One study found a combination of colostrum and probiotics is more effective in preventing flu than vaccination.1 Colostrum is a nutrient-rich fluid produced by mammals immediately after birth that helps provide immune protection to the baby. In addition to flu prevention, colostrum has other benefits to your overall health.
Many viral illnesses, like colds and flu, are seasonal. Although you can get sick anytime during the year, in the U.S. colds and flu are more prevalent from October through March. There are a variety of reasons that happens, not the least of which is related to your sun exposure and subsequent vitamin D production.
The burden influenza has on society changes each year, as the virulence of the flu strain also changes. In the 2018 to 2019 season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 35.5 million people would be sick with flu in the U.S., resulting in 490,600 hospitalizations and 34,200 deaths.2 This was lower than the 2017 to 2018 season when 45 million were sick and 61,000 died.3
In an effort to reduce the effect flu has on the general population, many experts recommend you get a flu shot each year. Yet, this strategy has not been effective and does not warrant the massive public media push it gets each fall. Thankfully, you have other choices to support your immune system and significantly reduce the potential you’ll get sick.
Probiotic and Colostrum More Effective Than Vaccine
The endpoint measurement for success in vaccinations should be the prevention of the illness or condition. One published study compared the effectiveness of the combination of colostrum and Bifivir against flu vaccination in the prevention of flu in participants.4 Bifivir is a supplement containing five strains of bacteria and prebiotic fiber.
In one study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, the combination of probiotics and prebiotics in supplement form demonstrated effectiveness in “reducing the incidence and severity of respiratory diseases during the cold season.”5
In the study comparing the effectiveness of a combination of colostrum and Bifivir against flu vaccines, four groups of individuals were matched for age and sex distribution.6 In the control group, participants did not receive any preventive measures, which resulted in eight major episodes and 12 minor episodes of flu.
Those who received only the vaccine showed a similar response with eight major episodes and 13 minor episodes. In the group receiving the flu vaccine and the immunomodulators Bifivir and colostrum, there were four who had a major episode and nine with a minor episode.
The group that received only the immunomodulators faired the best. There were three with a major episode and eight with a minor episode. The researchers found the groups who received vaccinations and the immunomodulator and the group that received only the immunomodulators showed significantly lower rates of flu when compared against the other two groups.
Interestingly, in those who were vaccinated the number of days they had the flu was two times higher when compared against the other groups. There was no problem tolerating the immunomodulators and no side effects were found during the study.
The researchers concluded, “the administration of immunomodulators is very cost-effective and appears to be more effective than vaccination to prevent flu.”7
More Evidence Colostrum Benefits Your Immune System
This was not the first study to evaluate the effectiveness of colostrum on the immune system, nor was it the last. Bovine colostrum has been used to treat infections in the gastrointestinal tract and has been shown to support the immune system, musculoskeletal repair and growth.8
A significant portion of bovine colostrum survives the gastrointestinal tract and remains active in the lower intestines, where it impacts gut and immune health. It has proven safe, except for those who are allergic to milk, in whom it triggers an allergic reaction.9 One study analyzed the influence bovine colostrum had on the immune system of a group of highly trained road cyclists.10
The group was initially tested with a 40-kilometer (24.8 miles) time trial and then randomized to receive the intervention or to a control group. After five weeks of receiving the supplement, cyclists underwent another time trial and then completed five consecutive days of high-intensity training including a time trial at completion and another the following week.
The researchers collected blood before and after each time trial and any upper respiratory symptoms were recorded. The cyclists receiving the bovine colostrum supplementation showed a modulation of the immune parameters measured and a trend toward reduced upper respiratory symptoms.
More recently, a paper in Frontiers in Nutrition reviewed the current literature on the effect bovine immunoglobulin has on the human immune system.11 They describe the mechanism by which IgG from bovine colostrum neutralizes experimental infection, limits inflammation and binds to pathogens and allergens.
They offer these mechanisms as an explanation of the effect bovine IgG from colostrum can have on humans and believe it offers an approach to supporting the immune system in vulnerable groups, including the elderly and immunocompromised.
Colostrum Boosts Natural Killer Cells
Bovine colostrum raises the percentage of natural killer (NK) cells in the body.12 NK cells are a type of white blood cell and part of the innate immune system that helps control microbial infections and tissue damage.13 They also play a role in organ transplant, immunotherapy and autoimmune disorders.
NK cells are a type of lymphocyte that respond quickly to pathogens in the body. They are best known for attacking viruses and controlling early cancer cells. The NK cells secrete cytokines that signal other immune cells and ultimately enhance your immune response.
Scientists have found these cells can adapt and develop memory cells, which offers new insights into the role they play in the innate immune response protecting human health. These cells make up to 15% of the peripheral blood supply, but the majority are found in the spleen, bone marrow and lymph nodes.14
NK cell activity goes beyond immune surveillance and is activated with exposure to protein allergens. They can promote allergic sensitization and are involved in airway hyperresponsiveness. When the infection happens with an active allergic response, the NK cells raise the magnitude and contribute to the exacerbation of asthma.15
Flu Vaccine Fails Older Adults
Over 70% of respiratory flu-like illnesses during flu season are not caused by type A or type B influenza.16 Therefore, even if a flu shot is highly effective, it still cannot prevent the vast majority of respiratory infections that occur during flu season. However, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine typically does not reach a level of being highly effective.
This may be related to the hundreds of flu viruses and the constant changes they undergo. This means each year health officials make an educated guess about the strains most likely to be circulating in the upcoming season. Three or four type A and type B flu viruses are chosen and added to the seasonal flu shot.
This accounts for the varying and often disappointing results from the vaccine. It’s often stated that flu vaccinations will reduce hospitalizations and deaths in the elderly,17,18 but a 2020 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine calls this statement into serious question.19
The researchers reviewed data from 170 million episodes of care and 7.6 million deaths in adults aged 55 to 75 between 2000 and 2014. The goal was to determine the effectiveness of the flu vaccine in elderly people living in England and Wales. The researchers concluded:20
“Current vaccination strategies prioritizing elderly persons may be less effective than believed at reducing serious morbidity and mortality in this population, which suggests that supplementary strategies may be necessary.”
Historically, regardless of how well-matched the vaccine is to circulating strains, your chances of getting influenza after vaccination are still greater than 50/50 in any given year.
According to CDC data updated September 10, 2019, the 2018/2019 flu vaccine (all vaccine types) against influenza A or B viruses had an adjusted effectiveness rating of 29% for all ages. When broken down by age group, only young children came close to 50% effectiveness, which raised the overall effectiveness percentage above all other age groups:21
- 48% for children aged 6 months through 8 years
- 7% for children ages 9 through 17
- 25% for adults between the ages of 18 and 49
- 14% for those 50 to 64
- 12% for those over 65
Boost Your NK Cells Naturally
It’s important to remember you can take control of your health and support your immune system so you don’t need to rely on drug interventions against viral illnesses. The medical term for the degeneration of NK cells as you age is “immune senescence.” This leaves you susceptible to disease, but the good news is you can counter this decline in several natural ways, including:
Regular exercise — In one study, moderate exercise improved NK cell function in cancer patients.22
Quit smoking — Quitting doesn’t increase production of NK cells but improves function since smoking impairs NK cell capacity.23
Enzymatically modified rice bran (EMRB) — EMRB is produced by exposing rice bran fiber to enzymes isolated from the shiitake mushroom. In one study, a product from enzymatically modified arabinoxylan rice bran called MGN-3 demonstrated a “clear increase” in NK cell activity in patients with multiple myeloma after three months of treatment.24
Cardamom and black pepper — A relative of turmeric, cardamom is known for its potent immune-boosting benefits. Cardamom and black pepper have shown the ability to enhance the cytotoxic activity of NK cell.25
Colostrum — Colostrum from cows is markedly similar to human colostrum, and colostrum products are typically derived from cows. The colostrum contains an array of immune and growth factors required by the offspring.
An animal study showed oral administration of skimmed and concentrated bovine late colostrum activated the immune system and protected against influenza infection by boosting NK cell activity.26
Active hexose correlated compound (AHCC) — AHCC is a commercially available fermented mushroom extract that supports healthy immune function, primarily by enhancing NK cell activity.29
Probiotics — Beneficial bacteria found in traditionally fermented foods boost NK cell activity.30 Those with low NK cell levels tend to experience greater benefits from probiotic supplementation than those with healthy levels of NK cells.
Ginseng — Panax ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng, stimulates NK cells and stimulates cytokines that lower the proinflammatory response.31
Melatonin — Melatonin is a neurohormone produced by your pineal gland and stimulates the production of NK cells and the release of cytokines.32,33 Consider the strategies listed in “Melatonin — A Standard Treatment Adjunct for COVID-19?” to naturally raise your melatonin levels.