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Baby Food

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I've been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and my daughter says I should take colostrum pills to enhance my immunity. I have two reasons why I think that it is a bad idea, but want to get your opinion so I have some ammunition when she's insists: 1) Isn't it true you can't absorb colostrum unless you are an infant? 2) Since they don't pasteurize it, couldn't you get Mad Cow Disease from taking the supplement?

—Donna J.

I have long thought there must be something magical in colostrum. I mean, first a baby is born looking like a cross between a boiled peanut and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Then, after a couple of feedings, the kid transforms into a tiny, clean-shaven Dr. Phil. I admit it's not much of an improvement, but at least with a baby, all that babbling has a purpose.

Colostrum is the opaque fluid secreted by breast tissue late in pregnancy and in the first few days after giving birth and serves perfectly as a baby's first smoothie. Not exactly milk, these yellowish secretions contain high amounts of antibodies, protein and minerals, plus small amounts of carbohydrates and fat. Teams of professional lactating women, fresh from the delivery room, produce the hundreds of bottles of colostrum processed and sold as dietary supplements. OK, I made that up, but I wouldn't put it past the Wal-Mart pharmacy to be so resourceful.

Actually, the fluid is collected from dairy cows in a procedure known as the first milking. The bovine colostrum is "flash-pasteurized" or freeze-dried, then encapsulated and bottled. Although your concern is understandable regarding mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE), you won't be able to use that argument with your daughter. Even from cows known to have the disease, milk has never been found to transmit the proteins (called prions) that cause BSE.

I'm sure you won't be surprised by the claims made by companies that sell colostrum. A sampling includes: reversal of aging up to 20 years; protection against cancer, HIV and Alzheimer's disease; remarkable healing of old injuries; improved sexual performance; and (the ever-popular) dramatic targeted weight-loss. Of course, these are about as real as my professional lactators, but research into bovine colostrum may ultimately yield some medical benefits from two of its major components, immunoglobulins and lactoferrins.

Immunoglobulins, or antibodies, are proteins our bodies use to identify, detain and help destroy foreign cells or particles. Of five major types, the antibody IgA is the most abundant in both human and bovine colostrum as well as at all the body's "entrances and exits." When taken orally, the very large IgA molecule cannot pass easily through our intestinal wall—and that is why colostrum is theorized to protect adults from infections. When IgA attaches itself to bacteria or viruses in the gut, they can't pass into the bloodstream either.

The second potential benefactor in colostrum is lactoferrin, a protein that has an unusual affinity for iron. Its continued appearance in the later secretions of actual milk indicates that lactoferrin may be the main source of iron for the human newborn. In the laboratory, this protein shows anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity, but no good studies have yet been done in animals or humans. Lactoferrin holds iron tighter than a baby grabbing a hoop earring, which some have proposed as the reason for its effectiveness. Pathogenic bacteria require iron to replicate, so if lactoferrins withhold iron from them, their days are numbered.

So far it is all theory, since very little research points in the direction of recommending bovine colostrum as a dietary supplement. A fairly poor 2001 study indicated that body builders could increase their lean body mass using the capsules. Unfortunately, that study had a quite small sample size and didn't screen for other supplement or steroid usage. One promising research finding, confirmed by a second study, is that bovine colostrum may provide protection against gastrointestinal issues associated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). A remedy for aspirin's stomach upset is not exactly a cure for Alzheimer's, but it's something.

Unlike your daughter, I cannot recommend taking colostrum as an immunity booster for your hepatitis. And, unless you lie convincingly, you can't use mad cow disease as your excuse. If she's really unrelenting, you could always agree with certain conditions: You'll quit your job and move in with her. She's to do your laundry, prepare your meals and run your bath. And, lastly, demand a nap every two hours. Tell her if she's going to treat you like a newborn, you should at least get all the perks.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send plastic bibs and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).