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Colostrum: “Liquid Gold” for Gut and Immune Health

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Colostrum, or "liquid gold," has been shown to support and strengthen our gut-immune axis by enhancing digestion and nutrient absorption while keeping out toxins.

Colostrum powder spilled onto a pink surface with a pink background
Colostrum benefits the immune system and gut health.

The relationship between the gut and immune system is foundational to our health and well-being.

The gut plays a central role in nutrient digestion, absorption, and waste elimination, ensuring our body receives everything it needs for daily functioning—while keeping out toxins, pathogens, and other antigens that may cause harm.

The immune system is the body’s primary defense against foreign invaders, like pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi), environmental toxins, and antigens. Functioning normally, it protects against potentially harmful changes in our cells (like cancer), prevents hyperactive responses (like allergies and autoimmunity), and reduces chronic inflammation.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that nourishing and supporting our gut-immune axis is one of the most important things we can do to improve our health and extend our longevity.

This is where colostrum comes in.

Colostrum, or “liquid gold,” is the nutrient-rich fluid female mammals produce in the first few days after giving birth. It serves as the first source of nourishment for newborns and is packed with essential nutrients, antibodies, growth factors, and other bioactive compounds.

Mammals have been around for about 200 million years. And colostrum is still—after all that time and evolutionary pressure—the first food that every mammal on the planet gets after birth. That should tell us something about its nutritional value and health benefits!

While colostrum is crucial for the development and protection of newborns, its benefits extend beyond infancy. Research has shown that colostrum can play a significant role in supporting immune health in people of all ages.

In this article, we’ll explore the numerous benefits of colostrum for immune health. We’ll delve into the connection between the gut and the immune system and how colostrum supports this “gut–immune axis.” We’ll also discuss how to supplement with colostrum and what to look for in a product. By the end of this article, you will have a solid understanding of the remarkable immune-modulating properties of colostrum and how it can enhance your overall well-being.

The Gut–Immune Axis: A Delicate Balance

The gut and the immune system communicate constantly through the gut-immune axis. This dynamic interplay involves intricate molecular signaling, cellular interactions, and immune responses. (*) It’s like a hidden network connecting our digestive tract to our immune defenses.

This communication is vital for the proper functioning of both systems. The gut microbiota educates the immune system, helping it distinguish between harmless substances and potential threats. This education is essential for preventing inappropriate immune responses, such as allergies and autoimmune disorders. The gut microbiota also contributes to immune regulation by producing molecules that control inflammation, a key factor in maintaining a balanced immune response. (*)

Conversely, the immune system plays a crucial role in shaping the composition and activity of the gut microbiota. It helps maintain a diverse and balanced microbial community by eliminating harmful bacteria and promoting the growth of beneficial microbes. The immune system also regulates the integrity of the gut barrier, a protective shield that separates the gut contents from the rest of the body. When the gut barrier is compromised, harmful substances can enter the bloodstream, triggering immune responses and potentially leading to chronic inflammation and immune dysfunction. (*)

The delicate balance of the gut–immune axis is crucial for overall health and optimal immune function. Disruptions in this balance can have far-reaching effects, contributing to various health conditions such as autoimmunity, allergies, and virtually all chronic, inflammatory diseases. Understanding and supporting the gut–immune axis can enhance our immune resilience and promote overall well-being.

Colostrum: A Powerful Ally for Immune Health

Colostrum’s therapeutic properties have been recognized for centuries. It contains a wide range of nutrients, including proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.

However, what sets colostrum apart is its high concentration of bioactive compounds, such as antibodies, growth factors, cytokines, and immunomodulatory substances. These compounds support gut and immune health and enhance the body’s natural defense mechanisms. (*)

Antibodies: The Guardians of Immunity

Colostrum is rich in antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins. Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system in response to foreign substances, such as bacteria, viruses, and toxins. They recognize and bind to specific antigens, marking them for destruction by other immune cells.

Colostrum contains various classes of antibodies, including immunoglobulin A (IgA) and immunoglobulin G (IgG). (*) IgA is the predominant antibody found in mucosal tissues, such as the gut, respiratory tract, and urinary tract. It acts as the first line of defense against pathogens by neutralizing them and preventing their attachment to mucosal surfaces.

The main role of IgG is to identify and neutralize foreign objects like bacteria and viruses. It does this by binding to specific antigens on the surface of these pathogens, labeling them for destruction by other immune cells. IgG promotes phagocytosis, allowing phagocytic cells like macrophages to engulf and digest tagged pathogens. It also activates the complement system, which can directly kill bacteria. IgG provides long-lasting immunity against pathogens. IgG antibodies remain in the body even after an infection has passed, allowing for a faster immune response upon re-exposure.

Colostrum-derived antibodies can help neutralize pathogens, prevent their attachment to mucosal surfaces, and support overall gut–immune axis balance. (*)

Growth Factors: Nourishing Immune Resilience

Colostrum contains a wealth of growth factors that support immune health. Growth factors are proteins that regulate cell growth, differentiation, and repair. They are crucial for tissue development, wound healing, and immune function.

One notable growth factor found in colostrum is epidermal growth factor (EGF). (*) EGF promotes the growth and repair of epithelial cells, which line various body surfaces, including the gastrointestinal tract. EGF helps maintain a healthy gut barrier and supports optimal immune function by enhancing the integrity and function of the gut lining.

Another important growth factor in colostrum is insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). (*) IGF-1 stimulates cell growth and division, particularly in developing bone, muscle, and other tissues. It also supports immune regulation, modulating the activity of immune cells and influencing immune responses.

These growth factors in colostrum nourish immune resilience and help maintain the delicate balance of the gut–immune axis.

Cytokines: Orchestrating Immune Responses

Cytokines are small proteins that act as messengers between immune cells, coordinating immune responses and regulating inflammation. Colostrum contains various cytokines, including interleukins, interferons, and tumor necrosis factors (TNFs). (*)

Interleukins are essential for cell communication and play a crucial role in immune regulation. They help activate immune cells, regulate inflammation, and promote the differentiation and maturation of immune cells.

Interferons are potent antiviral proteins that inhibit the replication of viruses and enhance immune responses. They play a vital role in the body’s defense against viral infections and contribute to overall immune function.

TNFs are involved in immune surveillance and the elimination of abnormal cells. They induce cell death in cancer cells and play a critical role in the body’s natural defense against tumors.

By providing a rich array of cytokines, colostrum supports the immune system’s ability to mount appropriate immune responses, regulate inflammation, and enhance overall immune function. These cytokines act as mediators in the gut–immune axis, facilitating communication between immune cells and maintaining immune homeostasis.

The Gut–Immune Axis: Colostrum’s Impact on Gut Health

Colostrum, with its unique composition and bioactive compounds, plays a significant role in maintaining gut health and supporting the gut–immune axis.

Supporting Gut Barrier Integrity

The gut barrier acts as a protective shield, separating the gut contents from the rest of the body. It consists of a single layer of cells held together by tight junctions. A healthy gut barrier prevents harmful substances, such as toxins and pathogens, from entering the bloodstream.

Colostrum contains bioactive compounds that support the health and integrity of the gut barrier. Growth factors, such as EGF, promote the growth and repair of epithelial cells, strengthening the gut lining. Additionally, colostrum contains IgA, which helps maintain the integrity of the gut barrier and prevents pathogens from adhering to mucosal surfaces. (*)

By fortifying the gut barrier, colostrum acts as a first line of defense, preventing the entry of harmful substances into the bloodstream. This barrier function is crucial for maintaining a balanced gut microbiota, preventing inflammation, and supporting optimal immune function.

The “Mother” of the Gut Microbiome

The gut microbiota, composed of trillions of microorganisms, is foundational for maintaining gut health and supporting immune function. A balanced and diverse gut microbiota is associated with better overall health and immune resilience.

Colostrum contains prebiotic compounds, such as oligosaccharides, that serve as a food source for beneficial gut bacteria. (*) When these bacteria ferment prebiotics, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), such as butyrate, which promote gut health and regulate immune responses.

Some scientists call colostrum “the mother of the microbiome” because it has a nourishing and supportive influence that allows beneficial bacteria to proliferate and keeps the gut barrier intact.

Think of a garden. If the soil isn’t healthy, whatever you plant isn’t going to grow well. Colostrum creates a healthy “inner garden” in which beneficial bacteria can grow. I’ve used it for many years with patients who either didn’t get benefits from taking probiotics or who couldn’t tolerate them at all. Colostrum seemed to rebalance their gut so they could start experiencing the expected improvements from probiotics.

Who Would Benefit From Colostrum?

Given the critical importance of the gut-immune axis for all aspects of health, the most general answer is everyone!

But here are a few specific health conditions and situations I use colostrum most for in my clinical practice.

Gastrointestinal conditions

People with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD, e.g., Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis), and other gastrointestinal conditions tend to do very well with colostrum, thanks to its diverse effects on gut health:

  • Colostrum contains immunoglobulins that help regulate immune responses in the gut. Uncontrolled immune reactions contribute to inflammation in IBD. The antibodies in colostrum may calm these responses. (*)
  • The probiotics and prebiotics in colostrum help replenish healthy gut bacteria. IBS and IBD often involve gut microbiome imbalance. Probiotics can restore proper microbial populations. (*)
  • It promotes intestinal cell growth and healing. The growth factors in colostrum stimulate tissue repair and regrowth of the gut lining. This helps resolve leaky gut linked to IBS. (*)
  • The peptides and amino acids may improve gut motility and diarrhea symptoms common in IBS patients. (*)
  • Colostrum can bind endotoxins and prevent them from passing into the bloodstream, causing systemic inflammation that can aggravate IBD. (*)

Frequent colds, flu, and other infections

If you suffer from frequent viral infections and/or severe or prolonged symptoms, colostrum can help in the following ways:

  • Colostrum contains immunoglobulins, antibodies that can neutralize viruses and prevent infection. IgA and IgG in colostrum can bind to virus particles and block them from infecting cells. (*)
  • Lactoferrin in colostrum has antiviral properties, inhibiting viruses from binding to and entering host cells. Lactoferrin may disrupt the viral envelope. (*)
  • The probiotics in colostrum strengthen the immune system and intestinal barrier. This helps prevent viruses from taking hold and enhances overall immunity against them. (*)
  • Colostrum has cytokines that stimulate immune cells like T-cells and natural killer cells that fight off viral infections. The boost in immunity helps clear viruses faster. (*)
  • In animal studies, polypeptides in colostrum have been shown to have anti-viral effects against flu viruses. (*)

Allergies

Colostrum can prevent and reduce the symptoms of allergy via several mechanisms:

  • The probiotics in colostrum may help improve gut health and reduce inflammation. A healthier gut microbiome is linked to a reduced risk of allergies. (*)
  • The probiotics may also strengthen the gut lining and reduce leaky gut, reducing allergen exposure. (*)
  • Colostrum may help balance Th1 and Th2 immune responses. Allergies are associated with an overactive Th2 response. Colostrum may help shift the balance towards Th1 dominance and reduce overreaction to allergens. (*)
  • Colostrum contains lactoferrin, which has anti-inflammatory effects. By reducing inflammation, lactoferrin may help ease allergy symptoms like runny nose, itchy eyes, etc. (*)

Autoimmune disease

Some estimates suggest that one in six Americans (and one in five women) have an autoimmune disease. Conventional treatments are problematic or non-existent in some cases, so we desperately need safe and effective interventions that could provide relief. Colostrum has potential for several reasons:

  • It contains immunoglobulins that may help regulate overactive immune responses that drive autoimmune attacks on healthy tissue. The antibodies can modify inflammatory pathways involved in autoimmunity. (*)
  • Colostrum’s probiotics can help restore balance to gut microbiota. Dysbiosis in the gut is linked to autoimmune disease development. Probiotics help normalize gut health. (*)
  • The anti-inflammatory compounds in colostrum, like lactoferrin, can reduce systemic inflammation that exacerbates autoimmune disease symptoms. (*)
  • Growth factors like IGF-1 and TGF-beta in colostrum may help modulate immune cell populations and cytokine activity. This could dampen autoimmunity and tissue damage. (*)
  • Colostrum may improve gut barrier integrity via growth factors that promote the regrowth of gut lining cells. Leaky gut plays a role in the development of some autoimmune diseases. (*)

Athletes

Interestingly, many studies documenting colostrum’s benefits on gut and immune health have been performed on athletes. Intense exercise has been shown to cause intestinal permeability, leading to delayed recovery, decreased nutrient absorption, oxidative stress, and many other problems. Colostrum supports performance and recovery in athletes in several ways:

  • It decreases intestinal permeability and promotes gut barrier integrity. (*)
  • It heals damage to the gut lining. (*)
  • It improves iron absorption and metabolism. (*)
  • It reduces inflammation and oxidative stress. (*)

How To Get the Benefits of Colostrum

Dietary sources

There are no significant dietary sources of colostrum. Female mammals produce colostrum in the first few days after giving birth, which is not part of the regular milk production process.

Dairy cows are typically milked for their regular milk supply several days after calving when colostrum production has ceased. Therefore, in order to obtain the full benefits of colostrum, supplementation is necessary.

Supplements

Colostrum supplements are available in various forms, including capsules, powders, and liquids. However, you should be aware that many colostrum supplements suffer from three shortcomings.

First, they don’t contain enough colostrum per serving to move the needle. Almost all studies documenting colostrum’s benefits used a dose of at least 2 grams daily. Yet many colostrum products contain just 500 mg to 1 gram per serving. Despite this, they still charge a premium price. So you’re either not getting enough colostrum to experience its full benefits, or you end up paying an arm and a leg to get the recommended amount.

Second, many popular colostrum products are processed with heat. This denatures the fragile proteins and reduces levels of immunoglobulins, growth factors, and other compounds responsible for colostrum’s remarkable health benefits.

Third, most colostrum products don’t come from grass-fed cows. Colostrum from cows raised on pasture contains higher levels of immunoglobulins and other immune factors and is free of hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs. This is important in our increasingly toxic world.

It is important to choose a high-quality supplement that contains at least 2 grams per serving, is cold-processed (without heat), and is derived from pasture-raised cows.

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Colostrum is remarkably safe when taken in recommended dosages, with few side effects reported in studies.

That said, bovine colostrum does contain trace amounts of lactose (typically ~2%). This is similar to the amounts in yogurt (~2-3%) and soft cheese (~2-3%). If you’re lactose intolerant or sensitive, consuming bovine colostrum may cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues like gas, bloating, or changes in stool frequency and consistency.

However, many of my patients with lactose intolerance can consume colostrum without adverse effects. In fact, some have found that colostrum improves lactose tolerance after taking it for 6 to 8 weeks.

If you’re lactose intolerant, I suggest starting with a small amount of colostrum and monitoring your response. If you don’t have any negative reaction, build up slowly to the recommended daily dose.

Colostrum is best taken with 6–8 ounces of room temperature water on an empty stomach, 30 minutes before or two hours after a meal.

Conclusion

Colostrum, with its unique composition and bioactive compounds, offers a wealth of benefits for gut and immune health. By supporting the gut–immune axis, colostrum enhances immune resilience, promotes a diverse and balanced gut microbiota, and modulates immune responses. Its antibodies, growth factors, and cytokines provide passive immunity, nourish immune resilience, and regulate immune function.

Incorporating colostrum supplementation into your daily routine is one of the best ways to support your gut-immune axis and improve your health and vitality. With its remarkable properties and centuries-old reputation, colostrum truly earns its title as “liquid gold” for immune health.