THE COLOSTRUM COUNSEL - Bovine Colostrum: Supplementing Exercise in the Older Athlete

Colostrum is beneficial for the younger athlete; new evidence shows the older ‘athlete’ may benefit as well.

Studies to date of bovine colostrum use in humans has largely focused on supplementing younger individuals or athletes during exercise or sport training. Athletes and younger individuals have used bovine colostrum as a nutritional supplement during training to enhance immune function, improve exercise performance, and increase lean tissue mass (Shing, Hunter, & Stevenson, 2009). Colostrum enhances immune function in swimmers to prevent upper respiratory tract infections (Crooks et al., 2010). Despite the belief that bovine colostrum supplementation would enhance immune function via immunoglobulins (i.e. proteins that improve immune function) found in the supplement no effects on either saliva or plasma immunoglobulin levels were found (Brinkworth & Buckley, 2003; Crooks et al., 2010). Thus, it has been suggested that upper respiratory tract infections may result from inflammation rather than suppressed immune function, and the beneficial effect of bovine colostrum supplementation is due to increased anti-inflammatory cytokines (i.e. proteins our body produces to decrease harmful inflammation), rather than increased immunolglobulin levels (Bachert et al., 2001; Shing et al., 2007). Improved exercise performance tends to be in anaerobic type activities, such as sprints and vertical jumps; however, the effects on strength remain unclear (Shing et al., 2009). Further, no studies investigated the effects of bovine supplementation during exercise training in older individuals or ‘athletes’.

Resistance exercise training thwarts inflammation and is considered the best non-pharmacological approach to prevent sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the age-associated loss of skeletal muscle mass and function resulting from many complex physiological and environmental factors (IWGS, 2011; Roubenoff, 2003). Sarcopenia is associated with frailty and functional impairment, ultimately decreasing the quality of life (IGWS, 2011). Generally speaking, an increase in inflammation and a decrease in levels and efficacy of growth hormones are associated with lower muscle mass and strength (i.e. sarcopenia) in older adults (Roubenoff, 2003; Visser et al., 2002). Further, aging and inflammation may alter the muscles’ response to resistance training, although the adaptive response is well preserved, just to a lesser degree (ACSM, 2009; Corsonello et al., 2010). The increased inflammation diminishes the efficacy of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF- 1), a hormone responsible for muscle growth and repair (Degens, 2010). IGF-1 is also important for development of brain and bone tissue; a reduction in IGF-1 in older adults is associated with cognitive decline (Ceda et al., 2005) and lower bone mass (Ohlsson et al., 2011).Thus, the bioactive components and IGF-1 contained in bovine colostrum may be beneficial to preserve not only muscle mass and strength, but also bone mass and cognitive function in older adults.

The first known study investigating the effects of bovine colostrum supplementation during resistance training in older adults was recently completed (Duff et al. 2013). We determined the effects of 8 weeks of bovine colostrum supplementation versus whey protein during resistance training in 40 older adults (59.0 ± 6.0 years). Participantsrandomly received (double blind) 60g/d of colostrum or whey protein complex (containing 38g protein) while participating in a resistance training program (12 exercises, 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, 3 days/week). Both groups improved upper body strength, muscle mass and size, and cognitive function over the 8 week period. Importantly, the bovine colostrum group showed greater increases in lower body strength and greater reductions in markers of bone resorption (i.e. bone resorption are harmful to bone health). However, there were no changes in levels of IGF-1 or markers of inflammation.

The increase in lower body strength of 20% from baseline in the bovine colostrum group is important because older adults lose muscle mass and strength in the lower body quicker than in the upper body, and this loss is equivalent to approximately 20% (Brill et al., 2000; Candow & Chilibeck, 2005; IWGS, 2011). Thus, bovine colostrum supplementation during resistance training was able to blunt the loss of strength normally associated with aging. Further, this study showed bovine colostrum supplementation during resistance training has a beneficial effect on bone as well as muscle. Osteoporosis is partially due to an imbalance between bone formation and bone resorption (i.e. bone break-down), with increases in bone resorption leading to decreases in bone density and strength. Only one known study has determined the effect of bovine colostrum during resistance training on bone in humans, and greater increases in bone cross-sectional area were found (Brinkworth et al., 2004). Previous studies in animals have found beneficial effects on bone density and strength and bone metabolism (Du et al., 2011; Hou et al., 2012; Lee et al., 2008, Nakajima et al., 2011; Vidal et al., 2004). In summary, bovine colostrum supplementation in older adults appears to be beneficial for enhancing muscular strength and preventing break-down of bone. This is important for maintenance of functional abilities and prevention of osteoporosis.


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Whitney Duff, MSc, CSEP CEP
Whitney Duff, MSc, CSEP CEP
College of Kinesiology, University of Saskatchewan

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