The use of colostrum for the treatment of illness and for the maintenance of well-being dates back thousands of years. The Ayurvedic physicians and the Rishis of India have been using colostrum for medicinal purposes since cows have become domesticated.
Colostrum is a form of milk produced by the mammary glands of mammals in late pregnancy. Most species will generate colostrum just prior to giving birth. Colostrum contains antibodies to protect the newborn against disease, as well as being lower in fat and higher in protein than ordinary milk. It was known that these antibodies had certain properties that evoked protection. Spolverini (1920) advocated that cow’s colostrum be utilised as an infant food to protect the infant against shared human and bovine diseases.
Newborns have very immature digestive systems, and colostrum delivers its nutrients in a very concentrated low-volume form. It has a mild laxative effect, encouraging the passing of the baby’s first stool, which is called meconium. This clears excess bilirubin, a waste-product of dead red blood cells, which is produced in large quantities at birth due to blood volume reduction, from the infant’s body and helps prevent jaundice. Colostrum is known to contain antibodies called immunoglobulins such as IgA, IgG, and IgM in mammals. IgA is absorbed through the intestinal epithelium, travels through the blood, and is secreted onto other Type 1 mucosal surfaces. These are the major components of the adaptive immune system. Other immune components of colostrum include the major components of the innate immune system, such as lactoferrin, lysozyme, lactoperoxidase, complement, and proline-rich polypeptides (PRP). A number of cytokines (small messenger peptides that control the functioning of the immune system) are found in colostrum as well, including interleukins, tumor necrosis factor, chemokines, and others. Colostrum also contains a number of growth factors, such as insulin-like growth factors I, and II, transforming growth factors alpha, beta 1 and beta 2, fibroblast growth factors, epidermal growth factor, granulocyte-macrophage-stimulating growth factor, platelet-derived growth factor, vascular endothelial growth factor, and colony-stimulating factor-1.
Colostrum is very rich in proteins, vitamin A, and sodium chloride, but contains lower amounts of carbohydrates, lipids, and potassium than normal milk. The most important bioactive components in colostrum are growth factors and antimicrobial factors. The antibodies in colostrum provide passive immunity, while growth factors stimulate the development of the gut. They are passed to the neonate and provide the first protection against pathogens.
The Use of Colostrum In Medicine
Since a long time ago, colostrum was used for its antibiotic properties. Albert Sabin, the physician credited with developing the first polio vaccine advocated the use of colostrum and in fact originally isolated anti-polio antibodies from bovine colostrum. Campbell and Peterson (1963) developed a program whereby cows were immunised with a mixture of attenuated pathogens prior to birth of the calf. The colostrum fraction collected from these animals is referred to as immune or hyperimmunised colostrum.
The prophylatic and therapeutic use of immune milks has been shown to be successful in preventing and treating enteropathogenic Escherichia coli infections, rotavirus gastroenteritis in infants, Cryptococcidiosis and diarrhoea in AIDS and other immunodeficient patients, dental caries formation, and other conditions. In all these instances colostrum containing immunoglobulins has been obtained from cows hyperimmunised with specific pathogens.
Kummer (1992) found that colostrum from non-immunised cows can prevent gastrointestinal disease in infants. McConnell (1998) and her colleagues at Otago University, New Zealand and New Zealand Dairy Group successfully showed that it was possible to produce a colostrum from pasture fed non-hyperimmunised cows which exhibited a greater antibody titre then that of a hyperimmunised equivalent.