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Colostrum is the first milk that mammals, including humans, produce. Production begins late in pregnancy and continues for the first few days after birth. Manufacturers can also synthesize bovine (cow) colostrum as a supplement for adults and newborns.
One 2015 study suggests that some adults take colostrum supplements to support their immune system or attain other health benefits.
Although a limited body of emerging evidence suggests that these supplements may offer some benefits, few well-designed studies have fully tested the benefits of colostrum supplements.
According to a review in the journal Current Research in Nutrition and Food Science, colostrum is very rich in some nutrients, including antibodies that help support the baby’s immune system.
Furthermore, a 2017 study suggests that bovine colostrum supplements may improve a preterm baby’s health if they cannot breastfeed.
In this article, learn more about the potential health benefits of colostrum supplements.
Colostrum supplements contain many nutrients that could have added health benefits for adults and help support a baby in their first few days of life.
The following sections will look at these nutrients in more detail.
Lactoferrin is a protein that helps bind iron. It plays an important role in immune function and has antimicrobial and antiviral characteristics.
Colostrum contains a number of growth factors, with the two major ones being transforming growth factors alpha and beta. It also contains insulin-like growth factors 1 and 2, which play important roles in muscle and cartilage repair.
For this reason, an increasing number of athletes are taking colostrum supplements to reduce their recovery time. However, more research is necessary to determine the effectiveness of colostrum supplementation.
Colostrum contains a wide variety of antibodies, including those that help prevent bacterial infections of the digestive system. Much like human colostrum, bovine colostrum contains a lot of immunoglobulins that pass on passive immunity to the calf.
According to a 2019 review, research is still ongoing to determine whether or not scientists can fully harness the immunity benefits of bovine colostrum for humans.
Colostrum contains many hormones, but researchers do not fully understand the effect that each one has on the body. However, some may influence early maturation of the lining of the stomach.
Researchers have consistently documented the health benefits of newborns consuming colostrum.
These benefits include:
- Encouraging breastfeeding: Babies who consume colostrum shortly after birth are more likely to breastfeed, and their mothers are more likely to produce breast milk. A 2018 study also found that early skin-to-skin contact and colostrum exposure encouraged breastfeeding in very preterm babies.
- Preventing failure to thrive: In babies with a low birth weight, receiving colostrum either from the mother or as a bovine supplement from formula may support healthy weight gain and prevent failure to thrive.
- Achieving feeding goals: A 2020 review states that preterm babies who received an oropharyngeal administration of their mother’s colostrum were released from the hospital sooner and met their feeding goals quicker than babies who did not.
- Supporting early nutrition: Colostrum is a baby’s first food, providing hydration, protein, and important nutrients immediately after birth.
A 2018 study in infant macaques, which are a type of monkey, found that supplements of bovine colostrum helped improve bone mineral density.
Researchers have not yet tested this claim in humans. However, if humans experience similar benefits, bovine colostrum may help improve bone health in infants whose bones are not developing at a healthy rate.
In recent years, some adults have tried using colostrum as a supplement. For example, doctors may suggest colostrum to treat a number of gastrointestinal conditions, including:
- stomach injuries related to the overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- infections with Helicobacter pylori, which are bacteria linked to stomach ulcers
- infectious diarrhea
As with many other supplements, researchers have not thoroughly tested all the benefits that proponents of colostrum claim to exist.
So, although there could be other health benefits associated with colostrum, strong, placebo-controlled trials do not yet support taking these supplements for other conditions.
This may change with more studies.
According to one 2018 review, colostrum may have a beneficial effect on the skin. Some studies have even suggested that bovine colostrum may speed up the wound healing process.
However, most evidence is anecdotal, and more research is necessary to support these claims.
The body produces colostrum shortly after giving birth. Colostrum lasts for 2–4 days after the start of lactation.
It is a thick, highly concentrated milk that may be clear, yellow, or white. It can look or feel sticky. Rather than offering lots of calories or fat, colostrum helps enhance the development of a baby’s immune system in the earliest days of life.
Bovine colostrum is a substitute for human colostrum. Some supplement manufacturers add bovine colostrum to baby formula or synthesize it as capsules or powder.
Colostrum is not milk, and it does not contain lactose. Therefore, it is safe for people who are lactose intolerant. However, it is possible to have other allergies to colostrum.
Colostrum comes only from mammals. It is an animal product, but consuming it does not require the death of the animal. Nonetheless, this makes it unsuitable for vegans.
There is no synthetic form of colostrum, and no supplement has fully synthesized all of the nutrients it contains.
Researchers have not documented many side effects associated with colostrum supplements.
However, people who attempt to supplement with nonprescription supplements, such as by “borrowing” milk from a lactating friend, may expose themselves to conditions that are contagious through breast milk, such as HIV.
Healthcare professionals do not know if it is safe to use colostrum supplements on a long-term basis. They also do not know if it is safe during breastfeeding or pregnancy.
To date, healthcare professionals have not identified any interactions between colostrum supplements and other medications. However, this does not mean that interactions do not exist.
Colostrum is a relatively new supplement, and researchers have not yet been able to assess its safe use with every medication.
Anyone considering taking this supplement should tell their doctor about any drugs, including vitamins, that they take.
The role of colostrum in treating a range of conditions is not clear. Although it may help with certain kinds of diarrhea and gastrointestinal conditions, scientists must do more research to fully identify and test all of its potential benefits.
Colostrum generally improves the outlook for babies, whether they receive it as a supplement or from the breast.
Although colostrum plays an important role in early human development, healthcare professionals still do not understand all of its benefits.
With more studies, however, researchers may gain a deeper understanding of colostrum.
People who are considering colostrum supplements, whether for themselves or for a baby, should discuss the risks and benefits with their doctor before use.