The Healing Power of Colostrum
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From infants to top-notch athletes to the critically ill, this “first milk” provides immune and gastrointestinal benefits
What’s the nutritional superfood almost all of us have had at some time in our life, and new mothers, dairy farmers, and Ob/Gyns know best? It’s colostrum, the first milk that comes at birth. It actually comes in a bit before birth, and various settings that increase the health risk for the newborn, mothers-to-be are even being taught to collect the colostrum prior to birth, so it can rapidly be available for supplemental feeding immediately after delivery.
Colostrum is particularly important for a newborn infant because they lack a fully developed immune system. Colostrum provides important immunological factors such as immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, oligosaccharides, and cytokines, and many growth factors to support the developing infant’s digestive tract and beyond., These factors also interact with the intestinal microbiome and promote the population of healthy bacteria.
Numerous studies have shown that consumption of bovine colostrum may increase our immunity to infection.
Perhaps needless to say, when colostrum is consumed as a dietary supplement, it is not derived from a human host, but rather, is a product of the dairy industry. Differences exist between human and bovine colostrum (BC), with BC having high levels of immunoglobulin G (IgG) while in human colostrum levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA) are the highest., High levels of IgG in BC are important because this portion of the protective immune response does not develop prenatally, it must be provided after birth. Because of its critical importance for the development of the calf, collection of BC for our use of its healing components occurs after the necessary amount has been fed to the calf to provide this passive immunization.
Numerous studies have shown that consumption of BC may increase our immunity to infection in a similar manner. Interesting research has considered the use of colostrum immunoglobulins from cows that have been vaccinated against common diseases such as rotavirus to protect humans from infection as well as a treatment for infection.,, Hyperimmune BC has also been successfully used in this manner for the treatment and/or prevention for human disease caused by Cryptosporidium sp., Shigella sp., enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, and Clostridium difficile infection. The protection hyperimmune BC may provide is not limited to enteric infections – data strongly suggest it also may protect against highly virulent forms of the influenza virus in a similar fashion.
Transforming growth factor (TGF)-β, found in both human and bovine colostrum, plays an important role in regulating inflammation and the development of oral tolerance.
BC is not just protective against infection, the many factors found in it also may help protect against allergies and asthma. Perhaps this is not surprising as many may be familiar with the epidemiological studies showing a lower incidence of allergic disease in breast fed infants.,, Of the many active components, transforming growth factor (TGF)-β, found in both human and bovine colostrum,, plays an important role in regulating inflammation and the development of oral tolerance. In mice, administration of BC has been shown to promote a Th1 response, reducing levels of the cytokine interleukin (IL)-4 which is associated with Th2 (allergic) immune response.
Finally, colostrum plays an important role in the maturation of the gut and other tissues. One factor in colostrum which may play an important role in this is epidermal growth factor (EGF). EGF promotes normal development of the gut, lungs, and skin, protecting infants from necrotizing enterocolitis, chronic lung disease, and respiratory distress syndrome.,, Insulin-like growth factor (IGF) is found at high levels in BC and also plays a role in tissue development and growth. Studies suggest IGF also may be a factor that helps protect the intestinal barrier and promote repair.,
Herein, we take a deeper look at the clinical data backing the use of BC for the treatment and prevention of infection and for the support of a healthy gut.
In addition to the many studies investigating the use of hyperimmune BC as treatment and a preventative for common gastrointestinal infections, BC also has been investigated in high risk cardiovascular disease patients as an alternative or adjunctive to influenza vaccination. One of the challenges with influenza vaccination, of course, is viral mutation or the emergence of new viral strains. As the typical influenza vaccine is based on projections from common viral strains the previous year, these selections may be inaccurate. A good example is the seasonal flu vaccine in 2018 – 2019 which was reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to only be 29% effective. BC has been proposed as an alternative because it provides a broad spectrum of immunoglobulins against common pathogens.
Bovine colostrum has been studied as an alternative or adjunctive to vaccinations because it provides a broad spectrum of immunoglobulins against common pathogens.
In a two-stage study, the first stage included healthy individuals divided into four arms: group A received only the flu vaccine, group B received the flu vaccine + 400 mg of freeze dried BC daily, group C received only 400 mg of BC/day, and group D had no prophylaxis. The period of oral supplementation was eight weeks and vaccinations were given in the two-week period before the initiation of the study. Assessment at three months showed no significant differences between the groups B and C (both receiving BC), however, group A (receiving only the vaccine) had approximately four times more episodes of the flu and three times the number of days with disease. The number of days with malaise was highest in the vaccine group, even considerably higher than the control group, suggesting the vaccine itself also had this adverse effect.
In the second stage of the study, high-risk cardiovascular disease patients were divided into three treatment arms using a similar protocol as the first stage, however, in this portion of the study all groups received some form of treatment. Of the three treatments, the two groups receiving BC had only three events of cardiopulmonary problems while the group only having vaccination had six events resulting in one death. The incidence of hospital admissions was also significantly higher in the group only having vaccination.
Adult respiratory tract infection
Supplementation with BC has been shown to reduce symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) in adults as well. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (RDBPCT) of healthy active males, daily supplementation of 60 g of BC daily for eight weeks significantly reduced the proportion of subjects reporting URTI symptoms compared to placebo. In elite swimmers, daily supplementation of 25 g of BC also reduced reported URTI symptoms by week four of the intervention, with even lower reporting of symptoms the remainder of the 10 week intervention.
Common pediatric infections
Perhaps not surprisingly, BC has been considered as a therapy in many pediatric settings. Often available as a powder that can easily be mixed into other dairy products or a smoothie, this also contributes to its common use in children. In one such study of children (age range 1 to 6 years) with recurrent diarrhea or URTIs, daily supplementation of 3 or 6 g (depending on age) of BC for four weeks was shown to significantly reduce number of URTIs, episodes of diarrhea, and hospital admissions. Additionally, even though the period of intervention was only four weeks, the reduction in infectious events was maintained at two and six months.
In children with recurrent diarrhea or URTIs, daily supplementation of bovine colostrum for four weeks was shown to significantly reduce number of URTIs, episodes of diarrhea, and hospital admissions.
A RDBPCT also evaluated the effectiveness of BC for the treatment of acute viral or bacterial diarrhea in children ranging in age from six months to two years. Children were given 3 g of BC or placebo in addition to standard of care with oral rehydration solution and supplemental zinc per the World Health Organization guidelines. At 48 hours, it was found that the children additionally receiving BC had a significantly lower frequency of vomiting, diarrhea, and Vesikari scores (a composite diarrheal disease severity score) compared to those receiving the placebo.
A 2019 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials further supports the use of BC for the reduction of childhood infectious diarrhea concluding “In the sensitivity analysis of studies with low risk of biases, bovine colostrum significantly reduced stool frequency, occurrence of diarrhea and pathogen detection.”
As mentioned, multiple growth factors found in colostrum also impact the health of the gut lining. In addition to animal models showing protection against the adverse gastrointestinal effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and chemotherapy,, human studies have also demonstrated BC is protective in these and other settings.
Human studies have demonstrated bovine colostrum is protective against the increased intestinal permeability associated with NSAID use and chemotherapy.
In healthy volunteers, coadministration of BC with indomethacin prevented the medication-induced increase in intestinal permeability, which increased three-fold after five days in the group taking a placebo along with the medication. In children with newly diagnosed acute lymphocytic leukemia, daily supplementation with BC alongside chemotherapy significantly reduced the severity of oral mucositis compared to those receiving placebo. In athletes, supplementation with BC has been shown to decrease intestinal cell damage incurred during hot-climate exercise and attenuate the exercise-related increase in intestinal permeability by 80%. Finally, in a study of critically ill patients hospitalized in the intensive care unit (diagnosis unspecified), after 10 days, supplementation of BC was shown to improve intestinal permeability (assessed by plasma zonulin level), plasma endotoxin level, and the incidence of diarrhea.
Clearly, colostrum is a nutritional tool with substantial evidence showing its positive impact on human health, which likely can be traced back to the origins of humankind. Its broad range of benefits for all ages, and high level of tolerability even in the critically ill, make it a broadly useful tool to combat infection and gastrointestinal dysfunction in nearly all populations.
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