By Jess Goulart
Photo by Tony Harrison.
A deteriorating ozone, more air pollution than New York, Paris, or London, and water with a fecal pollution rate that’s 195 times the level the United States considers safe — sounds like the perfect spot for great feats of physical endurance, right? Well, good, because despite what some might consider surmounted environmental adversities, Rio de Janeiro is preparing to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Spectators may not take into account the enormous toll competing at that level takes on a body, especially the immune system. To aid athletes in combating the side effects of strenuous exercise in a city like Rio, a team of researchers at Napier University in Edinburgh is conducting research into a dietary supplement called bovine colostrum (or just ‘colostrum’ for short).
Colostrum hit the shelves about a decade ago and has since been hailed as a “miracle substance” in naturopathic circles. It’s a powder made from a mother cow’s milk in the days after she has given birth and is packed with nutrients like immunoglobulins, cytokines, growth factors, and vitamins. Despite its commercial success, few objective studies have been conducted into the effects of the supplement on athletes. For Doctor Elisa Gomes, lead researcher on the Napier team, the chance to investigate is too good to pass up.
“I first heard of colostrum a few years ago at a conference where I saw some presentations about it. My lab manager here in Edinburgh is also a cyclist who has seen lots of people that have started using it, even though there’s not a lot of research in this area. So the study is rather personal,” she says.
Gomes specializes in exercise and immunology. Her PhD, which was funded by the British Olympics Committee Institute specifically for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, explores the effects of Vitamin C and E on athletic performance in hot, polluted environments. From that research she thought it likely that the antioxidant rich composition of colostrum would address lung inflammation and improve performance for the Olympic competitors.
In her current double-blind study, fifteen cyclists take either supplement A or B for two weeks. One is the colostrum, one is a placebo. There’s a “cooling off period” where the supplement leaves the subjects’ bodies, then they begin another two-week period during which they take the opposite.
During each period of two weeks, subjects complete thirty minutes of intense cycling daily in an environmental chamber that simulates the conditions in Rio. Gomes samples their blood, saliva, and upper respiratory cells via nasal lavage to test for immune markers and other changes in bodily functions. She also tracks data from daily two-kilometer time trials to see if the supplement affects their performance.
Past studies have shown bovine colostrum is effective in increasing aerobic performance and beneficially altering body composition. A study by British gastroenterologist Raymond Playford found colostrum is also greatly useful in reducing a condition called “gut leakage.”
Gut leakage is when a person’s gut cells die and toxins leak into their body. It is most often a result from one’s core heating up during strenuous exercise like long-distance running. Playford tells BTR that his study demonstrated the rise in leakiness from running is “virtually prevented” if athletes take colostrum for two weeks beforehand.
“The colostrum didn’t prevent the rise in temperature, but probably allowed the cells lining the gut to cope better with this harsh environment, making them stay stuck closer and tighter together rather than allowing gaps to form between the cells,” Playford explains. “We went onto show in laboratory experiments that one of the signaling pathways the colostrum worked through is probably via increasing a protective protein called heat shock protein 70. We concluded that colostrum may have value in enhancing athletic performance and preventing heat stroke.”
Many non-athletes already swear by colostrum’s restorative powers. Teddy Nseir, who authors the health advice blog My Healthy Outlet, tells BTR he began using colostrum for pain management and its anti-inflammatory benefits after he was diagnosed with arthritis in his neck.
“I got to tell you, it worked like magic. I started seeing progress in less than two weeks and then I discovered other benefits. It boosted my immune system so much I started getting sick less and less, no more flu in the winter, no more indigestion problems.”
Erin Fraser, founder of the popular paleo-diet blog Pretty in Primal, tells BTR that she’s had “great success with using colostrum as a general immune booster and, in the past few years, more specifically for gut healing.” Fraser says repeated food sensitivity tests have indicated a decrease in the number of foods she reacts negatively to, demonstrating a strengthening of her gut cells. In addition, Fraser says she just generally feels better and has more energy when she’s taking the supplement.
But is this effectiveness real or placebo? Such is the quandary that faces Gomes, though she is hopeful as far as the Rio athletes are concerned. She predicts that colostrum will indeed have an effect on the immune system, particularly on reducing what’s called the “open window period,” the time frame after heavy exertion where an athlete is extra susceptible to virus and infection should they be exposed. In a city with serious waste problems, this would be key to preventing disease.
Gomes hopes to publish her findings in spring of 2014, but cautions that they will be narrow.
“We have to be quite careful when we publish because I think people would start taking it for everything and anything and we don’t know if there are any long term problems. I read that they are already producing colostrum without lactose for the lactose intolerant. You just have to be careful with all that. Our findings will say ‘individuals that are going to compete in a hot, polluted environment would benefit from a short supplementation period.’ Not – ‘here, take this indefinitely.’”
Vitamin E is a notable example of the dangers of blindly taking supplements. While it usually acts as an antioxidant, recent studies have found that when taken in large quantities, the vitamin actually begins acting as a pro-oxidant, which may decrease lifespan.
However, if colostrum does have the desired effect, it could spur research that would be hugely beneficial to people living or working in densely populated cities. Either way, investigators like Gomes and Playford agree it’s an area that warrants further exploration.
“Even if we don’t find positive results, that’s still good,” says Gomes. “People are always looking for a little miracle. If we know that this is not as good as it sounds and maybe is just a placebo effect, that information is worthwhile, too.”