The Benefits and Uses of Lactoferrin

mother and baby
Lactoferrin is a protein found naturally in milk. Emma Kim/Cultura/Getty Images

Lactoferrin is a protein found naturally in milk and several other fluids in the body (such as saliva, tears, mucus, and bile). Although lactoferrin is one of the key proteins in milk, it is found in highest amounts in colostrum, the first type of breast milk.

Lactoferrin's main functions in the body include binding with iron and transporting it around the body, and fighting infections. Also available in dietary supplement form, lactoferrin has been found to offer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

Uses for Lactoferrin

Lactoferrin is touted as a remedy for a wide range of health conditions, including:

  • Acne
  • Diarrhea
  • Hepatitis C
  • Osteoporosis
  • Ulcers

In addition, lactoferrin is said to stimulate the immune system, promote the growth of probiotic bacteria, and aid in cancer prevention.

The Benefits of Lactoferrin

Here's a look at the science behind the purported health benefits of lactoferrin:

Acne

In a study published in Nutrition in 2010, participants consumed either fermented milk with 200 mg of lactoferrin or fermented milk daily for twelve weeks. Acne lesions were assessed at monthly visits.

At the end of the treatment period, those given the lactoferrin-supplemented milk had a decrease in acne lesion count, inflammatory lesion count, acne grade, and amount of sebum compared to those who took the placebo. Researchers also noted a reduction in triacylglycerols (a type of fat) in the skin surface.

A 2017 study examined the use of lactoferrin supplements combined with vitamin E and zinc for three months in people with mild to moderate acne vulgaris and found a reduction in total acne lesions, comedones, and inflammatory lesions compared to those who took a placebo. 

Osteoporosis

Although research on the bone-building benefits of lactoferrin is very limited, preliminary research suggests that lactoferrin may aid in the prevention of osteoporosis. In a 2015 report published in PLoS One, laboratory tests determined that lactoferrin may work with the mineral hydroxyapatite to help stimulate the growth of bone-forming cells known as osteoblasts.

In a study published in Osteoporosis International in 2009, researchers examined the use of a lactoferrin supplement (enriched with ribonuclease, a substance found to promote the formation of new blood vessels) on bone health in post-menopausal women. At the study's end, those who took the lactoferrin supplement had a significant reduction in bone resorption and increase in bone formation compared to those who took the placebo.

Infections

Lactoferrin appears to protect the body from pathogenic microorganisms such as bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. In a 2014 report published in Journal of Infection and Chemotherapy, for instance, researchers analyzed the available research on lactoferrin's antiviral properties and found that it may inhibit the attachment of viruses to cells in the body and the replication of the virus in cells. What's more, the researchers found that lactoferrin may also boost the body's immune function.

Hepatitis C

There's some evidence that lactoferrin may inhibit hepatitis C infection. In a 2013 study from Hepatology Research, for instance, scientists discovered that treatment with lactoferrin may help increase levels of interleukin-18 (an immune-system protein found to play a key role in fighting off the hepatitis C virus). The year-long study involved 63 people with hepatitis C.

Ulcers

Lactoferrin may help protect against Helicobacter pylori infection (a type of infection known to cause ulcers). For a report published in World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2014, researchers analyzed previously published clinical trials on the use of fermented milk and several of its component proteins (including lactoferrin) against Helicobacter pylori infection. Results revealed that lactoferrin sourced from cow's milk may help knock out Helicobacter pylori and reduce infection rates.

Sources of Lactoferrin

When used in dietary supplement form, lactoferrin powder is typically sourced from cow's milk or genetically modified rice or cow's milk.

There's some evidence that colostrum (the first milk produced by lactating women after giving birth) contains particularly high levels of lactoferrin.

Possible Side Effects and Safety

When taken in excessive doses, lactoferrin may cause a number of adverse effects, including fatigue, constipation, and loss of appetite.

The long-term safety of lactoferrin use isn't known. Keep in mind that self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Where To Find It

Widely available for purchase online, supplements containing lactoferrin are available in many natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

The Takeaway

Due to the limited research, it's too soon to recommend lactoferrin supplements as a treatment for any condition. If you're considering using it, talk to your doctor first to weigh the potential risks and benefits and to discuss whether it's appropriate for you.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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