as a dietary supplement also increases the efficiency of the digestive tract for athletes in training. The intestines are able to make more nutrients available to the muscle cells and the body's vital organs. A 2002 report stated that cyclists taking 20 to 60 grams of bovine colostrums supplements per day showed significant performance improvements following a two-hour ride.
The growth factors in colostrum have been found to stimulate the growth of new skin and to repair tissues damaged by ulcers, injuries, burns, surgery, or inflammation. They are able to do this through their direct action on the cells' DNA and RNA. Powdered colostrum has been used in topical preparations for gum disease, sensitive teeth, mouth ulcers, cuts, and burns.
Colostrum has been used outside clinical research to treat a variety of other conditions. Satisfied individuals have reported that colostrum has successfully treated skin disorders, emphysema, baldness in males, anger outbursts,
Colostrum is presently available in a variety of forms, including tablets, liquids, powders, and encapsulated powders. In general, the powdered forms are recommended as preferable to liquids or tablets, on the grounds that liquid colostrum has a short shelf life and the processing necessary to produce tablets destroys much of colostrum's biological activity. The recommended dose for adults with disease symptoms is 1,000–2,000 mg of powdered colostrum in capsules, taken twice daily with 8–12 oz of water. Preventive doses are left to the patient's choice. Children can be given colostrum but require less than adults.
In the United States, colostrum is taken from dairy cows within 24 hours after the birth of a calf. Only dairy cows that meet USDA health standards and have been raised on a feed supplemented with nutrients are used to supply colostrum. The calf needs four gallons of the nine that the cow produces. The remaining five gallons are collected by a USDA-certified dairy. The colostrum is frozen and kept at a temperature of 17°F (-8.3°C). After the frozen colostrum is taken to a processing plant, it is carefully thawed and evaluated for quality and immunoglobulin content. About 30% is rejected at this stage. The fat is then removed from the remaining colostrum, after which the colostrum is spray-dried at low heat. The colostrum is repeatedly tested during processing for freedom from bacterial contamination.
Persons who are using colostrum as a dietary supplement in the United States should obtain it from a source licensed by the USDA.
With the exception of allergic reactions in persons who are known to be allergic to cow's milk, colostrum does not produce any major side effects at any level of consumption. Mild flu-like symptoms that disappear with continued use of colostrum have been reported in children.
No significant drug interactions between colostrum and standard pharmaceuticals have been reported.
Coombes, Jeff S., et al. "Dose Effects of Oral Bovine Colostrum on Physical Work Capacity in Cyclists." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (July 2002): 1184.
National Association of Alternative Medicines (NAAM). P. O. Box 35189, Chicago, IL 60707-0189. (708) 453-0080. Fax: (708) 453-0083.
Health/Link: Alternative Health Directory. http://www.selene.com/healthlink/bovine.html.
Rebecca Frey, Ph.D.
Teresa G. Odle