Your natural immune function is a key component of your health and disease prevention. An integral part of this system is your natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell important to your innate immune system.1 Your immune system has two branches — cell mediated immunity (innate) and humoral immunity (adaptive).
As you contract a viral illness, the pathogen infects your cells. Immediately, your cell mediated immune response activates NK cells2 along with chemicals to attract the cells to the site of infection. The white blood cells attack the viral cells and destroy them, thus clearing the virus from your body. During the recovery phase, your humoral immune system begins generating antibodies to prevent the same type of infection from occurring again.
Colostrum, the fluid produced by new mothers in the first day or two after birth, plays an integral part in supporting your NK cells,3 as well as affecting inflammation, metabolism and protecting against the development of cancerous growths.
Athletes report improved performance after using bovine colostrum supplements,4 and one of its components demonstrates the ability to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut.5
NK Cells Important in the Prevention of Viral Diseases and Tumors
Before moving further into a discussion of the benefits of colostrum, it’s important to identify the function of NK cells in the immune system and in the prevention of viral diseases and tumors, as this is the foundation of many of the benefits of colostrum. A paper published in Nature describes the functions of NK cells as they are involved in viral disease and tumor treatment:6
“Natural killer (NK) cells are effector lymphocytes of the innate immune system that control several types of tumors and microbial infections by limiting their spread and subsequent tissue damage … NK cells can thus limit or exacerbate immune responses.
Although NK cells might appear to be redundant in several conditions of immune challenge in humans, NK cell manipulation seems to hold promise in efforts to improve hematopoietic and solid organ transplantation, promote antitumor immunotherapy and control inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.”
The process of targeting and killing aberrant viral and tumor cells is mediated by molecules stored in a secretory lysosome, or specialized organelle, found in the NK cells. However, NK cells are not antigen-specific, a process used by your humoral immune response. Instead the NK cells help reduce viral replication as the adaptive arm of your immune system creates antibodies.
A deficiency in NK cells may leave you susceptible to viral infections and, potentially, tumor formation.7,8 Although not antigen-specific, NK cells differentiate between normal healthy cells and aberrant cells, leading scientists to seek ways to enhance NK cell function as a way of improving the effectiveness of cancer treatments.9,10
A recent Stanford study11 discovered a biomarker predicting the susceptibility to flu. Using 52 individuals who volunteered to be infected with influenza, researchers evaluated the types of immune cells present prior to the introduction of the virus and found NK cells were consistently low in individuals exhibiting symptoms of flu and those with higher levels had a better immune response.12
Health Benefits of Colostrum
Many of the benefits of using a colostrum supplement are based on the cellular responses in your body originating from supporting your immune system. Multiple studies have evaluated the use of colostrum in raw milk, including the effects on body composition, metabolism, recovery from surgery and protection against viral diseases, including rotavirus responsible for diarrheal illnesses.13
Colostrum is a critical nutrient source for the development of infants. Feeding formula, which does not contain colostrum, is believed to increase an infant’s risk of Type 1 diabetes, childhood cancers, colitis, allergies and chronic infections.14
The bioactive molecules in colostrum helps modulate an infant’s immune system and avoid over growth of pathogenic microorganisms. In adults, colostrum has been shown to affect:15,16
Allergy and infection — In a mouse study,17 researchers supplemented the experimental group with colostrum and then infected the control group and experimental group with the influenza virus. The mice supplemented with colostrum lost less weight and had a lower viral burden in the lungs compared to the control group.
The researchers then used a primary culture of small intestine epithelial cells stimulated with colostrum and discovered an interaction was potentially dependent on the components of colostrum with receptors in the intestinal epithelium.18
In another study,19 50 percent of orally ingested bovine immunoglobulin G protein (IgG, an antibody molecule) has been recovered in feces having passed through the gastrointestinal tract. The recovered levels in infants are higher than adults, likely due to differences in intestinal conditions, including pH.
Researchers believe this indicates bovine IgG is functionally active throughout the intestinal tract, helping to prevent gastrointestinal tract infections and lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammation.
IgG present in colostrum binds to human pathogens and allergens, neutralizing infection and limiting gastrointestinal inflammation. Researchers theorize the immunoglobulins may be a promising approach to supporting immune function and reducing allergic reactions.
Inflammation — Colostrum is rich in proline-rich polypeptides (PRPs), which have immune regulatory properties, appearing to restore balance and cellular functions. PRP has a regulatory activity in cytokine induction and inhibits the overproduction of reactive oxygen species and nitric oxide.20
PRPs also help relieve swelling by offsetting an overly active immune response and halting responses characteristic in rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.21 PRPs may also decrease the severity of an inflammatory disease by altering genetic expression.22
The polypeptides have been shown to improve cognition and behavior in older rats, humans and chickens.23 Additionally, the presence of lactoferrin in colostrum plays a role on the development of inflammation. This protein plays a crucial role in iron homeostasis24 and has been shown to inhibit autoimmune responses that trigger inflammation.25 Lactoferrin is a strong antioxidant aiding the body in detoxification and helping decrease the toxic load on your lymphatic system.26
Cancer — The extraordinary effect colostrum has on immunity has translated to the ability to help fight cancer. The combination of inhibiting autoimmune responses, reducing inflammation in the gut and reducing infections is part of the process. Bovine colostrum activates the production of GcMAF, responsible for repairing tissue damage and preventing the growth and spread of cancer.27
Metabolism — Colostrum has also been used in patients with insulin resistance, which can lead to liver injury. In one animal study,28 researchers evaluated the effect hyperimmune colostrum had on hepatic injury and insulin resistance after oral administration.
Glucose intolerance and liver enzymes improved and the mice experienced a reduction in serum tumor necrosis factor, suggesting hyperimmune colostrum preparations help reduce chronic inflammation, liver injury and insulin resistance associated with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
Healthy gut — A critical action associated with colostrum growth factors is healing and prevention of damage to the gastrointestinal lining by maintaining tight junctions between the cells. Colostrum helps reduce symptoms of leaky gut syndrome,29 which allows large or partially digested food proteins to pass into the body and trigger an inflammatory response.
The antibodies and lactoferrin help maintain a healthy microbiome, largely responsible for your overall health and wellness.30 Lactoferrin also acts as a prebiotic, stimulating the growth of specific good bacteria.31
Body composition — The high number of antioxidants and growth factors in bovine colostrum has made it a powerhouse for promoting muscle growth and healing ligaments and muscles after injury. Reduction in oxidative stress and overall damage after exercise has made it a supplement of choice for Olympic athletes to support their performance.32
In one study,33 athletes increased their lean muscle mass and performance after eight weeks of using colostrum supplements. The Center for Nutritional Research34 states the growth factors in colostrum are used by athletes to help burn fat, build strength, shorten recovery time and prevent illness after a vigorous exercise program.
In a consensus statement, the International Olympic Committee35 ruled colostrum is a superfood and a legal alternative to banned substances to improve athletic performance.
Veterinarians Use Colostrum to Treat Dogs and Horses
Veterinarians have been using bovine colostrum to treat dogs and horses therapeutically as it provides over 70 different growth factors for tissue repair. Dog owners have used colostrum to help reduce canine allergies, improve leaky gut and externally in the treatment of wounds.36 According to Biostar Whole Food supplements, it’s used:37
- To support the immune system and homeostasis, especially when dogs and horses are experiencing stress-related immune issues
- For tissue repair, wound healing and GI tract healing
- For muscle restoration
- For some senior animals who have ongoing issues
Hyperimmune Bovine Colostrum in Clinical Trials
Colostrum contains proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals used by the baby to help fight disease and nourish the body. Antibody levels in colostrum may be up to 100 times higher than levels in regular milk.38
Researchers have now created a special type of colostrum called hyperimmune bovine colostrum, produced after the cow receives a vaccination against a specific organism. The cow develops antibodies against the organism, which is then passed along in the colostrum.
Today, hyperimmune bovine colostrum is being used in clinical trials to test the treatment for diarrhea related to AIDS,39 graft-versus-host disease40 and Clostridium difficile.41
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted orphan drug status42 to hyperimmune bovine colostrum. This gives drug manufacturers who invest special market advantages, such as permission to sell the drug without competition for seven years.
Steer Clear of Colostrum When You’re Fasting
It’s important to remember, while there are benefits to using colostrum, the product is rich in growth factors. Athletes use it to boost performance and it may be used to help treat wounds. This means, while you’re fasting and trying to induce autophagy, it’s important to steer clear of colostrum.
Autophagy is a process your body uses to help to clear damaged cells,43 including old cells no longer serving a functional purpose. The word is derived from Greek words “auto,” meaning self, and “phagy,” meaning eating. In recent studies researchers have observed how this process promotes longevity and benefits the nervous system, heart and metabolism.44
You may help induce autophagy through the practice of fasting, which helps clear old cells from your body and improve your overall health. The use of colostrum during this process is contraindicated, as the growth factors increase growth at the same time your body is attempting to clear old cells.
More Ways to Naturally Boost Your NK Cells
Researchers continue to place their hope in finding an effective flu vaccine, but you don’t need drug intervention to boost your NK cells and therefore your protection against virtually all viruses and malignancies. NK cells tend to lose utility with increasing age, leaving you more susceptible to disease. The medical term for this degeneration is “immune senescence.”
The good news is you may counteract this decline using a number of different strategies and lifestyle choices, one of which is using a colostrum supplement. However, there are 10 more strategies you’ll find in my previous article, “How to Improve Your Immune Function by Boosting Natural Killer Cells.”