Colostrum, the milk-like substance produced by mothers in the first few days after giving birth, provides antibodies, antimicrobial proteins and other important nutrients to newborns in the mammalian world.
For newborn babies, “it’s liquid gold,” says Jennifer Smilowitz, an assistant professor of lactation science at the University of California, Davis.
Several companies now sell colostrum as a human supplement, claiming it can help regulate the immune system, improve digestive health, support skin regeneration, speed recovery after exercise, and more.
Here’s what experts have to say about these claims.
Potential benefits of colostrum
To date, most of the research on bovine colostrum (which can be taken as a pill, powder, liquid or enema) has focused on how it affects gut health.
In a trial involving 160 children with recurrent diarrhea, those who took a bovine colostrum supplement had less diarrhea or vomiting two days later than those who took a placebo. Early results also suggest the supplement may be able to reduce abdominal pain in people with colitis and reduce diarrhea in adults with HIV/AIDS and children with autism.
Experts say it’s not entirely clear exactly how the supplement helps with intestinal problems. Some studies suggest it can help maintain the integrity of the gastrointestinal system and reduce intestinal permeability, which may reduce digestive problems in some people. In newborn mammals, high levels of antibodies in colostrum help fight infection and reduce intestinal inflammation, and it contains growth factors that are critical for sealing and strengthening the developing gut, Dr. Smilowitz said. . But there is currently no evidence that bovine colostrum supplements have the same effect in adults.
In a separate paper, researchers reviewed results from seven trials involving 445 participants and found that bovine colostrum supplementation may also reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections. The review’s authors suggest that colostrum may support the regeneration of upper respiratory tract mucosa, or it may provide antibodies that help certain immune cells kill other virus-infected cells.
This article and several other studies on the benefits of colostrum, including studies on children with autism and colitis, were funded or conducted in part by supplement manufacturers or by researchers affiliated with colostrum supplement companies.
Dr. Per Sangild, a professor of comparative paediatrics and nutrition at the University of Copenhagen who has studied colostrum, said he would like to see more data on how colostrum affects the immune system. (Dr. Sangilder holds a patent on the use of bovine colostrum to treat premature infants but refuses to make any profits from it.) While human colostrum provides an additional immune defense for newborns, he says, it may not be needed for healthy adults. of. . It could pose risks, he said, especially if it suppresses a certain immune response and inhibits the body’s fight against bacteria.
In studies also backed by the supplement’s manufacturer, cyclists who took bovine colostrum showed improved performance and soccer players recovered faster from exercise compared with their peers who took a placebo.
There is currently no rigorous, published data to support claims that this supplement can support skin regeneration, weight loss, or reverse age-related changes. Experts say even the studies that have been done provide only limited evidence: While some studies report positive findings, others fail to replicate the observations or find no benefit. Larger, longer trials are needed to demonstrate real benefits and rule out any adverse effects from long-term use.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in three weeks, four weeks, half a year,” Dr. Sangilder said.
safety and oversight issues
To make the supplement, colostrum is harvested from cows within three days of giving birth, then frozen, pasteurized, and powdered.
But Dr. Sangilder said the heat used in the sterilization process “may destroy some of the beneficial ingredients in the product,” meaning that even if bovine colostrum contains beneficial elements, they may not end up in the supplement. There is also no standard manufacturing process for these products. A study of 20 bovine colostrum supplements for human use found large differences in the effects of the supplements on cells.
As a supplement, colostrum products do not require FDA approval and quality control is the responsibility of the manufacturer.
“Laws regulating supplements are ill-equipped to meet the challenge of regulating complex chemical mixtures such as bovine colostrum,” said Dr. Peter Cohen, a physician at Cambridge Health Alliance who studies supplements.
“It’s an interesting compound to explore,” he said, “but right now, it’s not ready for prime time.”
Dr. Smilowitz said she hopes colostrum can help some patients with immune or intestinal problems. But without more data or oversight, people interested should be “cautious” and talk to their doctors first, she said.