Colostrum is the fluid that new mothers' breasts produce during the first day or two after birth. It gives newborn infants a rich mixture of antibodies and growth factors that help them get a good start.

Although colostrum has been available since the first mammals walked the earth, it is relatively new as a nutritional supplement. The resurgence of breastfeeding in the 1970s sparked a revival of interest in colostrum for both infants and adults.

However, most commercial colostrum preparations come from cows, not humans. The antibodies a mother cow gives to her calf are designed to fend off bacteria that are dangerous to cows; these may be very different from those that pose risks to humans. Nonetheless, colostrum also contains substances that might offer general benefits, such as growth factors (which stimulate the growth and development of cells in the digestive tract and perhaps elsewhere) and transfer factor (which may have general immune-activating properties). In addition, some researchers have used a special form of colostrum called hyperimmune colostrum, created by inoculating cows with bacteria and viruses that affect humans. The cow in turn makes antibodies to them and secretes those antibodies into its colostrum. Hyperimmune colostrum has shown considerable promise as an infection-fighting agent.

Hyperimmune colostrum, however, is not available over-the-counter as a dietary supplement. Non-hyperimmune colostrum might have some value too, but the evidence is much weaker.

Requirements/Sources

Breastfeeding is the healthiest way to nourish a newborn, and a mother's colostrum is undoubtedly good for a baby. However, do not believe claims (by at least one manufacturer) that most babies would die without colostrum. Colostrum is good for health, but it is not essential for life.

Colostrum is available in capsules that contain its immune proteins in dry form.

Therapeutic Dosages

The usual recommended dosage of colostrum is 10 g daily. In studies of colostrum as a sports supplement for athletes, the much higher dose of 60 g a day was used.

Therapeutic Uses

Many, but not all, studies have found that hyperimmune colostrum might be able to help prevent or treat various forms of infectious diarrhea.1-13,33

Colostrum has also shown some promise as a sports supplement, presumably because it contains growth factors, but study results are inconsistent.28,31,34-36

For years, people with ulcers were advised to eat a bland diet and drink lots of milk. Although this treatment was eventually found to be ineffective, according to one study in rats and a small human trial,14,15 ordinary colostrum (although not milk) might help protect the stomach from damage caused by anti-inflammatory drugs. It has been hypothesized that colostrum's growth factors help stimulate the stomach to regenerate.

Weak evidence suggests that oral hygiene products containing ordinary colostrum might have beneficial effects in a disease of the mouth called lichen planus, as well as in the condition known as Sjogren’s syndrome (which also affects the mouth by reducing salivary flow).29 One study found that colostrinin, a substance extracted from colostrum, might be helpful for Alzheimer's disease.37

Ordinary colostrum has been suggested as a treatment for short bowel syndrome (a condition following digestive tract surgery), chemotherapy-induced mouth ulcers, and inflammatory bowel disease ( Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis),32 but as yet there is no real evidence that it is effective.16

A study cited by some colostrum manufacturers as showing that colostrum can prevent or treat upper respiratory infections (such as colds) was actually far too preliminary to do more than hint at benefits.38 A proper double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 148 adults failed to find colostrum helpful for shortening the duration of sore throat.39

What Is the Scientific Evidence for Colostrum?

Infectious Diarrhea

Preliminary evidence suggests that hyperimmune colostrum might help prevent or possibly treat infectious diarrhea.

For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 80 children with rotavirus diarrhea found that hyperimmune colostrum (prepared by immunizing cows with rotavirus) reduced symptoms and shortened recovery time.17 Similar results were seen in another double-blind trial of about the same size.18 However, colostrum prepared by immunizing cows with a monkey form of rotavirus was not found effective for treating rotavirus in a double-blind trial of 135 children.19 The difference between these results may lie in the level and type of antibodies found in the particular colostrums used.

Both hyperimmune and normal colostrum have been tried for prevention or treatment of Cryptosporidium infection in people with AIDS, but the evidence that it works is weak at best.20,21,22

Other studies suggest that hyperimmune colostrum might help prevent infection with shigella,23 as well as E. coli (a common cause of traveler's diarrhea).24,25 However, studies have not found it effective for treating the diarrhea resulting from shigella or E. coli infection once it takes hold.27,30

A study of Bangladeshi children infected with Helicobacter pylori (the organism that causes digestive ulcers) found no benefits with hyperimmune colostrum.26

Sports Performance

Colostrum contains the growth factor IGF-1, which may help build muscle, and on this basis colostrum has been proposed as a sports supplement. However, results are conflicting on whether it really works.

In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, use of colostrum over an 8-week training period did not improve performance on an exercise-to-exhaustion test; however, it did improve performance on a repeat bout 20 minutes later.31 This suggests potential benefits for enhancing recovery of energy following heavy exercise.

Another 8-week, double-blind study found that use of colostrum enhanced sprinting performance, but not endurance exercise in elite hockey players.40 Previous double-blind studies found improvements in rowing performance and vertical jump.41

A small double-blind study found that colostrum, as compared to whey protein, increased lean mass in healthy men and women undergoing aerobic and resistance training.28 However, no improvements in performance were seen in this trial.

Interestingly, it appears that the IGF-1 in colostrum is not directly absorbed into the body.42 Nonetheless, consumption of colostrum does appear to increase IGF-1 levels in the blood.43,44 The explanation for this is unclear.

Safety Issues

Colostrum does not seem to cause any significant side effects. However, comprehensive safety studies have not been performed. Safety in young children or women who are pregnant or nursing has not been established.