Shaun Ward MSc ANutr
Colostrum is a pre-milk fluid produced in the mammary glands of mothers who have recently given birth. This liquid is only excreted for a few days after giving birth before regular milk appears.
The biological reason for colostrum production is because it contains very high amounts of specific antibodies and growth factors that protect a newborn child from disease and accelerate their growth during a time when their immune systems are most vulnerable.
Colostrum is now used as a popular nutritional supplement (in powdered form) for adults who want to continue trying to implement these immune and growth properties that are not as easily found in standard dairy products.
These supplements are usually derived from cows but are sometimes sourced from goats.
Colostrum Nutrient Breakdown
The exact composition of colostrum varies quite considerably depending on the period of lactation, as well as the diet and environment of the female mammal producing the colostrum.
However, for reference, colostrum typically contains the following:
- Protein: ~25% of the energy in colostrum is from protein, with the majority of this being made up of antibodies called immunoglobulins. Not considering the antibodies, other types of protein are ~10% of the product - compared to 4.5% in standard cow milk. Colostrum protein is made up of 75% whey protein and 25% casein protein.
- Carbohydrates: ~25% of the energy in colostrum is from carbohydrates (lactose). This is on the higher end when compared to standard milk products.
- Fat: ~50% of the energy in colostrum is from fat, with ~65% coming from saturated fat.
- Antibodies: Antibodies are a key part of the protein content in colostrum, which is thought to be the primary bioactive component, found at between 20 to 150 grams per litre of colostrum. This is far higher than the 0.5 to 1 grams per litre found in regular cow milk.
- IGF-1: IGF-1 is a primary mediator of the effects of growth hormone and stimulates growth-promoting effects in almost every cell in the body. It is found in concentrations of 8.5µg per 125ml of colostrum. This is ~10 times higher than the concentration in regular cow milk.
Other substances that are found in colostrum in small amounts are IGF-1 binding proteins, transforming growth factors, antimicrobial peptides, and α-lactalbumin.
The Potential Benefits of Colostrum Powder
Below we've listed every potential benefit we've found with credible scientific backing:
It May Increase Immunity
Immunity is the ability to resist a particular infection or toxin by the action of specific antibodies or sensitized white blood cells.
It is therefore not surprising that the great amount of antibodies found in colostrum are associated with increased immunity, as antibodies have a key role within an immune response to specifically recognize, bind, and destroy potentially dangerous bacteria or viruses.
However, although newborn mammals can absorb dietary antibodies due to their underdeveloped and permeable gut, it is not known whether adults are able to have this same absorption. Current scientific evidence has simply not concluded whether the ingestion of antibodies has a direct effect on circulating antibody levels.
Limited evidence has demonstrated that colostrum may amplify the production of specific antibodies against certain antigens . Specifically, 20 grams of colostrum (providing ~4.5 grams of antibodies) has shown to increase antibody levels by over 30% in just 2 weeks. Importantly, this has a time-dependent effect, only showing an increase in antibody production after 10 days . This reported effect is suggested to be superior in comparison to regular skimmed cow milk by ~10% .
Currently all the science shows is that there are at least “some amount” of antibodies that partially resist digestion in the intestines and can be successfully absorbed. This is confirmed by the fact that antibodies isolated from the milk of hyperimmunized cows have been noted to protect against E coli bacteria in the gut, suggesting that are antibodies that must be able to survive the digestive process. The question is just how many, and is this amount enough to provide health benefits.
Clearly more data is needed to highlight whether antibody consumption from colostrum can actually significantly increase antibody levels in the human immune system.
It May Provide An Athletic Benefit
Colostrum intake has been mentioned to be advantageous for athletes as it contains a considerable amount of IGF-1 – a primary mediator of the effects of growth hormone – which may be able to improve performance and lean body mass.
In fact, 20 grams of colostrum supplementation for 8 weeks has even shown a superior increase in lean body mass when compared to the same amount of whey protein .
This finding is interesting as whey protein is often referred to as the “gold standard” of protein sources due to its amazing amino acid profile.
Higher doses, such as of 60 grams of colostrum supplementation in elite hockey players, have also shown to increase lean body mass to comparable levels to whey protein .
It is not yet known whether the beneficial effects of colostrum stem from the proteins ability to increase muscle protein synthesis, or whether it is due to the hormonal effects of IGF-1.
Some evidence suggests that 20 grams of colostrum can increase IGF-1 concentrations in the blood by ~20% when supplemented for 2 weeks , however other studies have failed to find differences in IGF-1 levels after 8 weeks with doses as high as 60 grams per day .
This result is not surprising as the absorption of IGF-1 through oral sources has never shown to be very efficient, with labeling experiments indicating that colostrum-derived IGF-1 is largely degraded in the intestines and is not bioavailable .
Despite this, more research is needed to reach a more definitive conclusion.
The Problems with Colostrum
As always, we have some criticisms:
As briefly mentioned, researchers generally find that adult humans will break down the beneficial compounds of colostrum in the intestines before they can be absorbed into the blood stream.
This is very different to newborns who have an undeveloped intestinal tract and allow for the growth factors present in colostrum to pass freely through the intestinal wall for absorption.
This represents a problem for adults using colostrum to ideally provide a bioavailable source of IGF-1 and antibodies in muscle tissue and the gut to health, performance, and body composition.
Very Costly Supplement
Another key thing to note for those looking to supplement with colostrum is that it is an extremely costly endeavor, especially when it is compared to its closest counterparts in whey protein and casein protein supplements.
Depending on the brand, colostrum is around $10 to $30 per 100 grams. Considering the majority of scientific research has given daily doses of 20-60 grams, its clear to see this product is going to take up a big chunk of someone’s monthly income if taken every day in these recommended dosages.
Quite simply, this supplement is not going to be affordable for the vast majority of people. To put that in perspective, consistently taking a typical 10g serving of colostrum every day would end up costing $1000 to $2000 per year.
Quite expensive for a supplement with a lack of supporting research.
How Much Should You Consume?
There is no exact colostrum dose that has shown to produce good results. Although based on the scientific research and user reports, consuming 10-60 grams of colostrum per day may achieve the intended outcomes.
Those looking to take colostrum for immunity should look towards the lower end of this range, whereas those seeking athletic benefits should aim towards the top of this range.
Safety Information and Side Effects Information
Colostrum is a safe substance to be consumed by humans, and no data indicates any type of safety concern.
The only real potential issue is for dairy-intolerant individuals, who will obviously need to avoid consuming colostrum as it contains a significant amount of lactose and will cause gastrointestinal issues.
Side effects from colostrum are extremely rare, but nausea, vomiting, abnormal liver function tests, and decreased red blood cells, have been noted.
Colostrum is a pre-milk fluid produced in the mammary glands of mothers who have recently given birth.
This substance contains a high amount of antibodies and IGF-1 that are speculated to help with immunity and growth.
However, in adult populations it is not known whether enough colostrum is able to survive the digestive process and enable any type of positive health effect.
As the benefits are not conclusive, at this point the potential benefits do not outweigh the very high cost of colostrum products.