Colostrum – a powerful fighter against infections

Effective for boosting the immune system and improving gut health


Dairy cows grazing in New Zealand pasture

Colostrum is the first milk secreted after parturition. NaturePlus® colostrum is taken from the first four milkings (48 hours) after calf birth. The composition of colostrum and its physical properties are quite different from that of mature milk.

Colostrum is a good source of nutrients, and in addition it contains enhanced levels of many biologically active components.

Colostrum has been used for centuries for antibiotic purposes, to improve immune function and general well being, and for treating rheumatoid arthritis (Rona, 1998).

More recently, colostrum has been investigated as an immunological agent for its ability to reduce the effects of gastrointestinal infection, especially in individuals who are immuno-compromised.

Colostrum has also gained recent popularity as a sports supplement for improving muscle gain, performance and recovery time.

Composition of Colostrum

The major difference between colostrum and mature milk is that colostrum contains higher levels of naturally occurring bioactive components. These bioactive components provide colostrum with unique benefits which are significantly different from those associated with mature milk.

Bioactive Components in Colostrum


Immunoglobulins (Igs) are present in the whey component of milk and in human serum and other tissue fluids. But the highest natural concentrations occur in colostrum.

Immunoglobulins (Igs) are glycoproteins that form an important part of the immune system. They are special immune cells (activated by B lymphocytes) produced by the body in response to the host being exposed to foreign substances (antigens) such as infectious microbes. The Igs are directed specifically to the antigen that induced their formation.

The two predominant Igs in colostrum are:

  • IgG
  • IgA

Immunoglobulins from bovine colostrum act as anti-infective agents against a wide range of bacteria, viruses and protozoa as well as various bacterial toxins (Rump et al 1992). Igs may exert their beneficial effects by several different mechanisms of action. These actions can vary depending upon the type of pathogens (Jansen et al, 1994)

In general, immunoglobulins work to:

  • neutralise toxins or viruses
  • prevent adhesion of pathogens to host cell surfaces e.g. intestinal epithelium
  • bind the bacteria
  • enhance the ability of host immune cells to remove pathogens (opsonisation)
  • damage the micro-organisms themselves e.g. in conjunction with complement cells

Growth Factors

Growth factors have the ability to stimulate the growth of various cells. Some of their biological activities include the stimulation of growth of chondrocytes, fibroblasts, epithelial cells, smooth muscle cells, and the promotion of cell differentiation (Xu and Wang, 1996).

The main growth factors found in bovine colostrum are:

  • IGF (insulin like growth factor) 1 and 2
  • TGF (transforming growth factor) b1 and b2
  • EGF (epithelial growth factor).

These growth factors are relatively stable to both heat and acidic conditions; hence they survive milk processing and gastric acid to maintain biological activity. They exhibit muscle and cartilage repair characteristics and promote wound healing with implications for trauma and surgical healing (Uruakpa et al 2002).

It has been speculated that a bovine colostrum-based diet could provide natural growth stimulants, e.g. IGF. An IGF-rich diet may promote a healthy gut through increased and turnover of the intestinal lining, increased uptake of dietary components and increased immunological performance (Pakkanen and Aalto, 1997). In addition, a dietary colostrum-based food supplement has been demonstrated to increase serum IGF-1 in male athletes during short-term strength and speed training (Mero et al, 1997).


Lactoferrin is an iron binding glycoprotein. It is a natural antioxidant with antibacterial, antiviral and immune-stimulating properties. Lactoferrin also plays a role in the activation of phagocytes and immune response.

Some of the biological roles of lactoferrin may be dependent on its iron-binding activity. It is thought that lactoferrin competes with pathogenic bacteria for iron, so that its ability to bind iron tightly renders the iron unavailable for bacterial growth.

Lactoferrin has been shown to inhibit the growth in vitro of a range of micro-organisms, including Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhimurium, Listeria monocytogenes and Streptococcus mutans (Pakkanen and Aalto, 1997).


Lysozyme is an antibacterial enzyme found in many tissues and body fluids and in high concentrations in colostrum. The antibacterial activity of lysozyme against Escherichia coli can be enhanced by the presence of lactoferrin (Pakkanen and Aalto, 1997). Lysozyme in colostrum may be effective against some bacterial infections in humans.


Lactoperoxidase is an enzyme which catalyses the oxidation of thiocyanate ions, together with hydrogen peroxide, to reactive intermediates with anti-microbial and antioxidant properties (Perraudin and Reiter, 1998). This enzyme may be partially activated by forming a complex with lysozyme, and it may also have an additive effect with lactoferrin (Pakkanen and Aalto, 1997).

What is the Immune Function?

The immune response is a self-defence mechanism by which the body fights infection, caused by exposure to foreign elements or antigens, e.g. micro-organisms and their by-products.

These mechanisms may be part of an organism’s general physiology (innate immunity), which includes body surfaces (skin, mucus membranes), internal components (cough reflex), or the presence of non-specific factors (lactoferrin, lysozyme) with anti-microbial activity. Other immune components such as immunoglobulins (Igs) are specifically produced in response to the presence of recognised foreign material (acquired immunity).

Acquired immunity can be achieved through stimulation of the immune system by foreign antigens (active immunity); transfer of immune cells (adaptive immunity); or by the transfer of specific immunoglobulins and/or immune cells from an immune individual to an unprotected individual (passive immunity).

Colostrum offers passive immunity for the newborn calf via the intestinal absorption of intact immunoglobulins. In addition to the presence of IgG in colostrum, IgA may provide some local protection within the intestine (Kulkarni and Pimpale, 1989). Passive immunity can play two roles: one in the short-term to prevent bacterial and viral infection and the other a broader role protecting the gut surface.

The role of immunoglobulins is emphasised by the fact that:

  • Immunoglobulins are specifically directed at the antigen that stimulated their formation
  • Each B lymphocyte secretes a single class of immunoglobulin with the same specificity for the target antigen
  • Immunoglobulin production imparts memory of that specific antigen

Gastrointestinal Function

Gut microflora play a vital role in digestion, nutrient absorption and immune function. If there is an imbalance in the intestinal microflora this may upset the digestive process and impact on the immune system. For example, diarrhoeal diseases are the major killer of children in several parts of the world. Infectious diarrhoea remains a fundamental problem with dehydration and electrolyte loss in premature/newborn infants frequently having a fatal outcome.

To ensure that colostrum is therapeutically active, an oral preparation must survive passage through the intestinal tract. Bovine IgG1 has been shown to be resistant to proteolytic digestion (Kelly et al, 1997).

The antimicrobial properties of bovine colostrum can be attributed to the bioactive components. Bovine colostrum has been shown to inhibit the growth or to kill various gastrointestinal pathogens, e.g. Escherichia coli, Campylobacter jejuni, Helicobacter pylori, Shigella flexneri, Vibrio cholerae, Cryptosporidium parvum and rotavirus (Korhonen, et al 1994). Bovine colostrum has also been shown to diminish frequency of E-Coli associated diarrhoea (Huppertz, et al 1999). To generate a preventative or prophylactic benefit, the bioactive components must act by preventing the pathogen from adhering to the host cell surface.

Passive immunisation through ingestion of dietary immunoglobulin source could provide options for an oral treatment against enteric infections in humans (Roos et al 1995). Several human clinical trials provide some evidence that oral administration of milk immunoglobulin concentrates from bovine origin could be effective in preventing an/or treating gastrointestinal tract infections.


Colostrum products offer several advantages over traditional therapeutic products (Kandiah, 1999):

  • Oral delivery
  • Relatively biologically stable in the gastrointestinal tract
  • Not significantly absorbed or trans-located into the systemic circulation
  • Able to target bacteria as well as their toxins and can prevent and treat viral and parasitic diseases of the gastrointestinal tract
  • Pathogen-specific, unlike conventional broad spectrum antibodies which tend to disrupt the natural, beneficial gastrointestinal flora
  • Polyclonal, enabling them to bind to multiple sites on the pathogen or associated toxin.


Huppertz HI, Rutkowski S, Burch D H, Eisebit R, Lissner R, Karch H. 1999. Bovine Colostrum Ameliorates Diarrhea in Infection with Diarregenic Escherichia coli, Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli, and E. coli Expressing Intimin and Hemolysin. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 29; 452-456 Octover 1999.

Jansen A, Nava S, Brussow H, Mahalanbis D and Hammarstrom L. 1994. Titre of Specific Antibodies in Immunized and Non-immunized Cow Colostru; Implications for their use in the treatment of patients with gastro-intestinal infections. Indigenous Antimicrobacterial Agents in Milk – Recent Developments. Proceedings of the IDF Seminar. IDF, Belgium, 1994.

Kandiah G. 1999. Comparison of the passive prophylactic effect of bovine milk immunoglobulin fed either as a bolus or continuously against diarrhoea couased by E. coli K88 using piglets as models. Masters thesis, Massey University.

Kelly C P, Chetham S, Keates S et al (1997), Survival of Anti-clostridium difficile Bovine immunoglobulin Concentrate in the Human Gastrointestinal Tract. Antimicrobial Agens and Chemotherapy, 41(2), 236-241.

Kohonen H, Syvaoja E L, Ahola-Luttilia H, Sivela S, Kopola S, Husu J & Kosunen T (1994) Helicobactor pylori – Specific antibodies and bacterial activity in serum, colostrum and milk of immunised and non-immunised cows. In Indigenous Anitimicrobial Agents in Milk – Recent Developments. Proceedings of the IDF Seminar. IDF, Belguim, 1994.

Kulkarni P R and Pimpale N V. 1989. Colostrum – a review. Indian Journal of Dairy Science. 42, 126-224.

Mero A. Mikkulainen H, Riski J, et al. 19997. Effects of Bovine Colostrum Supplementation on Serum IGF-1, IgG, hormones and saliva IgA During Training. J Appl Physiol,83, 1144-1141.

Pakkanen R and Aalto J. 1997. Growth Factor and Anitmicrobial Factors of Bovine Colostrum. International Dairy Journal, 7, 285-297.

Perraudin J P and Reiter B, 1998. the Role of Lactoferrin and Lactoperoxidase in Reducing the Activity of Free Radicals. Pages 326-332 in Proceedings of the Second International Whey Conference, Chicago USA, 27-29 October 1997. IDF, Brussels.

Rona Z. 1998. Clinical Applications: Bovine Colostrum as Immune System Regulator. Am J Nat Med 1998; 5:19-2

Roos N, Mahe S, Benamouzig R, Sick H, Rautureau J and Tome D. 1995.N-Labelled Immunoglobulins from Bovine Colostrum are Particularly Resistant to Digestion in Human Untestine. Journal of Nutrition. 125, 1238-1244.

Rump J A, Arndt R, Arnold A et al. 1992. Treatement of Diarrhoea in Human Immunodeficiency Virus-infected Patients with Immunoglobulins from Bovine Colostrum. The Clinical Investigator 70, 588-594

Upuakpa F. O, Ismond M A H, Akobundu E N T. 2002. colostrum and its benefits: A review. Nutrition Research 22 (2002), 755-767

Xu R and Wang T, 1996. Gastrointestinal Absorption of Insulin Like Growth Factor-1 Neonatal Pigs. Journal Of Gastroenterology And Nutrition, 23(4), 430-437.