Legit or Not: Does Colostrum Prevent Infections, the Flu, and Leaky Gut? Here's What We Found
In mammals, milk is the most important nutrient a mom can give her babies. Research shows that this superfood contains gene-specific nutrients that boost a baby's immune system and encourage proper growth and development. Yet milk isn't the only superfood mammals produce. It turns out that colostrum — the very first secretion from mammalian glands during the early post-birth period — has an even greater concentration of nutrients and health benefits.
Bovine (or cattle) colostrum, in particular, has a high concentration of bioactive compounds, or molecules that actively benefit an animal's immune and digestive systems. But while bovine colostrum is tailored to calves, research has demonstrated that this "baby formula" has potential immune benefits in humans, too. The real question: are all of them proven? (One colostrum supplement brand even suggests that its product is more effective than the flu vaccine.) Below, we tell you everything you need to know about this supplement.
How do you take bovine colostrum?
Most colostrum supplements come in either a capsule or powder form. The general recommendation is to take capsules on an empty stomach with water. If the product is in powder form, you can mix it with water or any cool beverage. (Hot liquids may reduce the potency of some bioactive nutrients.)
Is bovine colostrum cruelty-free?
Many people take issue with bovine colostrum, because it potentially deprives newborn calves of essential nutrients they need to survive. However, some brands argue that their colostrum is cruelty-free, because they partner with dairy farm owners that keep their cows in humane conditions with access to the outdoors. Certain brands also state that they only use surplus colostrum, so calves still consume as much as they need.
What is bovine colostrum good for?
Colostrum from cows contains several bioactive compounds that are known helpers in the human immune system. They include:
Lactoferrin, an iron-binding milk protein that helps balance the body's iron levels.
Lysozyme, an enzyme that destroys certain bacteria and helps modulate the body's immune response to an infection.
Lactoperoxidase, an enzyme naturally found in human saliva and other body fluids with antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties.
Immunoglobulins (Igs), also known as antibodies. These are proteins that destroy viruses, bacteria, and other foreign pathogens. Antibodies are customizable, meaning the body creates unique Igs to target specific pathogens.
Growth factors, or signaling molecules that stimulate an animal's cells to divide into more cells, heal, and differentiate (take on specific forms and functions).
In a bovine colostrum supplement, all of these bioactive compounds may strengthen immunity, respiratory health, and gut health.
What are the side effects of bovine colostrum?
Though most people experience no side effects from bovine colostrum, there have been a few instances of severe allergic reactions. A few users experience gas and/or nausea.
Is colostrum anti-inflammatory?
A growing body of research shows that colostrum has anti-inflammatory properties. In a 2017 study published in The Journal of Functional Foods, researchers found that the supplement reduced inflammation in cells from the intestine. The study authors therefore believe colostrum may ease symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn's disease.
There is also some evidence that bovine colostrum can help reduce inflammation in the airways. According to 2021 research published in Food and Agricultural Immunology, the milk protein lactoferrin may ease the damage done to airways because of allergens. It may even reduce damage from tuberculosis, though more research is needed to prove this.
Can colostrum prevent viral and bacterial infections?
Some research supports the theory that bovine colostrum not only prevents infections, but also makes it easier to recover from them. For instance: According to a 2016 study published in Medicine, researchers from Al-Azhar University in Egypt gave children with recurrent upper respiratory infections and diarrhea colostrum supplements. After two months, the rate of infections decreased significantly. This was in contrast to children who did not receive the supplement. However, the researchers could not control other factors, like the children's diets, exposure to germs, stress levels, or sleep schedules.
Another study published in 2011, which involved 90 healthy adults, found that participants taking bovine colostrum were far less likely to get diarrhea from E. coli. This was in comparison to a placebo group taking a fake supplement.
In effect, colostrum may lower your risk of getting sick if you are exposed to a virus or bacteria. It may also make it easier for you to recover from such an illness. However, there is no guarantee that it will stop you from getting an infection.
Is a colostrum supplement more effective than the flu vaccine?
One brand suggests that bovine colostrum is three times more effective than the flu vaccine at preventing the flu, based on a study. The brand does not link to a study, but one study from 2007 did test the efficacy of the flu vaccine against the efficacy of colostrum at preventing the flu and speeding recovery. During the study, participants were divided into four groups. Group 1 received the vaccine and colostrum, group 2 received the vaccine and no colostrum, group 3 received colostrum and no vaccine, and group 4 received neither. None of the participants took anti-infective drugs or antibiotics.
Here's what the study authors concluded: Group 2 and group 4 (the no-colostrum groups) experienced three times the number of sick days as compared to group 1 and group 3 (the colostrum groups). However, the study did not definitively prove that colostrum was the primary reason group 2 and group 4 experienced more sick days. The researchers also did not control for the participants' hygiene habits, diets, sleep habits, and stress levels.
So, colostrum may be an effective immunity booster, but it is not necessarily more effective than the flu vaccine at preventing the flu.
Can colostrum improve leaky gut?
In a 2021 scientific review published in Nutrients, researchers wondered whether bovine colostrum could help heal an injured intestinal barrier, or gut lining. (A healthy intestinal barrier allows nutrients to pass through it into the blood stream, but traps bacteria and toxins so they can be expelled through the bowels. A damaged, inflamed barrier lets bacteria and toxins through.) After examining an array of studies that tested colostrum's efficacy, the researchers concluded that colostrum probably helps heal a damaged gut lining caused by a wide range of illnesses. These include infectious diarrhea, irritation from NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like Advil and Tylenol), and autoimmune diseases. The authors also noted that colostrum is likely to be most effective before or after the acute illness or injury to the gut lining — not during.
The Bottom Line
Bovine colostrum has minimal side effects, and its benefits are well-researched. While there's no guarantee that it will prevent illness, it may certainly help build up your immune system's defenses.
There is an important caveat: Not all bovine colostrum is equal. The beneficial nutrients in different colostrum samples can vary; this may be because some bovines are healthier than others and can produce a more potent liquid.
So, what does this mean for you? To determine whether a colostrum supplement is high quality, check out its certifications. Some brands have their colostrum third-party tested, which is a good sign that their claims are accurate. Fortunately, there are enough brands out there to give you a wide selection. With any luck, you'll find a product within your budget that you can milk for all its worth.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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This article originally appeared in our print magazine.