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Lactoferrin: The Infection Fighting Milk Protein Powerhouse

Tracy Beilliams

Lacto-what-now? The name makes a whole lot of sense at face value: lactoferrin is a protein that is naturally found in mammalian derived milk (cow’s milk) and in breast milk, that helps bind and transport iron in the body. Hence the “Lacto-” prefix, meaning milk derived, and the “-Ferrin” suffix, meaning ‘ferritin’ – a protein in the body that stores iron and releases it within your body. This is why high ferritin levels aren’t the same as high levels of iron in the blood, but the two can be closely related. Rather, high ferritin can indicate your body is storing too much iron. This can result from certain medical conditions or diseases. Alternatively, low ferritin levels may contribute to a low red blood cell count (as this can lead to anemia), when your body’s natural stores of iron are depleted. 

Another much studied benefit of lactoferrin stems from its functionality as an immune regulating protein, with anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and antioxidant activity. But more on this later. 

Many people who react negatively to milk, milk-sugars, or milk-derived proteins – casein and lactose in particular, seem to tolerate lactoferrin well. In particular, AOR’s Lactoferrin-250 and Lactoferrin-Ultra are completely lactose free, and the residual amount of casein is practically non-existent. 

Now, what about the fact that this is bovine derived and coming from cows instead of humans? Would cow milk-derived lactoferrin be different from human derived lactoferrin that is produced during breast feeding? Would the benefits be the same? The research and studies all point to yes. Although the concentration of lactoferrin would be different, our immune systems would be different than that of a baby, and our needs are different…the effect bovine lactoferrin has on adults indicates many of the same therapeutic benefits.  

Lactoferrin is extremely important during infancy and this is why it is naturally found in breast milk and in cow’s milk – it importantly helps regulate how the body absorbs iron, helps as a transport molecule for iron (in breast milk for babies), and helps build (boost) the immune system. Given the potent anti-bacterial and anti-viral immune properties, lactoferrin is especially important in infancy and during development of the baby. Of course, not only babies and infants need help with regulating the immune system or protecting against bacteria (viral and bacterial).

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In terms of comparison, bovine lactoferrin was shown to interact the same with human lactoferrin binding sites. It is taken up by the same receptors, and exerts the same beneficial activity. The amino acid peptide sequence is also identical when looking at both human and bovine. This just means the composition of both are structurally similar. 

Based on many research studies and clinical results, it appears to be well tolerated in adults, with very few negative side effects (constipation, fatigue) reported only in high-dose situations. 

Considering lactoferrin is also being added to baby and infant formulas, the level of safety is extremely high when compared to other supplements or traditional medications. 

While a human mother’s milk would contain around 15-20% of the total protein content as lactoferrin, cow’s milk is about 1% by comparison. 

Lactoferrin also seems essential for those having difficulty raising iron levels or with a severe anemic deficiency. 

The iron-binding effects of lactoferrin are actually two-fold. First, it can help increase absorption and utilization of iron in those with anemia or deficiency (regardless of if they are already taking iron supplements) while also inhibiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria and viruses that utilize iron in the body to replicate.

Let us explore the benefits of lactoferrin here in two parts. First, lactoferrin’s benefit for those suffering from low ferritin levels, low iron levels, lethargy and fatigue as a result, and anemia. This is compared, even, to a traditional iron supplement like those in the form of ‘ferrous sulfate’ or ‘ferrous gluconate’ – what many doctors will prescribe.  

Iron supplements can also be taken alongside lactoferrin for enhanced effectiveness.

Traditionally, iron supplements can be tough on the stomach and cause irritation and constipation. This can be a problem, considering a huge portion of the population is low in iron or supplementing, especially women. Lactoferrin offers an alternative that won’t upset the stomach (devoid of lactose and casein) while still raising total iron levels and red blood cell count. 

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At the same time, due to this ability to bind iron and deliver it to the sites needed in the body (production of red blood cells) it thereby makes iron less available to pathogenic bacteria, microorganisms, and cancer cells. Iron is an essential mineral for microorganisms and pathogenic bacteria too! 

Just as it is involved in a variety of processes and enzymatic reactions for us, so too is it for harmful pathogens, fungi, and bacteria. There are even numerous research papers on how bacteria can steal iron from the human host! This altered iron homeostasis in the body, as the body tries to retain iron rather than distribute it to the needed places (to prevent iron uptake by these pathogens) can lead to chronic inflammation and degenerative disease in addition to being a potential root cause of low iron levels and anemia. 

Even a pathogenic fungus like candida (which we hear about often) can work this way to acquire iron from the body for its own growth, replication, and cell function. 

Rob these pathogenic bacteria and organisms of a vital nutrient they need to replicate and cause disease, and you prevent their growth and more effectively destroy them.

Not all of lactoferrin’s potent anti-bacterial and anti-viral effects are attributed just to this iron transport function. 

We must also consider that these pathogens can subvert this beneficial effect of lactoferrin, and instead try to use lactoferrin itself as a source of iron. There are various other mechanisms by which lactoferrin inhibits and fights various pathogens and bacteria. 

Lactoferrin can prevent biofilm formation and accumulation by these pathogens (particularly an issue with tick-borne diseases as well as fungus), prevent microorganisms adhering to the gut lining and spreading in the digestive system, directly enhancing the body’s natural killer T cell and immune response, binding directly to the microorganism or pathogen itself and weakening their cell membrane, directly damaging gram-negative bacteria’s cell membrane, inducing faster viral clearance, and restrict the entry of the virus into the host cells. 

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This effectiveness is demonstrated against a wide variety of pathogens and viruses including herpes simplex virus, hepatitis B and C, candida albicans, H. pylori, rotavirus, and HPV.

Studies conclude that lactoferrin is anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-carcinogenic, an anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory.

Lactoferrin has a long-established history in terms of enhancing iron levels, red blood cell count, alleviating fatigue and lethargy, promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, and protecting against a broad range of bacteria, viruses (herpes, HPV) and pathogenic microorganisms. It has potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that may be beneficial in addressing joint pain, inflammation, osteoporosis, and arthritis. Lactoferrin was shown to reduce bone density loss and help increase bone formation in several clinical trials. The safety of lactoferrin is well documented. This is a supplement incorporated into baby formulas and used in infants, babies and neonates to promote a healthy immune system without any adverse reactions or adverse effects documented. 

A supplement that has a long history of safety in prolonged use and benefit, lactoferrin is the subject of renewed interest as of late for its potent antiviral properties – but for all of us pandemic or otherwise, lactoferrin may prove a hugely beneficial addition to daily life.

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