Colostrum is an immune-boosting powerhouse produced naturally by new mammalian mothers during the few days after childbirth. It’s loaded with immunoglobulins, growth factors, and anti-inflammatories and is regarded as setting the stage for our immune systems and digestive health. Recent studies show that bovine colostrum can offer similar immune support for adults when taken as a supplement. Learning more about this incredible natural compound may just help you fight off your next cold!
Colostrum is responsible for the early development of our immune system, helps heal wounds, and supports immune responses in more ways than we’ll ever be able to convey. Modern researchers continue to discover astounding new ways in which this compound plays an integral role in neonatal and adult health.
It’s loaded with beneficial compounds like lactoferrin, immunoglobulins, and growth factors that all have a resounding body of evidence to support their vital roles in health. We’ll take a look at some of these compounds, the benefits of colostrum, considerations for bovine colostrum supplements, and many other aspects of this powerful immune-boosting compound. First, let’s take a look at what separates colostrum from regular ‘ol breast milk.
Colostrum vs. Milk
What is Colostrum?
It can be easy to get regular breast milk and colostrum confused—they come from the same source after all! Colostrum is produced during the few weeks after childbirth and helps our immune system and digestive health mature rapidly. Compared to regular breast milk, colostrum is much thicker, yellower in color, and much lower in lactose content. There are many other factors that differentiate colostrum from milk but these are considered the most characteristic.
Stages of Milk Production
Breast milk can be characterized as three separate compositions, each found during a specific stage of pregnancy. Colostrum begins production near term or shortly after, lasts a few weeks, is followed by transitional milk, and then is present as the fully-matured breast milk. These stages are each characterized by differing levels of proteins, metabolites, electrolytes, and have their timing greatly influenced by factors such as nutrition, pre-term delivery, or complications such as cesarian section (R).
Colostrum is richer in proteins like lactoferrin, albumin, and immunoglobulins while milk is higher in metabolites like lactose, glucose, and urea. The balance of electrolytes differs significantly as well, with colostrum containing higher levels of sodium and magnesium and milk containing higher levels of calcium and potassium (R). Levels of these compounds can also vary greatly depending on proximity to term. Below is a chart showing the differences of several notable compounds and their levels in colostrum, transitional milk, and milk—grouped by proximity to term.
This chart only compares several of the many compounds known to science as being beneficial to human immunity. Check out this chart for a more complete comparison. As evidenced by the above chart, it can be said that slightly pre-term pregnancies result in colostrum with higher levels of beneficial compounds while very pre-term pregnancies are quite deficient in them.
How long does colostrum last?
The beneficial compounds found in milk and colostrum can lose their potency when frozen or pasteurized. Many of the compounds found in high concentrations in colostrum are much more susceptible to denaturation during processes such as these. The two most influential factors are storage temperature and duration. There are two notable types of storage: freezing and refrigeration. Freezing is meant to preserve something over a long period of time (months) and refrigeration is meant to preserve something over a short-term (hours or days.) Each of these approaches has their benefits but, at least when it comes to colostrum, also have their risks.
Long-Term Storage (Freezing)
Long-term storage is a balance of benefits vs. downsides. On one hand, freezing allows colostrum to cross geographical distances and to help children that, for whatever reason, may not have access to their mother’s colostrum. On the other hand, such storage will compromise colostrum’s potency. In most cases where long-term freezing is concerned, the benefits likely outweigh downsides.
Several active compounds in colostrum don’t see a notable decline in potency when being frozen as long as 12 months. On the other hand, some compounds such as Immunoglobulin-A lose nearly 50% of their potency. Below you can see the difference of retention rates of several of the most beneficial compounds in colostrum, based on long-term (frozen) storage temperature and duration.
Immunoglobulin A (IgA), Interleukin-10 (IL-10), and Interleukin-8 (IL-8) all experience dramatic reductions in potency during frozen storage. Other compounds such as Tumor Necrosis Factor-RI (TNF-RI) seem to slightly increase in potency. We’ll discuss each of these compounds in more detail later but, at least for now, just recognize that a loss in their potency is a bad thing.
Short-Term Storage (Refrigeration)
Short term refrigeration of colostrum is also a balance of pros vs. cons, though over a much shorter timespan than freezing. Some beneficial compounds such as IgA and TGF-ß1 don’t see much degradation. Other compounds such as Interleukins, TNF-α, and EGF see significant reductions in potency. In most cases, it seems that refrigeration of colostrum should be avoided unless entirely necessary, though refrigeration periods of 0-6 hours seem to have a minimal negative impact.
What’s in Colostrum?
Colostrum contains a lot of compounds that have been studied for the benefits to human health. These compounds help our bodies do anything from developing their intestinal lining to fight off infections. We’re going to skip over many of the more obscure compounds found in breast milk and colostrum and focus on those with the most supporting research to describe their roles in human health. Keep in mind, the beneficial compounds found in colostrum are also present in breast milk (and vice-versa) just in varying amounts.
This compound is produced throughout the body but is found in highest concentrations in the nervous system, pancreas, and digestive tract. It’s regarded as the single most influential intestinal hormone and plays an integral role in neonatal digestive development (R). In adulthood, analogs of somatostatin can be used to help control IGF-1 and growth hormone levels to shrink tumors and increase the effectiveness of many cancer-related surgeries (R). In early development, somatostatin helps regulate neuronal systems responsible for growth hormone release and other neural development. This description of this role has been supported in animal testing with somatostatin analog administration on cognitively-impaired subjects (R).
Immunoglobulins (IgA, IgG, IgM)
Immunoglobulins are responsible for the transfer of passive immunity from mother to child (R). Variants of these types of compounds are collected throughout a mother’s life based largely on the types of viral and bacteriological pathogens she is exposed to. Immunoglobulins are also powerful universal immunosupportive compounds that can help fight off bacteria and infection. One of their most amazing attributes is the ability to be used between species. For example, the immunoglobulins in bovine colostrum are nearly bio-identical to those found in human colostrum. Among their many benefits, immunoglobulins are anti-parasitic, antifungal, antibacterial, and help support healthy digestive function (R). IgA is the primary immunoglobulin in colostrum by IgG is also found in significant amounts.
Interleukins (IL-6, IL-8, IL-10)
Interleukins are a family of anti-inflammatory proteins that help promote cellular growth, differentiation, and activation. Scientists have identified dozens of these compounds over the years but a handful of them are known to play central roles in maintaining a higher quality of life as we age (R). Clinical testing has shown that certain interleukins found in colostrum can stimulate the production of powerful immune cells like natural killer cells and T-cells (R). Each of these cytotoxic cells is deadly to foreign invaders such as bacteria and help support robust immune responses. With regards to colostrum’s stimulatory effect on interleukins, it would seem that moderation is key.
Lactoferrin is an iron-binding protein that has antibacterial and antiviral properties but is not part of our primary immune system. It makes it more difficult for harmful bacteria and viruses to invade our cells and also harder for them to reproduce after doing so (R). It’s produced in abundance in healthy digestive tissue, is a vital bioactive found in blood-clotting and wound healing, and is considered a first-line defensive mechanism against harmful compounds (R). It helps modulate immune responses by regulating the growth, development, and activity of many immune cells. Lactoferrin is found in concentrations around .8mg/ml in colostrum but only .09mg/ml in regular breast milk (R).
Lysozyme is an enzyme found in secretions such as saliva, tears, and breast milk (including colostrum.) It is a powerful antimicrobial compound that has been shown capable of killing a wide range of pathogenic bacteria (R). Its a common additive to animal feed, especially in pigs, for its ability to greatly reduce the rates of infection from bacteria such as Salmonella and e Coli (R).
Erythropoietin is a protein factor that first discovered in the investigation of how our bodies regulate red blood cell concentrations, called erythropoiesis. It’s produced naturally in our livers and kidneys and plays an integral role in stimulating immunological responses, facilitating detoxification, and has even shown evidence of providing neurological protection in cases of stroke, spinal cord compression, and encephalomyelitis (R). Above all, it helps regulate the levels of circulating red blood cells, iron utilization, and can help address issues related to anemia.
Insulin-Like Growth Factors (IGF-1 + IGF-2)
IGF-I is a dynamic compound that is intimately related to growth hormone production, the growth of new tissue, and immunological responses. In early childhood, this compound is essential to helping cell specialization and proliferation (R). There is a compelling amount of research that suggests IGF-1 may well increase the risk of cancer (R). Increases of this compound later in life are common among anabolic steroid use, which is also connected to increased risk of cancers. On the other hand, IGF-I supplementation has shown promise in helping address many of the symptoms associated with diabetes, such as neuropathy (R). Research suggests that IGF compounds are found in colostrum and mature breast milk in similar concentrations (R).
Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF)
Colostrum contains as much as 2000 times the amount of EGF as matured breast milk. This compound is vital to the development of the intestinal barrier which plays an essential role in nutrient absorption and pathogenic defense (R). It activates the transport activity of glutamine across the intestinal lining and may play a pivotal role in the development and treatment of intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome) (R).
Colostrum has a lot of beneficial compounds in it. Covering the benefits of all these compounds is beyond the scope of this article. There are many vitamins, minerals, and amino acids found in colostrum that our bodies use for a wide range of essential processes. Below you’ll find a chart describing the relative percentages of many other beneficial compounds found in colostrum.
|Pantothenic Acid (B5)||0.04|
Benefits of Colostrum
Health benefits for children and adults
All the bioactive compounds found in colostrum offer pretty specific benefits. When consumed as a collective, either through breastfeeding or colostrum supplements, these various compounds work together to modulate and support our immune system. We’ll get into recommended doses and side effects a little farther down. For now, we’ll provide a brief overview of some of the health benefits most-attributed to the activities of the compounds found in colostrum.
Boosts NK Cell Counts
Larger doses of colostrum have shown to inhibit NK activity while lower doses have shown to stimulate it. All the while, it’s adding and stimulating the production of Interleukin-2 (IL-2) which stimulates NK production (R). These cells are part of our innate immune system and vital to first-defense type immune responses. They hunt down and kill foreign cells with little prejudice.
Boosts T-Cell Counts
T-Cells are part of our adaptive immune system and respond in very specific ways. Colostrum has shown to increase the amount of T-cells characteristic to immune responses in a dose-dependent way (R). That means, more colostrum—more benefits! Colostrum has also demonstrated the ability to stimulate gut-specific T-cell activity in animal models (R). T-cells have a very dynamic lifecycle involving a process that “imprints” a certain type of response into their memory. This allows them to watch for specific types of bacteria. Colostrum helps stimulate T-cell production and activity but also contains such compounds that help transfer passive immunity from mother to child.
Compounds in colostrum, such as Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF) and Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-I), play a vital role in helping repair damaged tissue. Modern research suggests that colostrum should play an integral role in helping to heal deep and persistent wounds such as ulcers, pressure sores, and flesh-eating bacterial infections (R). Many other compounds might offer indirect support through reduction of oxidative stress but colostrum contains compounds that actually grow new tissue. That’s about as direct as one can get!
Our bodies produce compounds known as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) naturally during the course of breathing and everyday life. During times of added stress such as sickness or injury, the amount of these compounds can increase dramatically. Colostrum contains many powerful anti-oxidant compounds such as Catalase (CAT), Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), and Glutathione peroxidase. In addition, colostrum contains several non-enzyme compounds such as Vitamins E, A, and C that offer antioxidant support (R).
Antibacterial & Antifungal
Many compounds in colostrum demonstrate antibacterial activity. Among the most powerful is lactoferrin. Bacteria (most anyway) are dependant on iron to help sustain their lifecycles. Part of the reason we get tired during sickness is that our bodies lower the level of circulating iron to “starve” out invading bacteria. Lactoferrin has demonstrated powerful antibacterial properties in laboratory testing and continues to be regarded as one of the most powerful antibacterial compounds in colostrum (R).
It acts by robbing bacteria of the iron they need to survive and plays an essential role in immune responses. Other compounds such as IgA and IgG have both demonstrated deadly ability to intervene against infection such as Ecoli, Influenza, Pneumonia, and even Polio(R)!
The inner lining of our guts is considered to be part of our immune system’s first line of defense. It protects us from potentially harmful compounds by controlling what does and doesn’t make it through into our bloodstream. Compromised intestinal barrier integrity (leaky gut) has been implicated in many chronic health conditions such as allergies, autoimmune disorders, and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis (R).
One double-blind, placebo-controlled study found colostrum supplementation to significantly-improve biomarkers associated with leaky gut (R). Other animal studies have shown that Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF) can significantly lower the permeability of intestinal lining, as well as lower counts of harmful colonizing bacteria such as Ecoli (R). This action helps explain colostrum’s role in supporting healthy gut barrier function.
Other reasons to love colostrum
Colostrum’s many powerful bioactive compounds offer many benefits to our health. We’ve discussed what these compounds are and some of the specific ways by which they benefit health. There are also a lot of real-world applications in which colostrum plays a discussion-worthy role. Below you’ll find some fun facts about colostrum that don’t necessarily fit into any single category but we would feel remiss for not including.
Transfer of Immunity
We get our immune systems from our mothers when we are first born. Immunoglobulins and other compounds in colostrum contain a kind of genetic memory of all the infections and dangerous compounds our mothers have been exposed to. On an evolutionary scale, this helps species evolve such that they can survive in local environments. On an individual scale, it’s just downright fascinating. For example; researchers have demonstrated that vaccinating a mother against certain bacteria will empower her colostrum to eradicate that bacteria as well (R).
Colostrum’s all-around-immune-boosting nature makes it a strong candidate for the prevention and treatment of many health conditions. One study compared the power of colostrum to help prevent the flu compared to traditional vaccination. In this study, researchers investigated the incident rates of the flu among four treatment groups. These groups were organized as follows:
- Group 1: No vaccine or colostrum
- Group 2: Flu Vaccine Only
- Group 3: Flu Vaccine + Colostrum (400mg/day)
- Group 4: Colostrum Only (400mg/day)
At the end of a three-month observation period, researchers measured subjects from each group for flu-related episodes, days of disease, and total medical expenses during the period. Those receiving colostrum had significantly lower data for each measure (R). Group 3 and Group 4 had similarly low incidence rates while Groups 1 and 2 had significantly higher ones. Researchers concluded that “the incidence in events in vaccination subjects was 3.9 times higher than the incidence in the colostrum subjects.”
May Block Live-Virus Vaccines
In 2010, a CDC-sponsored study concluded that normal breastfeeding can impair the effectiveness of certain live-virus vaccines, such as the rotavirus vaccine. Researchers found that breast milk from women that had been exposed to higher levels of rotavirus rendered live-vaccines significantly less effective. In other words, the breast milk was killing the virus found in the vaccines (R).
This study is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it clearly demonstrates that the immunoglobulins found in colostrum and breast milk exert immunological action against viral pathogens. Secondly, it brings up a very dynamic conversation of how and when vaccines should be administered. For example; if a mother has adequate levels of measured disease-specific immunoglobulins should she consider the omission of a certain vaccine?
This research was sensationalized as the CDC recommending new mothers delay breastfeeding until after vaccines had been administered. This is not the case—at all. Researchers simply recommended evaluating the delay of breastfeeding, in certain countries, when administering a single vaccine. Nonetheless, this study highlighted the powerful immunological function of colostrum and breast milk in helping fight early childhood disease.
Colostrum is with little doubt one of the most effective immune modulators out there. Its role in early neonatal development is attributed to neural growth, passive immune transfers, digestive development, and growth of nearly every part of the body. It’s such a universally powerful compound that mammalian colostrums are, in many cases, able to be utilized on an inter-species level.
Bovine colostrum, for example, is nearly bio-identical to human colostrum. The use of colostrum in adulthood have proved to be an effective immunomodulation approach capable of fighting many known diseases and warding off foreign pathogens. Collagen supplements should be purchased with extra precaution to ensure maximum bioavailability. Whether you’ve got a cold or simply feel sick all the time; colostrum may well hold the immune-boosting edge you need to feel better.