Colostrum, yes, the first type of milk produced by the mother after giving birth, is a potential sports-enhancing supplement. Its purpose in nature is to protect the newborn’s immune system, aid in protein synthesis, and muscle and tissue growth. While It’s role in immune health is noteworthy, but won’t be the focus of this post. Rather, colostrum’s most prevalent growth factor, insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), will be investigated for its potential role in muscle growth and recovery.
IGF-1 In a Nutshell
So, what is IGF-1? IGF-1 is an anabolic, non-androgenic substance that has a host of functions. Along with its muscle-building properties, it improves bone mineralization, helps with kidney filtration, and may mitigate the catabolic nature of glucocorticoids on protein synthesis. It can be thought of as an extension of growth hormone. The pituitary gland first produces growth hormone. Growth hormone then travels down to the liver (which is yet another reason why I emphasize liver health so much!), signaling it for it produce IGF-1. But what makes it “insulin-like”? Insulin and IGF-1 both play into how the body utilizes fuel (IGF-1 binds to insulin receptors). To keep it simple, let’s ignore exercise for a bit and look at when happens when the body is at rest. When insulin is active, the body will preferentially use fuel from carbohydrate (and a little bit of fat). This occurs in a “fed” state or a stretch of time where nutrient concentration is high in the blood. When in a fasted state (when nutrient blood concentration is low), the body will primarily use fat – this is largely the result of IGF-1 at play. Along with fasting, IGF-1 is also triggered from protein (although too much will stimulate insulin), high-intensity exercise, and while you sleep. Does this mean that the timing of the ingestion of colostrum makes a difference? While I cannot say for sure, intuitively, I would imagine before bed would be best. You may wonder why not consume colostrum pre- or post-workout? If timing does indeed matter, wouldn’t some extra IGF-1 help with the productiveness of the workout? You’ll see why we will want to avoid consumption of colostrum around the training period a little later on.
When the words “muscle” and “growth” find themselves in the same sentence, it will always catches the athlete or bodybuilder’s eye. Surely a substance that carries these properties would benefit your physique-building goals, right? Well, unfortunately the research is split. In several studies, there have been absolutely no benefit found from colostrum supplementation while in others, significant increases in IGF-1 have been demonstrated. What do we believe in this situation? It’s tough to say, but clearly there are some variables going unaccounted for that we don’t fully understand. In fact, even the mechanism by which colostrum increases IGF-1 isn’t fully understood. My advice to have baseline IGF-1 levels checked and then rechecked after 6ish week course of colostrum. This little test is something I have conducted at the office with several patients and have indeed seen noticeable increases in IGF-1. Let’s go over the research first and then I’ll give my thoughts.
A study by Kuipers & colleagues investigated the effects 60 grams/day of bovine colostrum had on IGF-1 and IGF BP-3 in relation to doping testing. They found no significant changes in either. They conclude that the previous findings on colostrum benefiting athletic performance is, therefore, not due to increases in IGF-1. Why did they not see any significant increases? The first thing that stood out to me was the sheer quantity of colostrum this study used. 60 grams/day is a large amount – maybe I am missing something here but the increases in IGF-1 that I have seen from colostrum (bovine as well) were from doses of 1 or 2 grams/day from Douglas Laboratories 100% New Zealand Colostrum. As you’ll see, even the studies showing increases in IGF-1 from colostrum utilized doses of 20+ grams/day. Is this discrepancy due to the quality of colostrum? The Kuipers study did not specify where their colostrum was sourced from. A study by Hofman and colleagues found no no improvement on IGF-1 levels from colostrum by Intact, sourced from Northfield Laboratories (now out of business). Interestingly, this study also used 60 grams of colostrum per day. Clearly, there is a missing component here – the colostrum source and purity is something that warrants much more investigation. Lastly, both studies are a bit limited in their sample population (Kuipers had 9 participants, Hofman had 17). While entirely understandable (all studies on this topic have limited sample sizes), in no way can a blanket statement be made about colostrum supplementation based off these findings. The same holds true with the positive findings we’ll look at next.
Mero et al., in their study on IGF-1 and several immunoglobins during training in response to colostrum supplementation, demonstrated a significant increase (approximately 17%) in circulating IGF-1 levels over time (after 14 days). It isn’t likely that the training program subjects had to undergo had any impact on their IGF-1 levels – this was a trained sample and their training regimen had not changed for this study. It’s not entirely known how this increase came to be – it’s either through direct absorption of the growth factor content of the colostrum and/or an indirect effect that stimulated IGF-1 production.
An interesting study by Antonio & colleagues investigated colostrum’s effects on body composition. In 8 weeks, trained participants (both men and women) saw an average increase of 1.49 kilograms of bone-free lean mass when following a resistance training and aerobic conditioning program while supplementing with 20 grams/day of bovine colostrum (again with those high doses). You may be wondering if the increases in muscle mass witness were the result of the prescribed training program rather than colostrum supplementation. Well, participants were screened beforehand – they had to have already been engaging in a minimum of 3 resistance training sessions per week (same as the study). Moreover, the placebo group (who followed the same protocol) did not witness any significant change in their body composition. While these results are great, don’t take the good without considering the bad. Remember, prior studies have had no success in demonstrating IGF-1 increases through colostrum supplementation. Research helps us understand what is possible, attempts to explain why it is possible, and opens the floor for more discussion…but it only tells part of the story. There are a seemingly endless number of variables to consider that we simply cannot measure (at least currently). Don’t let your own personal bias fill in the gaps.
Another Potential Benefit
Digging through the research on colostrum and performance, I found something I hadn’t considered previously. Oxidative stress, when left unchecked, can greatly impair your physique goals (among other health-related issues). It’s a topic I have written about at length – you can read about it here. Colostrum has shown to positively influence antioxidant function within muscle cells significantly (Appukutty, 2012). This opens the possibility for much more efficient recovery – something that, undoubtedly, will benefit your goals. Now, I’m unsure of the dosing necessary to accomplish this as the only study investigating colostrum in this regard was done using mice. Moreover, timing becomes an issue – if you’ve read my post on oxidative stress, you know that we don’t want to entirely eradicate reactive oxygen species (ROS) immediately post workout – some degree of ROS and oxidative stress is necessary for muscular adaptation to occur. So, while something to certainly consider, more research is warranted.
While I wish I could claim that colostrum supplementation is a surefire way of improving your IGF-1 levels, I am lacking the data to do so. Given all the published research, and from my own observations, decisive information on the colostrum/IGF-1 correlation is lacking. Moreover, the dosing of colostrum is what really baffles me – all published research on this topic utilizes doses of 20-60 grams. While a big enough range in of itself, I have seen improvements in IGF-1 in dosing as low as 1 gram per day. Hopefully though, this data and my observations shed a little bit of light on this potential correlation. Nonetheless, I encourage you to try it out yourself as the only risk is a small financial one.
Antonio, J., Sanders, M. S., & Gammeren, D. V. (2001). The effects of bovine colostrum supplementation on body composition and exercise performance in active men and women. Nutrition,17(3), 243-247. doi:10.1016/s0899-9007(00)00552-9
Appukutty, M., Radhakrishnan, A. K., Ramasamy, K., Ramasamy, R., Majeed, A. B., Noor, M. I., . . . Haleagrahara, N. (2012). Colostrum supplementation protects against exercise – induced oxidative stress in skeletal muscle in mice. BMC Research Notes,5(1), 649. doi:10.1186/1756-0500-5-649
Hofman, Z., Smeets, R., Verlaan, G., Lugt, R. v., & Verstappen, P. A. (2002). The Effect of Bovine Colostrum Supplementation on Exercise Performance in Elite Field Hockey Players. International Journal Of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 12(4), 461.
Kuipers, H., Breda, E. V., Verlaan, G., & Smeets, R. (2002). Effects of oral bovine colostrum supplementation on serum insulin-like growth factor-i levels. Nutrition,18(7-8), 566-567. doi:10.1016/s0899-9007(02)00800-6
Mero, A., Kähkönen, J., Nykänen, T., Parviainen, T., Jokinen, I., Takala, T., . . . Leppäluoto, J. (2002). IGF-I, IgA, and IgG responses to bovine colostrum supplementation during training. Journal of Applied Physiology,93(2), 732-739. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00002.2002
Souza, S. C., Frick, G. P., Wang, X., Kopchick, J. J., Lobo, R. B., & Goodman, H. M. (1995). A single arginine residue determines species specificity of the human growth hormone receptor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,92(4), 959-963. doi:10.1073/pnas.92.4.959