What Is Colostrum? Nutrition, Benefits, and Downsides
Colostrum is a breast fluid produced by humans, cows, and other mammals before breast milk is released.
It’s very nutritious and contains high levels of antibodies, which are proteins that fight infections and bacteria.
Colostrum promotes growth and health in infants and newborn animals, but research shows that taking bovine colostrum supplements may promote immunity, help fight infections, and improve gut health throughout life.
This article reviews the nutrition, benefits, and possible downsides of bovine colostrum supplements.
What Is Colostrum?
Colostrum is a milky fluid that’s released by mammals that have recently given birth before breast milk production begins.
It’s an important source of nutrients that promotes growth and fights disease in infants, but it can also be consumed during other phases of life — typically in supplement form.
Even though all mammals produce colostrum, supplements are usually made from the colostrum of cows. This supplement is known as bovine colostrum.
Bovine colostrum is similar to human colostrum — rich in vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates, disease-fighting proteins, growth hormones, and digestive enzymes (1).
Bovine colostrum supplements have become popular in recent years, as they may promote immunity, fight infection, and improve gut health (2, 3).
For these supplements colostrum from cows is pasteurized and dried into pills or into powders that can be mixed with liquids. Bovine colostrum typically has a light yellow color and a subtle taste and smell that resembles buttermilk.
Bovine colostrum is extremely nutritious and contains more nutrients than regular milk.
In particular, it’s higher in protein, fat, carbs, magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamins A, C, and E than cow’s milk (1).
While colostrum is rich in macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, its claimed health benefits are mostly linked to specific protein compounds, which include:
Lactoferrin. Lactoferrin is a protein involved in your body’s immune response to infections, including those caused by bacteria and viruses (
4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).
- Growth factors. Growth factors are hormones that stimulate growth. Bovine colostrum is especially high in two protein-based hormones, insulin-like growth factors 1 and 2, or IGF-1 and IGF-2 (1).
- Antibodies. Antibodies are proteins, also known as immunoglobulins, used by your immune system to fight bacteria and viruses. Bovine colostrum is rich in the antibodies IgA, IgG, and IgM (1, 2).
Since bovine colostrum is loaded with nutrients that fight disease and promote growth, it may be able to boost immunity, treat infections, and offer more related benefits in humans throughout life.
Research suggests that bovine colostrum may strengthen your immune system, fight infections that cause diarrhea, and promote gut health (2, 3).
May Boost Immunity
Bovine colostrum may strengthen your immune system and help your body fight disease-causing agents.
The immune-boosting effects of colostrum are mostly due to its high concentration of the antibodies IgA and IgG. Antibodies are proteins that fight viruses and bacteria (1,
Research shows that colostrum supplements may be particularly effective in boosting immunity in elite athletes.
One 12-week study in 35 adult distance runners found that taking a daily bovine colostrum supplement increased the amount of saliva IgA antibodies by 79%, compared to baseline levels (
The researchers suggested that higher saliva levels of IgA may strengthen immunity and enhance the body’s ability to fight upper respiratory tract infections (
Another study in 29 male cyclists observed that taking 10 grams of bovine colostrum a day for 5 weeks prevented a postexercise decrease in immune cells and reduced the risk of upper respiratory infection symptoms compared to a placebo (
Other studies have similarly linked bovine colostrum supplements with enhanced immune response, but more extensive research is needed (
May Prevent and Treat Diarrhea
The compounds in bovine colostrum — especially the variety of antibodies and the protein lactoferrin — may help prevent diarrhea associated with bacterial and viral infections (
A study in 87 adults experiencing diarrhea associated with HIV found that taking 100 grams of bovine colostrum a day along with traditional anti-diarrheal medications significantly decreased stool frequency by 21% more than traditional medications alone (
What’s more, cows can be given immunizations against specific strains of bacteria to produce colostrum high in antibodies that can fight specific infections (
These types of bovine colostrum are considered hyperimmune and could be an effective way to treat certain infections in humans, such as those caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Shigella dysenteriae bacteria (
For example, studies show that hyperimmune colostrum may prevent a type of diarrhea known as traveler’s diarrhea, which is typically caused by E. coli bacteria.
One study in 30 healthy adults found that those who took a daily dose of 1,200 mg of hyperimmune bovine colostrum containing antibodies that fight E. coli bacteria were 90% less likely to develop traveler’s diarrhea than those taking a placebo (
May Benefit Gut Health
Bovine colostrum may strengthen your gut and fight infections in the digestive tract.
Both animal and human studies show that bovine colostrum may stimulate the growth of intestinal cells, strengthen the gut wall, and prevent intestinal permeability, a condition that causes particles from your gut to leak to the rest of your body (
These beneficial effects are likely due to the lactoferrin and growth factors it contains (
One study in 12 athletes who were susceptible to intestinal permeability due to heavy exercise found that taking 20 grams of bovine colostrum a day prevented 80% of the increase in intestinal permeability experienced by those who took a placebo (
Another study observed that colostrum enemas may be helpful in treating colitis, a condition characterized by inflammation of the inner lining of the colon.
A study in 14 adults with colitis who were taking traditional medications found that taking bovine colostrum enemas in addition to regular medications reduced symptoms more than medication alone (
The potential for bovine colostrum to reduce symptoms of colitis is supported by animal studies. However, more extensive research in humans is needed (
Based on limited human research, bovine colostrum generally appears safe for most people — though it may have some downsides.
For one, bovine colostrum supplements and powders are expensive, ranging from $50 to $100 per 16 ounces (450 grams). A typical dosage is half a teaspoon (1.5 grams) per day.
People who are allergic to milk should not consume bovine colostrum. Products may also be made with additives that can include other common allergens like soy.
Depending on how the cows are raised, bovine colostrum may also contain antibiotics, pesticides, or synthetic hormones. However, you can purchase colostrum supplements that have been tested to ensure that the final product does not have these compounds.
Also, it's unknown whether these supplements are safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
In addition, some people may be concerned about the ethics of how bovine colostrum is sourced and whether it’s taken from calves that need it.
Finally, there may be food safety issues with bovine colostrum. In one study, 8 of 55 samples of bovine colostrum contained traces of Salmonella, a potentially harmful bacteria (
Still, if bovine colostrum is properly pasteurized, Salmonella and other harmful bacteria should not be a concern.
Always purchase colostrum supplements from a reputable source and contact the manufacturer for answers to specific questions related to sourcing and processing.