Colostrum or the “first milk” is full of immune-boosting components. As a supplement, it may help with diarrhea, infections, leaky gut, diabetes, and more. Still, solid clinical evidence is lacking, and there are important limitations to consider. Read on to learn more about the potential benefits of colostrum.
What is Colostrum?
Colostrum is a type of milk breastfeeding women produce just after giving birth. Aside from humans, as all breastfeeding mammals also produce this nourishing fluid. It is a diverse mix of nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and more .
Newborns are vulnerable to diseases as their immune system is still forming. They especially benefit from the antibodies in colostrum, which boosts their immunity, aids immune development, and protects them against infection. Its composition is unique and loaded with growth factors that newborns require for muscle, bone, and cartilage growth and repair .
For more about what colostrum is, what it contains, and how it works, check out this post.
- May enhance immune defense
- May help with leaky gut
- May improve diarrhea in people with a weak immune system
- Potentially boosts exercise performance and reduces infections in athletes
- Mild side effects, if any
- Conflicting research on some benefits
- Most benefits are limited to newborns or children
- Not suitable for people allergic or intolerant to milk/dairy
- Low-quality colostrum supplements are likely ineffective
- Most supplements have poor bioavailability
Health Benefits of Colostrum
Please note: the health benefits below refer to bovine colostrum (from cows) if not stated otherwise.
Colostrum supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Supplements generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
The antibacterial and antiviral properties of colostrum help prevent diarrhea. In two studies with over 750 children, it significantly decreased the number of diarrhea episodes [3, 4].
In adults, only hyperimmune colostrum may help prevent diarrhea caused by specific bacteria and viruses:
In a clinical trial with 31 people, taking specific IgG antibodies (against E. coli) from hyperimmune colostrum protected against diarrhea. The antibodies were given in powdered form [5+].
In two clinical trials with 90 adults, taking hyperimmune colostrum helped prevent diarrhea from E. coli. In children with E. coli, it significantly decreased the frequency of diarrhea [6, 7].
People with HIV/AIDS are at high risk for severe and sometimes even life-threatening diarrhea and weight loss. Specific antibodies (Lactobin) from specialized forms of colostrum can help. In two studies with 54 HIV patients, 10 g/day of lactobin greatly reduced diarrhea frequency [8, 9].
Two studies with 117 HIV patients showed that ColoPlus (a food supplement made from cow colostrum), either alone or combined with regular diarrhea treatment, can reduce the frequency of bowel movements, increase T cell count (CD4+), support weight gain, and raise energy levels [10, 11].
Rotavirus most commonly affects children and newborns, causing diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Hyperimmune colostrum may help with this type of diarrhea.
In one study of 80 children with rotavirus-induced diarrhea, taking anti-rotavirus antibodies from colostrum for 4 days greatly reduced the frequency of bowel movements and overall diarrhea. Patients receiving colostrum also got rid of the virus faster than those taking placebo .
Hyperimmune colostrum eliminated this type of diarrhea within 2 days in a clinical trial with 75 children. This specialized form of colostrum was also effective in babies. In two studies with 33 newborns, it prevented diarrhea from rotavirus without any side effects [13, 14, 15].
Infection with the parasite Cryptosporidium can lead to intense diarrhea, especially in people who have low immunity like those with AIDS .
In one study of 5 AIDS patients infected with this parasite, hyperimmune colostrum (given through a nasal tube) for 10 days decreased diarrhea or reduced the parasite levels. Regular colostrum also helped with diarrhea .
In another study, 16 healthy people were given either hyperimmune colostrum (with specific anti-Cryptosporidium antibodies) or a placebo before being voluntarily infected with this parasite. Those given colostrum had less diarrhea than those given the placebo .
2) Immune Function
Although colostrum is best known for its immune-enhancing properties, only a handful of clinical studies have been carried out to investigate this potential benefit in adults. So far, the results are inconclusive.
In a clinical trial with 12 healthy people, colostrum increased white blood cell activity (such as monocytes) and T cell levels (CD3+) after 1 hour. It also briefly reduced blood levels of natural killer cells. After a couple of hours, new natural killer cells entered the blood, which restored their levels .
In another study of 18 healthy people, colostrum did not change total levels of different antibodies after a Salmonella vaccine but it did increase specific IgA antibodies. Because Salmonella is spread through contaminated food and water, IgA in the saliva and gut lining may help prevent infection .
It did not improve aspects of immunity (lymphocyte growth, oxidative burst, phagocytosis, and more) in 198 healthy adults .
In mice, colostrum boosted the killing ability of natural killer white blood cells. In pigs, it increased total IgA levels and activated cells that monitor and block the growth of harmful bacteria (Peyer’s patches, which form the gut’s immune system) [21, 22].
Newborns require the dense, immune-stimulating “first milk” as they just start to adapt to the outside environment. Babies born preterm and those with low birth need to be carefully monitored. They are especially at danger of critical diseases and have a weak, underdeveloped immune system .
Colostrum might boost their immunity by raising antibodies and signaling other immune cells to develop. In one clinical trial with 30 low birth weight infants, it raised antibody levels (IgA in the saliva) 1 week after birth. However, there was no difference in antibody levels compared to placebo after two weeks .
In another clinical trial with 64 low birth weight infants, colostrum increased lactoferrin levels (in saliva) 1-3 weeks after birth, which may support their immune system .
In a clinical trial with 48 premature newborns, colostrum increased both lactoferrin and IgA and decreased levels of inflammatory molecules (IL-1b and IL-8). It also lowered bacteria that can cause strep throat (Streptococci ) and reduced the length of hospital stay in another trial of 99 preterm newborns [25, 26].
3) Respiratory Infections
Several studies revealed that colostrum may be beneficial for people with respiratory illnesses and infections. In one clinical trial of 174 people, fewer people reported upper respiratory tract infection symptoms when taking 60 g/day of colostrum protein for 8 weeks compared to whey protein .
As expected, this benefit might be even more important in children. In one study with 605 children with either respiratory illness or diarrhea, colostrum decreased the number of respiratory episodes by over 90% after 12 weeks. In another similar study, colostrum achieved similar benefits in just 4 weeks (160 children) [4, 3].
In a clinical trial with 31 children deficient in IgA, taking colostrum 3X/day for 1 week decreased the severity of respiratory symptoms. IgA levels, however, didn’t change .
Post-Exercise Immune Suppression
Colostrum may be helpful for preventing infections in athletes and people who frequently exercise and thus experience a suppression of the immune system.
One study examined 20 healthy men who took colostrum or a placebo for 4 weeks and then completed a 2-hour cycling session. Taking colostrum blocked the decrease of an important immune enzyme (lysozyme) and increased the recovery speed of white blood cells (neutrophils) following the training .
In a study with 29 elite cyclists, colostrum protein supplements for 5 weeks improved symptoms of upper respiratory illness. These supplements supported the immune system by preventing a drop in T cells and IgG antibodies after exercise .
IgA antibodies are important for protecting against respiratory infections. In long-distance runners, taking colostrum for 12 weeks significantly boosted levels of IgA in the mouth .
In two studies with physically active men and highly-trained swimmers, taking colostrum relieved upper respiratory illness [32, 33].
However, in a study with 9 male athletes, taking colostrum for 10 days did not prevent post-exercise immune suppression .
4) Flu Prevention
Colostrum has been called the “baby’s first vaccination”.
Interestingly enough, two studies with 285 people suggest that colostrum, either on its own or in combination with other drugs, may be a superior means of prevention compared to a vaccine. People who took colostrum had the flu for fewer days than people who received the vaccine [35, 36].
That said, the trials included younger healthy adults. This effect is yet to be investigated in the elderly and people with compromised immunity.
In mice, taking purified antibodies from hyperimmune colostrum (either IgG or F(ab’)2) prevented infection after subjected to the flu virus. Mice who took these antibodies and got an otherwise lethal dose of the flu virus survived .
In another mouse study, colostrum reduced flu infection severity, prevented excessive weight loss, lowered the viral load in the lungs, and increased white blood cell (NK cell) activity .
Taking antibodies (including IgA) from human colostrum after a flu outbreak prevented infection from the influenza A virus in rodents .
5) Muscle Gain
Lean body mass is your total body weight minus body fat. It can be a good way to keep track of your health and muscle gains.
One study looked at the effects of supplementing workouts with whey protein vs colostrum during an 8 week training period. Unlike whey protein, which increased total body weight, taking colostrum significantly increased lean body mass .
In another study with 19 people, participants either took colostrum or protein supplements for resistance training. Both colostrum and regular protein supplements increased lean body mass, total body mass, and strength. Based on this study, colostrum may not be superior to whey protein or casein .
In a study with 40 middle-aged adults (~ 60 years of age) colostrum increased lean body mass and upper body strength during resistance training. The benefits were similar to those of whey protein .
On the other hand, in a study with field hockey players, colostrum improved athletic performance more than whey protein, but there was no difference in their lean body mass .
6) Exercise Performance
Colostrum may enhance athletic performance in both highly-trained athletes and less fit older adults. Still, its benefits were not superior to whey protein in most studies.
In two studies with 71 elite cyclists, taking colostrum supplements led to a faster performance in cycling races. At the end of the training period, the effects of colostrum were similar to those of whey protein [43, 44].
In another study of 51 men who underwent resistance and plyometric training, those who took colostrum supplements had a significantly higher vertical jump, could use more force while cycling and had strength increases after 8 weeks .
One clinical trial studied 35 elite field hockey players. They either received colostrum or whey protein for 8 weeks. In this study, colostrum improved sprint speed and vertical jumps better than whey protein .
In a study with 40 older adults (average age 59), taking 60 grams of colostrum per day for 8 weeks while working out increased upper body strength, lean body mass, and cognitive function .
One study examined people who weight trained recreationally. Participants taking colostrum with other supplements increased their lean body mass, total body mass, and strength while resistance training for 12 weeks. These effects were similar compared to taking casein and whey protein .
Colostrum may also aid in recovery after exercise. In one study, taking colostrum for 6 weeks lowered muscle damage from exercise and improved performance in the long run in a group of 18 high-level soccer players .
In a study of 13 world-class female rowers, it did not improve performance .
7) Alzheimer’s Disease
Colostrinin is a mixture found naturally in colostrum and may be helpful in Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory loss.
In a clinical trial with 46 mild Alzheimer’s patients, those who were given colostrinin either improved or didn’t worsen. None of the patients given placebo or selenium showed improvements .
In two studies of 138 Alzheimer’s patients, long-term colostrinin use (4-28 months) slowed down the decline in memory, cognitive function, and daily activity [50, 51].
In aged rats, colostrinin delayed spatial memory loss or improved learning [52, 53].
That said, regular colostrum supplements on the market may only contain colostrinin in negligible amounts. Some manufacturers do list it specifically as an ingredient, but its therapeutic dosage for cognitive dysfunction based on the published studies is unclear .
No valid clinical evidence supports the use of colostrum for any of the conditions in this section. Below is a summary of up-to-date animal studies, cell-based research, or low-quality clinical trials which should spark further investigation. However, you shouldn’t interpret them as supportive of any health benefit.
8) “Leaky Gut”
In people with “leaky gut”, a weak gut barrier lets harmful components like bacteria and toxins sneak into the bloodstream. Two less-known causes are intense exercise and excess NSAIDs use over long periods of time [54, 55].
One study provided 16 athletes with colostrum or placebo for 20 days. 75% of the athletes in the colostrum group initially had leaky gut, but the condition significantly improved after supplementing .
Another study examined 12 volunteers who underwent intense exercise. Those who did not take colostrum had a dramatic increase in leaky gut after exercise (about 2.5X compared to before exercise), while the increase was much milder in those given colostrum (1.2X) .
A combination of zinc carnosine with colostrum may provide additional support for healing leaky gut after exercise. Taking either zinc carnosine or colostrum alone for 2 weeks prevented an increase in leaky gut by about 70%, while taking both blocked it by 85% in a study with 8 people .
Other studies cast doubt on the benefits of colostrum in leaky gut from exercise. In one study with 30 healthy men, taking colostrum every day for 8 weeks actually increased leaky gut caused by exercise. A study with both athletes and non-athletes showed that it did not improve athletic performance or reduce leaky gut caused by exercise [58, 59].
In a clinical trial with 7 men, colostrum prevented leaky gut from the NSAID indomethacin. Those who took this drug without colostrum had a 3-fold increase in leaky gut, while those taking both the drug and colostrum didn’t worsen .
In a rat study, administering an NSAID (diclofenac) led to leaky gut. Giving colostrum before the NSAID helped prevent leaky gut .
Aside from leaky gut, colostrum may prevent other gut problems that NSAIDs may trigger. In rats, colostrum lowered small intestine damage, protein loss, gut bacteria (E. coli), and leaky gut caused by an NSAID [60, 61, 62].
9) Surgery Complications
Colostrum may help prevent bacterial infections after surgery. In one study with 40 patients, a specialized colostrum preparation (lactobin) for 3 days prior to abdominal surgery led to significantly lower levels of bacterial toxins .
In another study with 60 patients undergoing heart surgery, taking 42 grams of colostrum per day for 2 days before surgery lowered inflammation levels (IL-6, CRP). However, it did not lower bacterial toxin levels. Further research is warranted .
In one study with 16 diabetes patients, taking 5 grams of colostrum (twice a day for 4 weeks) lowered blood sugar, cholesterol, ketones, and fat (triglyceride) levels .
Another study used tablets made from goat colostrum. In 27 diabetes patients, they reduced blood sugar levels and the required insulin dose (likely by raising IGF-1 levels) .
In diabetic mice, a fraction of colostrum (IGF-I fraction) significantly lowered blood sugar levels .
11) Stunted Growth
Nonorganic failure to thrive is a condition where young children do not grow properly due to unknown medical reasons. In a clinical trial with 120 children with this condition, colostrum significantly promoted weight gain and improved health after 3 months .
12) Gut Inflammation
In a study with 14 patients with colon inflammation, colostrum enemas along with standard treatment (mesalazine) relieved inflammation symptoms better than the drug alone .
In mice with colon inflammation, colostrum lowered many inflammatory markers (TLR4, IL-1b, IL-8). However, it also lowered IL-10, an anti-inflammatory cytokine .
In guinea pigs, it reduced the symptoms of ulcerative colitis .
Limitations and Caveats
The benefits are most obvious in newborns, who naturally require it as nutrient-dense milk to properly develop their immune systems. The immune system of adults greatly differs from that in newborns; although clinical research has been carried out in adults, the results are less convincing.
Additionally, some studies only examined the effects of hyperimmune colostrum, a specialized formulation that’s not commercially available. These benefits cannot be extended to regular colostrum supplements.
Colostrum is extremely important for healthy immune development in newborns. Bovine colostrum supplements, on the other hand, are widely used by adults to increase immune defense, relieve diarrhea, boost athletic performance, and more.
Colostrum may also improve gut inflammation and help with diabetes and Alzheimer’s, but the evidence is weak. Supplements need to be properly processed to maintain their beneficial compounds. If you plan to supplement, select a high-quality product from a trusted manufacturer.