Avinash Inamdar was prone to persistent upper respiratory tract infections, and had been battling chronic fatigue for years. Dr Inamdar, 59, heads the department of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, BJ Medical College, Pune, and he took the tried and tested path of loading himself with antihistamines and antibiotics to fight the infections. He also developed an intolerance to foods like banana and curd. Six weeks ago, he decided to explore a new route, and began a course of cow colostrum supplements.

Colostrum is the first food produced by all mammals during the first 24 hours of lactation and is designed to give a newborn the essential nutrients it needs to thrive. It is abundant in immune factors, growth factors, vitamins and minerals to protect a newborn from infection and help it grow.

Cow colostrum is colostrum from lactating cows. While the calf gets all that it needs during the first day, the remaining colostrum can be used and processed to keep the immune factors and other nutrients biologically active. Cow colostrum is available in India in caplet and powder form.

Its value as an immune enhancer and a nervous system repair agent has been known to Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, and in the last 20 years Western medical research has produced several hundred studies that point to its usefulness as a food supplement which can optimize the health of both healthy and sick adults and children.

The changes in Dr Inamdar’s case were immediate. A month after he started the supplement, the infections stopped, and he feels less fatigued now than he has in the last 10 years. He’s even tried eating bananas and yogurt, and suffered no discomfort.

He was convinced to try the supplement after he was shown the results of the scientific studies done on colostrum by Vinod Marathe, chairman and managing director, Sharp Wellness Solutions Pvt. Ltd, Pune. Dr Marathe advised him to increase his water consumption while taking the supplements, which Dr Inamdar did.

Dr Inamdar credits the change in him to the immune-boosting properties of cow colostrum. When he began taking it, he stopped taking antibiotics and antihistamines. Studies have shown that antibodies and the immune factors in colostrum bolster immunity and reduce tissue inflammation.

Walter L. Hurley from the department of animal sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US, and his colleague reviewed more than 200 studies on antibodies found in colostrum and milk. The review, published in April 2011 in Nutrients and titled Perspectives on Immunoglobulins in Colostrum And Milk, suggested it can provide substantial protection from disease, given the concentration of antibodies in cow colostrum, greater than those found in human colostrum, and the fact that the cow antibodies in colostrum are quite resistant to the digestive enzymes found in human stomachs.

“Since inflammation is a major cause of coronary disease and osteoporosis, I plan to continue taking the supplement for a six-month period. And research has shown that it can be safely taken for a six-month period without any side effects," says Dr Inamdar.

Dr Marathe says that while it is not known if there are side effects if you have it for more than six months, it can be ingested in six-monthly periods to build immunity every couple of years.

Colostrum supplementation isn’t limited to adults.

Ruta Sawarkar, paediatrician, Priyottam Brainberg Clinics & Consulting, Pune, routinely gives cow colostrum caplets to patients. She finds it particularly useful in treating gastroenteritis, coughs and colds. “I find that once the babies are given cow colostrum, they recover in three days when they would normally take a week. They also need less powerful antibiotics, if at all."

Megha Bharekar, 30, is the mother of a 13-month-old. She gave cow colostrum in half a capsule to her son for two days on Dr Sawarkar’s recommendation when he suffered from gastroenteritis at six months; he recovered within two days.

Dr Sawarkar says that because of the high cost of the supplement, around 160 for 10 capsules, she only recommends it when her patients are sick—but she sees no reason why it can’t be taken as a preventive.

Not everyone agrees. For instance, Anand Shandilya, director and paediatrician, Dr Anand’s Hospital for Children, Jogeshwari (East), Mumbai, says: “While there are studies that have been done on cow colostrum supplements, there aren’t enough rigorous studies done for me to prescribe it to my patients. I feel very strongly that cow colostrum falls in that grey area of supplements that needs to be studied further and standardized before it can be used in patients."

Research shows the immune factors, growth factors and nutritional components that make colostrum a potent immune ally could be useful for the strenuous exercisers among us too. Typically, strenuous exercise makes us more prone to upper respiratory tract infections, something you may have experienced if you’ve ever trained heavily in the gym. A research paper by Glen Davison, School of Sports and Exercise Science, University of Kent, UK, in Medicine And Sport Science, published online on 15 October, showed cow colostrum taken over a number of weeks reduces the number of upper respiratory tract infections suffered by athletes.

Another paper published in Preventive Medicine in May 2012 by Kathleen F. Benson and colleagues at NIS Labs, Klamath Falls, Oregon, US, sheds light on how cow colostrum acts as an immune vitamin. Dr Benson’s study looked at the effects of a single dose of colostrum whey or a placebo on healthy people, with blood samples taken 1-2 hours later. The researchers found there was a rapid increase in the ability of monocytes, a particular type of immune cell or white blood cells, to eat infectious bacteria and viruses. Monocytes need to be activated to act as immune vultures and the presence of colostrum immune activators in the stomach triggers an immune reaction throughout the body.

In an email interview, Dr Davisonsaid he too had had similar results “in a study in which we showed that a single dose (only on the day of exercise) has some benefit to immune markers. However, not as large as with longer (weeks) periods of supplementation". Dr Davison’s study was done on athletes, but “any other group of people that suffer a high incidence of upper respiratory infections because of stress could potentially benefit," he says.

J.T. Pol, consultant physician, Nikop Hospital, Laxmi Nagar, Phaltan, Satara, Maharashtra, has been prescribing cow colostrum supplements to patients with allergic bronchitis, and finds that after four months of supplementation the incidence of allergies goes down. He has documented these results in several patients and intends to publish the data in a scientific journal.

He has also prescribed colostrum to liver and renal cancer patients and finds that it reduces their pain and the side effects of chemotherapy. Dr Pol himself takes colostrum every morning and evening, half an hour before food. “For preventing illness it is an excellent food supplement," he says.

But just like any other supplement, do consult your physician before taking colostrum.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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