This post was originally published on November 28, 2017 and updated on December 8, 2020.
Have you ever heard the saying “good health starts in your gut?”
Well, it's absolutely true. When your gut health is compromised, a whole host of issues can manifest that are not so great: Your ability to absorb nutrients from food is impaired, you get uncomfortable digestive issues (gas, diarrhea, bloating, etc.), your physical performance suffers, your cognition begins to resemble the feeling of being slightly “drunk”, and—relevant to the times we are currently in—your immune system takes a huge hit because the majority of your immune system resides within your gut. Heck, there's a reason nearly every aspect of the emerging and highly effective practice of functional medicine begins by addressing the body holistically with treating the gut.
I am all too familiar with the systemic issues of a compromised gut, especially as I think back to my days racing Ironman triathlons, Spartans, and marathons and recall how my gut would get absolutely demolished, particularly when exercising in the heat.
It was back then that I also discovered colostrum, which I first began to look into when I discovered research showing an impressive improvement in gut stability and decrease in notoriously problematic and performance-hampering gut permeability in – you guessed it – athletes who exercise in a hot environment. Still kind of “woo-woo” for me at the time, all I really knew about colostrum (thanks to being married to a woman who grew up on a sheep and goat farm) was that it had something to do with sheep's milk, but I wasn't really sure what colostrum really, truly was.
But after digging into the research on colostrum, I started using it right away, and those pesky gut woes vanished almost immediately. (Oh, and I also learned that colostrum isn't something only sheep produce; all mammals, including humans, produce colostrum for their newborns.) It was somewhat crazy: overnight, not only my gut health but also my overall immunity (especially sniffles after airplane travel and racing) dramatically improved. I immediately knew that this tiny little “multivitamin” from nature could be a potent staple in my arsenal of natural performance- and health-enhancing compounds.
Ten years later, I'm still taking colostrum nearly every day, and in today's article, I'm going to share with you what some of the more recent research on colostrum has to say—including how it benefits your immune system, athletic performance and recovery, gut health, and beyond.
What Is Colostrum?
Colostrum, also known as “first milk,” is produced in the mammary glands of females just prior to giving birth (and for the first few days after giving birth) and serves as a concentrated source of proteins, growth factors, and antibodies that are essential for the early development of newborns.
So you can literally think of colostrum as a powerhouse of nutritional ammunition designed to get a newborn through the critical first few days of life.
Now, let's move on to a slightly more scientific definition of colostrum for you nerds out there, straight from the underbellies of the Wiki definition of colostrum:
“Newborns have very immature digestive systems, and colostrum delivers its nutrients in a very concentrated low-volume form. It has a mild laxative effect, encouraging the passing of the baby's first stool, which is called meconium. This clears excess bilirubin, a waste-product of dead red blood cells, which is produced in large quantities at birth due to blood volume reduction, from the infant's body and helps prevent jaundice. Colostrum is known to contain immune cells (as lymphocytes) and many antibodies such as IgA, IgG, and IgM. These are the major components of the adaptive immune system. Inter alia IgA is absorbed through the intestinal epithelium, travels through the blood, and is secreted onto other Type 1 mucosal surfaces. Other immune components of colostrum include the major components of the innate immune system, such as lactoferrin, lysozyme, lactoperoxidase, complement, and proline-rich polypeptides (PRP). A number of cytokines (small messenger peptides that control the functioning of the immune system) are found in colostrum as well, including interleukins, tumor necrosis factor, chemokines, and others. Colostrum also contains a number of growth factors, such as insulin-like growth factors I (IGF-1), and II, transforming growth factors alpha, beta 1 and beta 2, fibroblast growth factors, epidermal growth factor, granulocyte-macrophage-stimulating growth factor, platelet-derived growth factor, vascular endothelial growth factor, and colony-stimulating factor-1. Colostrum is very rich in proteins, vitamin A, and sodium chloride, but contains lower amounts of carbohydrates, lipids, and potassium than mature milk. The most pertinent bioactive components in colostrum are growth factors and antimicrobial factors. The antibodies in colostrum provide passive immunity, while growth factors stimulate the development of the gut. They are passed to the neonate and provide the first protection against pathogens.”
Whew, I know that was a propeller-hat friendly mouthful, so here's a brief description of the important components of colostrum mentioned that are worth paying closer attention to – a veritable host of super-nutrients you'd be hard-pressed to find in any other compound found in nature (I've found nothing besides colostrum that contains all of the below):
- Cytokines: Part of your systemic immune system. These hormones keep communication between immune cells active. (No communication means low immunity, frequent sickness, and susceptibility to illness!)
- Growth Factors: (IGF-I, IGF-II, EGF) As the name implies, growth factors assist with the maintenance and growth of certain body tissues, including muscle and the gastrointestinal lining.
- Lactoferrin: Lactoferrin assists with iron absorption and is a crucial part of your immune defense system.
- Growth Hormone: Growth Hormone (GH) works individually as well as together with the other growth factors in colostrum to aid in the growth and function of gastrointestinal tissues, muscle, and more.
- Immunoglobulins: (IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG, IgM) Immunoglobulins are small proteins that are used by your immune system to seek out and destroy foreign antigens (invaders).
- Proline-Rich Polypeptides (PRPs): Important immune system regulators, PRPs encourage the growth of white blood cells, may restore the balance in cellular immune functions and defend against oxidative stress, and support brain health.
As you can see, colostrum is teeming with benefits for everything from your immune system to your muscles. This is why colostrum's properties have been revered for thousands of years across many cultures. In ancient Chinese medicine, it was regarded as a potent health tonic. For the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, it has long been regarded as a crucial part of a warrior's diet. In Britain, dairy farmers refer to colostrum as beestings, and they used any surplus of it to make an extra-creamy, and very healthy, pudding.
Colostrum even played an important role in Western medicine breakthroughs such as the development of the polio vaccine. When Albert Sabin made his first oral vaccine against polio, the immunoglobulin he used actually came from colostrum. And prior to the development of antibiotics, colostrum was the primary source of immunoglobulins used to fight infections. I find this particularly interesting because just recently, this study found promising results for colostrum use and the flu, and this study found colostrum effective in preventing the flu. This recent study explains exactly why colostrum may have these types of effects.
When antibiotics began to appear, interest in colostrum eventually waned (after all, pharmaceutical companies can't make much money on a natural compound), but, now that antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens have developed, interest is once again returning to natural alternatives such as colostrum. In addition to the studies cited above, in the recent study “Antibacterial and Antiinflammatory Properties of Bovine Colostrum,” researchers recently demonstrated promising activity against harmful bacterial strains.
This little-known compound has been used across the globe, and throughout history, for its health benefits that reach far beyond nurturing newborn mammals. I'm shocked when I mention this daily staple of mine to people and they say “colost-what”? So it's time to dive into some of the ways colostrum can help you, and why I think it should be a crucial part of your arsenal (especially these days).
Colostrum Benefits For Immunity
Colostrum can support immunity with a one-two offensive/defensive punch by simultaneously strengthening your immune system and helping your body fight harmful agents.
Two components of colostrum I mentioned earlier (immunoglobulins and proline-rich polypeptides (PRPs)) play an important role in your body's immune response.
On the offensive side, the immune-strengthening effects of colostrum are mostly due to its high concentration of the immunoglobulins (proteins that fight harmful invaders) IgA and IgG. In addition to the offense of immunoglobulins, PRPs offer a second, defensive, level of protection. PRPs are important immune system regulators that encourage the growth of white blood cells and may restore the balance in cellular immune functions. PRPs function as signal-transducing molecules that have the unique effect of making micro-adjustments to your immune system—turning your immunity up when your body comes under attack from pathogens or other disease agents, and damping your immune system down when the danger is eliminated or neutralized. This is called cell-mediated immunity and is basically a process of keeping your immune system finely tuned. These things have made the news all over scholarly medical research articles due to their huge potential for boosting the immune system.
Colostrum also contains viable cells, including neutrophils and macrophages, which secrete a range of immune-related components into milk, including cytokines (part of your systemic immune system that keep communication between immune cells active), proteins, and peptides such as lactoferrin. (You may remember from earlier, lactoferrin assists with iron absorption and is a crucial part of your immune defense system; the research on this is increasing daily, and here's just one recent example.)
Colostrum may be particularly important for frequent exercisers' and elite athletes' immune defenses. For example, one study involving 29 male cyclists observed that taking 10 grams of bovine colostrum a day for 5 weeks prevented a post-exercise decrease in immune cells and reduced the risk of respiratory symptoms. Another 12-week study of 35 adult distance runners found that taking a daily colostrum supplement increased the amount of saliva IgA antibodies by 79%, compared to baseline levels. Elite athletes are at an increased risk for developing upper respiratory tract infections, and higher saliva levels of IgA may help strengthen immunity and promote greater levels of health.
Another study conducted on 31 men over the course of eight weeks showed that 20 g of colostrum blunted the prolonged exercise-induced decrease in immune responsiveness, which may be a mechanism for reduced illness. In another double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial on healthy men and women, researchers gave participants a small, single dose of 150mg of bovine colostrum and then measured levels of immune-related markers. Within 1 hour of consumption, the researchers noted an increase in phagocytic activity, as well as increased levels of T-cells and NK-cells—all markers of enhanced immunity.
As you can see, colostrum, even in very small doses of 150 mg, has many powerful, beneficial systemic impacts on innate immune function. In other words, you don't need to devour boatloads of colostrum to enjoy its immune system benefits. Regardless, I often take 3+g/day, particularly when I'm training hard or building muscle, two additional goals you'll learn more about below that can be significantly assisted by regular colostrum use.
Colostrum Benefits For Athletic Performance
As I mentioned earlier, for me, athletic performance enhancement, and the prevention of gas, nausea, cramps, or diarrhea during hard workouts and races was a big reason I began using colostrum.
I particularly achieved this by “loading” with 6 g of colostrum a day for 2 weeks before hard races—especially races in hot conditions, such as Ironman Hawaii.
See, when we are in intense periods of training, we athletes and exercise enthusiasts often develop gut problems, aka “runners' trots.” If you've ever had to pull over on the side of the road during a run with your head between your knees because of gastric distress, or you've ever had to interrupt a set in the weight room to quickly duck into the locker room, then you know what I mean.
In the video below, gastroenterologist Professor Dr. Raymond Playford explains how this is caused by a combination of stress and the simultaneous raising of your body's core temperature by about two degrees—which increases the permeability of your gut wall, allows toxins into the bloodstream that wouldn't normally be there, and is the primary reason you get gut distress during stressful exercise, especially stressful exercise in the heat. (Heat raises the permeability of your gut wall even more.)
In Dr. Playford's study, “The nutriceutical, bovine colostrum, truncates the increase in gut permeability caused by heavy exercise in athletes,” he examined athletes who ran for 20 minutes at 80% of their aerobic maximum. Under standard conditions, gut permeability would increase by 250%, and temperature by 2 degrees. However, the addition of colostrum for two weeks before the trial reduced the rise in gut permeability by about 80%, despite the same effort and temperature rise. This all makes sense since colostrum contains growth factors that are designed to strengthen the gut lining of newborn mammals, which are very permeable and need to toughen up fast. This study also confirms that colostrum may significantly decrease gut permeability in athletes during heavy periods of training and lowers stool concentrations of zonulin, which you'll learn more about below.
In this article from the Guardian, Playford expounds on the other benefits that active people can derive from colostrum:
“It could be really useful to people who have to do physical exercise in hot conditions, such as soldiers in Afghanistan. They are susceptible to heatstroke because of all the gear they have to wear and carry, and taking colostrum could reduce that very serious risk. Another group who could benefit are older people with arthritis who develop serious gut problems because of the strong painkillers they use, and those with ulcerative colitis. These patients are at risk of damage to their gut lining and the colostrum … reduces its permeability.”
He offers proof of this in his study, “Bovine colostrum is a health food supplement which prevents NSAID induced gut damage.”
Colostrum has been shown in study after study to improve athletic performance, by reducing gut permeability caused by heavy exercise, as well as by increasing lean mass. In another study involving active men and women, 20 g of colostrum per day for eight weeks resulted in greater lower-body muscle strength compared to a matched set of adults given whey powder.
As a final boost for athletes, colostrum also has antioxidant components (such as lactoferrin) that assist with iron absorption, bone density maintenance, and have been shown to have bacteria-balancing characteristics. It also contains hemopexin, which scavenges the heme released or lost by the turnover of heme proteins such as hemoglobin and thus can protect your body from the oxidative damage that free heme can cause. This is especially important for endurance athletes, who have high hemoglobin use and red blood cell turnover.
In addition to athletic performance, colostrum is also highly beneficial for athletic recovery as it was shown to reduce post-exercise muscle damage in a study conducted on young, male soccer players. Other studies show that bovine colostrum supplementation is beneficial to skeletal muscle and can reduce oxidative stress and overall damage to muscles after exercise. Finally, in a 2009 review of studies on colostrum and exercise performance, investigators concluded that taking colostrum supplements may be most effective during periods of high-intensity training and recovery from high-intensity training.
So far, as you can see, for everything from improving athletic performance (especially in the heat) to assisting in recovery from a grueling bout of high-intensity training, you'd be doing your body a huge favor by supplementing with colostrum. But the gut benefits? Holy cow. Nothing comes close to colostrum when it comes to naturally nourishing your gut. Nature gives us plenty of clues about why that is, which you're about to learn.
Colostrum Benefits For Your Gut
Colostrum is known to provide newborns the proteins and growth factors they need to build a strong, healthy gut lining; and, according to research, the benefits may also translate to healthy adults as it has been shown to stimulate the growth of intestinal cells, strengthen the gut wall, and reduce permeability in the intestines.
Colostrum's benefits to the gut in large part involve how it interacts with a protein called zonulin. Essentially, colostrum inhibits zonulin proteins from binding to zonulin receptors in your intestinal cells.
When zonulin proteins bind to the receptors, your intestinal wall loosens and opens up, so by preventing that, colostrum helps to prevent leaky gut. A double-blind placebo-controlled study on healthy, young male athletes showed positive effects of colostrum on gut lining integrity. Supplementing with 1 g of bovine colostrum per day for 20 days reduced levels of stool zonulin to a healthy baseline.
In his Digestion Session Summit—Harvard Medical School-trained, award-winning clinical research scientist, academic professor, and world-renowned functional medicine health care provider—Dr. Datis Kharrazian explained it this way:
“[Z]onulin is something that researchers figured out when they were studying the cholera, and they were looking at why people who have cholera have this intestinal permeability develop. Some researchers identified it was zonulin. And then what they started to do was they took this zonulin and they purified it into a protein and the injected it into animals, and all these animals got leaky gut.
What they found is that zonulin is a protein that binds to a zonulin receptor and opens up the intestinal cells. So when you look at leaky gut, there’s two types: there’s what they call transcellular, and paracellular. Trans—so you have these—it’s like a picket fence. You have boards that are horizontal and you have boards that are vertical.
You can have inflammation and destruction cause leaky gut by just destroying the gut. That’s what they call transcellular, right? So chronic inflammation just destroys the lining of the gut and goes through the horizontal boards like a fence, and that’s one version—that’s one mechanism of leaky gut. Then you have paracellular, where the board in between the horizontals, or the tight junctions, open. . . . Zonulin binds to that, and then they open up.”
In other words, colostrum helps to seal tight junctions, making your gut less permeable to foreign invaders.
If you take probiotics, you may be especially interested to read that, without colostrum, they will not be nearly as effective long-term because they will pass through your GI tract and not “stick around” in your gut the way they are supposed to. Think of colostrum as the soil for the seeds of probiotics. It gives friendly bacteria a place to grow by keeping leaky junctions in your gut more tightly sealed.
In addition, if you are trying to re-colonize your GI tract (raise the levels of friendly bacteria in your gut) then you should also combine colostrum with probiotics. When you have a healthy population of friendly bacteria combined with colostrum for the probiotics to cultivate, a more hostile environment is created for harmful microorganisms and there is less space for digestion disruptors to proliferate. (Incidentally, this is why one of my favorite one-two combo “stacks” for the gut is this colostrum and this probiotic.)
So as you can see, colostrum on its own has been shown to promote gut health, but when combined with probiotics, it becomes an even more powerful compound for promoting general gut health as well as decreasing symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and other gut problems.
Colostrum Benefits For Growth Hormone
Remember the insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) I described earlier? The growth-promoting and muscle-building effects most people associate with growth hormone are actually caused by IGF-1. This is one reason why low IGF-1 levels are not only associated with dementia in the elderly, but people with eating disorders also have low levels of IGF-1 due to malnutrition, as do obese individuals.
IGF-1 has characteristics of both growth hormone and growth factor since it stimulates the growth, proliferation, and survival of cells such as gut tissue cells and muscle tissue cells. This is why both IGF-1 and growth hormone are often promoted for muscle building, anabolism, recovery, and anti-aging. IGF-1 also acts as a neurotrophic factor in the brain, which means that it contributes to neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) and survival of existing neurons (known as a neuroprotective effect).
Now, here's the important part: Overexpression of growth hormone by 100 to 1,000-fold in mice causes a 50% shorter lifespan, mainly due to kidney and liver dysfunction. In addition, since IGF-1 and growth hormone are “pro-growth,” excessive long-term use could eventually cause some pretty rapid cell division—which is also known as – you guessed it – cancer.
Author Tim Ferriss calls this a trade-off or a “Faustian bargain” between longevity and performance, and you can learn more about it in this excellent WellnessFX article by Dr. Rhonda Patrick entitled “The IGF-1 Trade-Off: Performance vs. Longevity.” This means that there's a sweet spot to growth hormone and IGF-1 levels, and you'd do yourself a service by, instead of taking growth hormone injections or using massive amounts of synthetic IGF-1 or growth hormone precursors, to more naturally equip your body to make it's own growth hormones, which is what you'll get by consuming colostrum.
As a result, I'm often asked if I'm concerned about any potential “excess growth-promoting” or “excess IGF-1 producing” potential of colostrum. Interestingly, it turns out that IGF-1 from colostrum doesn't actually cross the lining of the intestinal tract and therefore never reaches the bloodstream. Instead, the growth factors are simply used for maintaining the integrity of the gut lining. In other words, the growth factors in colostrum work all their magic in their gut, without producing any issues in the rest of the body from a “hyper-anabolic” standpoint. As a matter of fact, my friends over at Examine have this to say about colostrum:
“While any protein source has the potential to increase IGF-1 when included in the diet, colostrum is no different than whey protein at doing so. The IGF-1 that is present in colostrum naturally appears to be fully digested in the intestinal tract and does not reach the blood.”
So, while I don't guzzle a gallon of milk a day, eat grass-fed steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or take massive doses of whey protein after a workout, I do use the recommended colostrum dosage of 3.2 g (1.6 g is how I do it, twice a day – once morning and once evening) daily; and then for loading, I use 6.4 g (3.2 g, twice a day) of colostrum for 2 weeks prior to big workouts and races, particularly those in hot weather, when I know I've been exposed to the cold or flu, and during most of the winter when I know my immune system is more likely to become compromised.
If you're going to use colostrum to boost your immune system, enhance athletic performance and recovery, make your gut impenetrable, enhance the efficacy of your probiotics, or as a method for increasing muscle gain, growth hormone, and iron absorption, here's one final piece of advice I'll leave you with:
As is the case with any animal product you consume, sourcing is of the utmost importance. To get the highest quality colostrum (that's actually effective), look for a supplement that is minimally processed, sourced from healthy grass-fed animals, and comes in a bioactive form.
Kion Colostrum, which is the colostrum I personally developed and the only colostrum I now use, checks all three of these boxes. It is:
- Minimally processed and non-denatured to preserve the active nutrients and maintain the full range of beneficial proteins and peptides.
- Sourced from grass-fed cows that feed on single-origin natural pastures, meaning it is GMO-Free, hormone-treatment-free, antibiotic-free, and BSE-free.
- Comes in a bioactive powder form. It’s believed that colostrum may be best absorbed through the oral mucosal surface in the mouth. Kion Colostrum is not encapsulated, allowing you to receive the full range of bioactive nutrients.
As far as dosage is concerned—if you're not loading with colostrum prior to a big race or trying to ward off a cold or the flu—all it takes is 1 scoop (1.6 g) in the morning (but avoid taking within 30 minutes of antibiotics or antimicrobials, herbal or otherwise), and another in the afternoon/evening.
Because it's in a bioactive powder form, you can mix Kion Colostrum with water, add it to smoothies (you may remember I used it in my recent Pumpkin Pie Smoothie recipe I published here), or simply dump the powder directly into your mouth and allow it to circulate a few minutes before swallowing. Letting it sit in your mouth or consuming it in smoothie form is thought to enhance absorption, likely due to the same breastmilk-saliva interactions you can read about here and here. Plus, as an added bonus, Kion Colostrum tastes like rich and creamy mac ‘n cheese!
Speaking of cheese, I'm personally lactose intolerant; and while milk, cheese, and even some forms of yogurt tend to make me gassy as hell, I don't experience the same phenomenon with colostrum. Why is this? It turns out that colostrum is naturally very low in lactose, so those with lactose intolerance (including me!) find that they can tolerate it just fine. Of course, anyone with dairy allergies should avoid bovine colostrum, and if you're unsure, you should always check with your doctor first. But ultimately, this is one of the most digestible (and gut-nourishing!) superfoods I've ever found, and definitely beats the pants off kale!
Note for all you sleuth, detective-types out there: If you're already familiar with Kion Colostrum, you may have noticed the word “bovine” in my wording and on the above product picture. Because a majority of the clinical studies on colostrum (nearly every study cited above) use bovine sources, and because bovine colostrum provides a more steady, reliable supply chain, we have officially changed our formula to—you guessed it—bovine (instead of goat) colostrum. This not only allows us to keep colostrum in stock for you year-round, but it also allows us to offer it at a more affordable price. Of course, because we care about your health and the quality of our products, Kion only sources the highest quality, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, non-GMO bovine colostrum.
Oh, and one last thing before the comments start pouring in about me and Kion stealing colostrum from precious little baby cows. There's no need to worry about that because healthy dairy cows produce colostrum that is significantly far in excess of the calf’s requirements. There's plenty left over for you and then some. So, you can rejoice in knowing that health enthusiasts and baby cows alike can enjoy the many, many health benefits of colostrum.
So are you ready to try this stuff? You can get Kion Colostrum here, and use code BEN10 to save 10% on your first order (and yes, it really does taste like rich and creamy mac n' cheese!)
I hope you learned a thing or two about this little-known, immune-boosting, multivitamin from nature. Leave any questions, comments, or thoughts you have about colostrum below, and I'll be happy to reply.