The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for many people in terms of how they think about and manage immunity, health, and wellness. In fact, the global market for immune health supplements was valued at more than $55 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow 11% year over year through 2028, according to one report from Grand View Research.
One type of supplement that’s gained momentum in the push for elevated immune health is bovine colostrum. Also called “first milk,” colostrum is the initial substance produced by the mammary glands in mammals after giving birth to a newborn, proven in humans to offer extra protection for a baby’s early immunity out of the hospital and into the world.
Colostrum is incredibly rich in antibodies (or immunoglobulins) and other vitamins and minerals. And now, it is the basis of an entire category of supplements (made from cow, not human, milk) and superfoods that aim to boost immunity and overall health.
These supplements come in both powder and pill form, and are touted to improve immune health, soothe gastrointestinal distress, reduce inflammation, and facilitate muscle recovery, among other benefits in adults. Used by professional athletes and weekend warriors alike, colostrum supplements are available over the counter, without a prescription. The formulations vary from brand to brand and are not yet regulated by the FDA, so consulting your doctor before taking any supplement is always a good idea.
Is colostrum a new superfood?
Dr. Jesse Bracamonte, a Mayo Clinic family medicine physician in Glendale, Ariz., says that while studies on the benefits of bovine colostrum are limited, there are some some good reasons to work it into your routine. Recent research shows some success with curbing acute diarrhea and preventing seasonal respiratory infections, says Bracamonte.
That’s why when his patients ask about starting colostrum, he doesn’t hesitate to sign off on it, unless there’s a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance in play (in which case, bovine colostrum is a no-go). “I won’t discourage anyone; it has benefits like so many supplements and foods do: proteins, fats, minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins that help the body,” he says.
Keri Gans, a New York-based registered dietician-nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet, says she also has no issue with colostrum supplements but does believe more research is needed to fully purport its healing powers. “If people are rushing out to take them because they think they’ll be the end all for certain health benefits—i.e. immune health—they might need to rethink that,” she says. “There’s preliminary research, but it’s early on. The good news is researchers aren’t finding harm in taking these supplements.”
Why take colostrum?
In a June 2020 interview published in Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal, Cleveland Clinic’s chief wellness officer Dr. Michael Roizen said that one promising characteristic of colostrum is its ability to stabilize and strengthen the intestinal barrier, preventing disease from entering the body through the intestinal wall. It may prevent infection in the body, he said, upholding the overall integrity of the microbiome.
In one 2017 study, researchers in Poland found that zonulin levels (a protein that marks increased intestinal permeability) decreased in athletes who’d taken bovine colostrum supplements for three weeks. Lauren Houser, CRNP, says that’s exactly why she regularly advises her patients to incorporate bovine colostrum into their routines to address gut health. “There are a lot of potential benefits and minimal downside,” says Houser.
For instance, Houser says, someone with acute diarrhea or dealing with the initial onset of an autoimmune disease like Celiac could benefit from colostrum’s effects on the intestines. And, while those patients would still need to follow up with a clinician, or in the case of celiac, a specialist, taking colostrum could help bridge the gap between symptom onset and a formal treatment plan. “I do it as part of a gut protocol, or in the winter months,” she says. “The idea is to heal the gut lining and not need it long-term. I usually put my patients on it for maybe eight to 12 weeks. I always believe less is more.”
In addition, Bracamonte suggests, colostrum can also be taken as the seasons change, and we fend off the threat of upper respiratory infections. Another 2023 study showed success in this area, too, suggesting that taking colostrum can decrease the number of days and severity of symptoms in individuals with an upper respiratory infection. “You don’t have to take it daily and ongoing, but if you want to prevent respiratory infection and help your immunity—you can take it long term,” says Bracamonte. ”But, how long is long term?” In this case, adding colostrum to your daily routine during cold and flu season will mean considering the formulation you’ve chosen and talking with your primary care doctor.
Taking supplements can come with caveats. First, there’s cost. Some of these supplements can be expensive: WonderCow sells its colostrum supplement for $64.99 for 60 servings; Pure Encapsulations costs $74.80 for 90 servings; and AMRMRA is priced at $119 for 90 servings.
There is also an off-chance of side effects to consider. Bovine colostrum can, in rare cases, cause nausea and diarrhea, so paying close attention to how it affects you is important, too. Do your homework and choose a brand that’s rooted in research and has clean ingredients. “Make sure it’s from a reputable brand, one that has third-party certification,” says Gans. “This way you know what is in that supplement.”
Lastly, Gans says, it’s important to remember no supplement can overtake the importance of the basics: eating whole foods, sleeping well, and getting regular exercise, to keep your body performing at its best: “Supplements are there to supplement; they’re not meant to replace good habits.”