Human and bovine breast milk is packed with powerful compounds that enhance immunity. You’ll find oligosaccharides, antimicrobial proteins, lactoferrin, immunomodulatory cytokines, and immunoglobulins in them. All of these factors help the immune system mount the appropriate attack on allergens, bacteria, viruses, and other antigens. But not all breast milk has the same amount of these important immune compounds. Enter colostrum.
What is colostrum?
Just prior to giving birth and shortly after delivery, the mammary glands produce colostrum, a special form of milk that is only available within days of the birth. Often called “first milk,” colostrum is packed with more antibodies than regular breast milk. For example, research shows that regular human breast milk contains around 1 mg/ml of IgA, an important class of immunoglobulins, compared to a whopping 5 to 12 mg/ml found in colostrum. (1)
Another important immunoglobulin, IgG, is also much higher in colostrum. By shoring up immunoglobulin activity in the immune system, colostrum provides protection against a wide range of illnesses including infectious diseases and gastrointestinal issues. (2)
Colostrum health benefits
Now that we understand what colostrum is, it’s important to know what colostrum is good for. Because the immune system is so intimately involved in health and illness, it makes sense that colostrum would have a whole host of health benefits that spring from its ability to enhance immunity, reduce inflammation and protect and heal the gut.
Colostrum for immune support
Active immunity is when the immune system is in the process of fighting an infection; whereas passive immunity is when the body naturally gains antibodies in preparation for a future fight. Colostrum works by improving passive immunity which gets the body ready to fight once it comes into contact with a foreign cell. (3) Phagocytes are immune cells that eat those foreign invaders. A 2012 placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized cross-over trial showed that a single dose of bovine colostrum significantly increased phagocytic activity. (4) That same study showed a short-term increase in natural killer cell activity within one to two hours after consuming the colostrum, which is another indication that colostrum prepares the immune system to fight the good fight.
Colostrum can be especially beneficial during cold and flu season. Research demonstrates that prophylactic colostrum can help reduce the number and severity of upper respiratory tract infections in children. (5) The same is true for adults. A 2003 study featuring adult males showed that bovine colostrum significantly reduced the risk of upper respiratory tract infection compared to placebo. (6) A 2010 study involving prolonged exercise as a physical stressor, showed that four weeks of bovine colostrum supplementation helped prevent decreases in innate immunity parameters and also enhanced neutrophil function recovery. (7)
Colostrum and inflammation
Immunity and inflammation go hand in hand so it’s not surprising that colostrum would have an anti-inflammatory effect. As it turns out, colostrum is also a great source of antioxidants and growth factors that can help create a healthy inflammatory response in the body. (8) Bovine colostrum also reduces nuclear factor (NF)kB activation, which is a key proinflammatory pathway. (9)
Colostrum and gut health
Many issues associated with gut health also have an inflammatory component, so it makes sense that colostrum would be good for gut health as well. Bovine colostrum has been shown to offer significant protection to the intestinal lining. A 2017 double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that 500 mg of colostrum a day for 20 days resulted in decreased intestinal permeability compared to placebo. (10) This study featured 16 athletes during peak training season with 75% of the colostrum group having increased intestinal permeability prior to the start of the study.
Bovine colostrum has also been shown to relieve childhood infectious diarrhea. According to a 2019 meta-analysis featuring five randomized clinical trials, researchers found that “bovine colostrum significantly reduced stool frequency, occurrence of diarrhea and pathogen detection.” (13)
The bottom line
There are many ways to keep your immune system strong, naturally. A colostrum supplement is definitely worth considering. As research clearly indicates, colostrum will enhance immune defenses while also helping to control inflammation and support gut health.
- Ulfman LH, Leusen J, Savelkoul H, et al. Effects of bovine immunoglobulins on immune function, allergy and infection. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2018;5:52.
- Hurley WL, Theil PK. Perspectives on immunoglobulins in colostrum and milk. Nutrients. 2011;3(4):442-474.
- Godhia ML, Patel N. Colostrum — its composition, benefits as a nutraceutical: a review. Current Research in Nutrition and Food Science. 2013;1(1):37-47.
- Jensen GS, Patel D, Benson KF. A novel extract from bovine colostrum whey supports innate immune functions. Preventive Medicine. 2012;54:S124-9.
- Saad K, Abo-Elela M, El-Baseer K, et al. Effects of bovine colostrum on recurrent respiratory tract infections and diarrhea in children. Medicine. 2016;95(37).
- Brinkworth GD, Buckley JD. Concentrated bovine colostrum protein supplementation reduces the incidence of self-reported symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection in adult males. European Journal of Nutrition. 2003;42(4):228-32.
- Davison G, Diment BC. Bovine colostrum supplementation attenuates the decrease of salivary lysozyme and enhances the recovery of neutrophil function after prolonged exercise. British Journal of Nutrition. 2010;103(10):1425-1432.
- Yadav R, Angolkar T, Kaur G, Buttar HS. Antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of bovine colostrum. Recent Patents on Inflammation & Allergy Drug Discovery. 2016;10(1).
- Lee A, Pontin M, Kosmeri E, et al. Assessment of adipogenic, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties of whole and whey bovine colostrum. Journal of Dairy Science. 2019;102(10):8614-8621.
- Halasa M, Maciejewska D, Baskiewicz-Halasa M, et al. Oral supplementation with bovine colostrum decreases intestinal permeability and stool concentrations of zonulin in athletes. Nutrients. 2017;9(4):370.
- Playford RJ, Floyd DN, Macdonald CE, et al. Bovine colostrum is a health food supplement which prevents NSAID induced gut damage. Gut. 1999;44:653-658.
- Hu D, Zhang F, Zhou J, et al. The clearance effect of bovine anti-Helicobacter pylori antibody-containing milk in O blood group Helicobacter pylori-infected patients: a randomized double-blind clinical trial. Journal of Translational Medicine. 2015;13:205.
- Li J, Xu Y, Jiang J, Song Q. Bovine colostrum and product intervention associated with relief of childhood infectious diarrhea. Scientific Reports. 2019;9:3093.