It is the first milk produced by all mammals after giving birth – and now questions are being asked about whether the cow version of colostrum is a super-supplement for athletes, an effective immune-booster for the wider community or just overpriced protein powder.
Colostrum is rich in antibodies and proteins which protect the suckling newborn against disease and illness. Bovine colostrum (BC) is similar in composition to human colostrum except that the growth and immune factors are contained in much greater concentrations. This is why in recent years it has become the wonder substance among athletes, with claims (some backed by research) that it can improve performance in activities requiring strength and endurance, aid in recovery from high-intensity training and boost immunity.
A banned substance?
With the Olympics, the spotlight is back on BC because it contains a growth factor called IGF-1, which is on the Banned Substances List of the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
IGF-1 is a hormone which is produced in the liver and plays an important role in stimulating growth during childhood and helps build and repair muscle tissue in adults.
So does this mean that BC could see athletes failing doping tests? The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) head of sports nutrition, Professor Louise Burke, has refused to comment on the use of BC by athletes or provide the AIS’s position on it. She referred all questions to the AIS’s fact sheet on BC which questions the benefits of the substance, while advising athletes it should be used with “discretion”.
Dr Cecilia Shing, from the University of Tasmania’s School of Human Life Sciences, has been involved in extensive BC research and says, “BC itself is not considered a banned substance, despite containing IGF-1, which is banned. But as BC may have the potential to increase serum IGF-1 levels following supplementation, athletes taking it can run the risk of testing positive for banned substances.”
Does it work?
“BC supplementation has been associated with an increase in lean body mass, increases in strength, increases in vertical jump height and flight times, and improved peak power output. However, these findings remain inconsistent across studies,” Shing says. Her own research has found that “low-dose BC supplementation was associated with a worthwhile improvement in time-trial performance and a reduction in fatigue following a heavy training period”.
There is also research claiming that athletes, who can become highly susceptible to illness when training intensely, are less likely to get upper respiratory tract infections when using BC.
The general population
There are numerous health claims that have been made about BC that also apply to the general public. For instance, the Center for Nutritional Research in the US says it can help everything from allergies to Alzheimer’s disease. Shing warns BC is no “miracle substance” and says more research needs to be done.
However, she does believe BC has potential benefits, not just for the elite athlete but “for individuals who face physiological stressors which may impact on immune function and gastrointestinal disturbances”.
The AIS is also cautious with its praise for the supplement, saying that BC “may be beneficial to improve performance within a few days of completing a high-intensity training block, but this benefit is diminished after a week of rest”.
The AIS also suggests that supplementing with BC powders, which it says could cost between $15 and $70 a week, can result in significant outlay for unproven results.
“It helped rebuild my body”
A near-fatal car accident in 1999 left 31-year-old Sam Riggio confined to a wheelchair with a prognosis that he would never walk again. About four years ago he “became upright” and is now walking.
While he is not claiming that bovine colostrum cured him – he spent years in rehabilitation – he does believe it gave him “the added five to 10 per cent to help me recover”.
“It was suggested to me as a substance that could improve my immunity and enhance muscle growth, repair and recovery,” says Riggio, who has written an autobiography called Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself (Ambitious).
“My body was basically shutting down, my muscles were wasting, my spleen had been removed, making me susceptible to illness, and I was sick often. I did my research first and it became obvious that giving it a go was a no-brainer. It definitely gave me the edge in my process of recovery.”