For today’s Dear Mark, I’m answering a reader question about whether colostrum supplements are worth trying. Let’s get right into it.
A buddy of mine has been taking colostrum powder for a few months now. He swears it’s helping him bulk up in the gym. I’m training for a century ride this summer and he says I should start using colostrum for leg strength. Ever since he mentioned it I feel like I’m seeing more fitness types talking about it on social media too. I’d love to get your take before shelling out the money. Thanks Mark!
Ah yes, your phone heard you talking about colostrum. Now your social media feed is full of colostrum posts, and you want to know if it’s legit or just another empty promise.
Colostrum, as you might know, is the “first milk” that mammals produce in the two to three days after giving birth. Compared to regular milk, colostrum is particularly rich in antibodies, enzymes, growth factors, and other nutrients all designed to protect the newborn and kickstart their immune system and digestion. If you were breastfed at birth, you received colostrum from your mother. Colostrum that you buy as a supplement is almost always bovine (cow) colostrum, usually in powder or capsule form.
Because of all the good stuff colostrum contains, it is a hot research topic for medical applications and boosting athletic performance. I’ll highlight some of the interesting findings in both areas here.
Does Bovine Colostrum Boost Athletic Performance?
Athletes are always looking for that edge. I can see why colostrum, which contains protein, growth factors like IGF-1, and lots of vitamins and minerals, would seem promising. After all, those compounds do support muscle growth, bone health, and general fitness. It’s also why some athletes have apparently tried drinking human breastmilk as a performance enhancer. (Breastmilk, although also loaded with nutrients, is not the same as colostrum.)
However, just because a product contains beneficial components doesn’t mean our bodies can use them as desired. In this case, adult humans don’t seem to be able to absorb the IGF-1 in bovine colostrum.1 Baby cows can absorb it because their intestines are more permeable, but we cannot.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits for athletes. I’m merely pointing out that just because something seems on face value like it should confer certain benefits doesn’t necessarily mean it will. That’s why we have research studies.
Before turning to the research, remember that when we ask, “Does supplement X boost athletic performance?” we also need to ask, “Compared to what?” In this case, researchers usually compare colostrum to whey protein. This makes sense. The benefits of whey protein are already well known. Pitting whey against colostrum in a single study design lets us see if a particular effect is due to protein ingestion generally or whether colostrum confers an extra advantage.
So what do the studies show?
Colostrum for Athletes: The Data
It’s a mixed bag of results, partially due to variation between study designs and relatively small study groups. In terms of positive outcomes:
Older adults supplemented with colostrum (60g/day) or whey protein and did resistance training three times per week. After eight weeks, both groups increased upper body strength, muscle mass, cognitive function, and muscle thickness. The colostrum group also improved leg press strength and reduced bone resorption.2
Twenty-two healthy adults took either colostrum (20g/day) or whey protein for eight weeks. All participants already did resistance training at least three times a week. They were instructed not to change their normal diet or exercise routines. Participants in the colostrum group gained an average of 1.5kg of lean mass according to DEXA scans, whereas the whey protein group stayed the same.3
In a small study of ten trained male cyclists, those who took 10 grams of colostrum daily for eight weeks maintained testosterone levels and heart rate variability during a five-day race.4
Taking 60 grams per day of colostrum for nine weeks improved female rowers’ ability to buffer lactate from the bloodstream (which can delay time to fatigue and support post-exercise recovery), but it did not bolster performance on a rowing test.5
When male and female elite field hockey players took colostrum (60g/day) for eight weeks, their sprint performance improved significantly compared to athletes who took whey. However, there were no significant differences in endurance performance or body composition.6
While these studies are promising, plenty of studies show no particular benefit of colostrum relative to whey. A comprehensive literature review by the folks at Examine turned up no advantages for colostrum in terms of VO2max, anaerobic running capacity, heart rate during exercise, or lactate threshold.7
My takeaway is that in terms of performance, the benefits of colostrum are more or less on par with whey protein. It might have a slight advantage in some cases, but based on the research done so far, colostrum doesn’t appear to be the next wonder supplement. I also don’t see any downsides to experimenting with it aside from the cost. At worst, you’ll get the same benefits you get from supplementing with whey protein.
Health Benefits of Colostrum Supplementation
Where colostrum may shine is in helping athletes stay healthy. Specifically, the immune factors in colostrum—especially lactoferrin and IgG—may confer protection in humans. The (surprisingly extensive) research probably deserves its own post, but I’ll briefly touch on a few areas of particular relevance to athletes.
First, colostrum could help counter athletes’ increased susceptibility to upper respiratory infections due to immunosuppression from excessive training. 8 A 2016 review of five studies concluded that colostrum supplementation reduces the risk of upper respiratory infection by 38 percent, at least in the athlete populations studied.9
Second, endurance athletes especially seem to be prone to gut issues. Colostrum might help.10 I’ve had readers tell me they’ve had great success with using colostrum to address IBS-type symptoms. There’s also evidence that colostrum mitigates the gut permeability that normally accompanies exercising in the heat.11
If you’re an athlete who’s popping NSAIDs to keep pain at bay so you can keep hitting the road or the turf, colostrum supplementation might help offset some of the damage you’re doing to your gut lining.12 I can’t stress, though, that the better course of action would be to modify your workouts and find other ways to reduce or manage pain if possible.
Bovine Colostrum Supplement Recommendations: Dosing and Timing
Apparently for maximum absorption, you want to take colostrum on an empty stomach. If you are using powdered colostrum (not capsules) mixed with water, some of the colostrum will be absorbed directly through the mouth, which some people believe is beneficial for immunity.
There’s no standard dose from what I can tell. The studies I looked at gave participants somewhere between 10 or 20 grams per day on the low end and 60 grams per day on the high end, but I’ve heard of people taking much more. I see no obvious risk from taking a higher dose (but talk to your doctor et cetera).
Bovine Colostrum Risks?
None that I can tell except perhaps if you don’t tolerate dairy. Colostrum does contain some casein and lactose, so tread carefully if you’re sensitive to those.
The Bottom Line
For athletic performance, the main benefits of colostrum probably come from the protein, meaning you’ll do just as well taking whey protein. I see no reason not to try colostrum if you’re interested, though. The research into the other health benefits of bovine colostrum is intriguing. If I was dealing with persistent upper respiratory infections or symptoms of intestinal permeability, I’d be asking to my doctor about colostrum.
If you’ve had a good (or bad) experience with bovine colostrum in the past, I’d like to hear about it. Tell me in the comments.