What Is Lactoferrin?

This milk protein may help treat infection

Milk and lactoferrin capsules

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Lactoferrin is a protein found naturally in milk from humans and cows. It is also found in several other fluids in the body such as saliva, tears, mucus, and bile. Lactoferrin is found in highest amounts in colostrum, the first type of breast milk produced after a baby is born.

Lactoferrin's main functions in the body include binding with and transporting iron. It also helps to fight infections. Some people take lactoferrin supplements for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Though lactoferrin powder is typically sourced from genetically modified rice, it can come from cow's milk as well.

What Is Lactoferrin Used For?

Lactoferrin and lactoferrin supplements have been widely studied. Here's a look at the science behind the purported health benefits.

Infections

Lactoferrin appears to protect the body from pathogenic microorganisms such as those that cause bacterial, viral, and fungal infections.

In a 2014 report published in Journal of Infection and Chemotherapy, 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. The researchers also found that lactoferrin may also boost the body's immune function.

H.pylori

Lactoferrin may help protect against Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection—a type of infection known to cause ulcers.

For a report published in the 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 the bacterium and reduce infection rates.

Hepatitis C

There's some evidence that lactoferrin may inhibit hepatitis C infection. Several studies have investigated the relationship.

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 hepatitis C. The year-long study involved 63 people with the virus.

Other studies have confirmed the benefits of lactoferrin on certain stages of the development of hepatitis C in the human body. For example, in vitro studies and clinical trials have demonstrated that lactoferrin can inhibit replication of the virus at an intracellular level.

However, contradictory data regarding the capacity of lactoferrin to prevent the entry of the hepatitis C virus into the target cell have also been published.

Acne

In a study published in Nutrition in 2010, participants consumed either fermented milk with 200 milligrams (mg) of lactoferrin or fermented milk daily for 12 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 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 postmenopausal women. At the study's end, those who took the lactoferrin supplement had a significant reduction in bone resorption and an increase in bone formation compared to those who took the placebo.

Other Uses

Lactoferrin is touted as a remedy for a wide range of other health purposes as well, including:

  • Stimulating the immune system
  • Preventing damage related to aging
  • Promoting healthy bacteria in the intestine
  • Regulating iron metabolism
  • Treating diarrhea
  • Cancer prevention

There is insufficient evidence to support the use of lactoferrin supplements for these benefits.

Possible Side Effects

Lactoferrin is generally considered safe in amounts typically found in food, such as cow's milk.

When taken in excessive doses, lactoferrin may cause a number of adverse effects, including fatigue and constipation. Skin rash, loss of appetite, and chills have also been reported. (Consuming higher amounts of lactoferrin from cow's milk might be safe, but only for up to a year.)

The long-term safety of lactoferrin use isn't known. It is also not known if lactoferrin interferes with medications.

Keep in mind that self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences, so it is always best to consult your healthcare provider before using this or any other supplement.

Lactoferrin capsules

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Dosage and Preparation

Widely available for purchase online, supplements containing lactoferrin (usually in capsule form) are available in many natural foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

The correct dose of this supplement may depend on several factors, including your age and your health. There is no generally accepted dose range for lactoferrin.

For treating hepatitis C, a dose of 1.8 to 3.6 grams per day of bovine lactoferrin has been used in research studies.

What to Look For

Those with lactose intolerance or milk allergy should check that their supplement is made from rice, rather than cow's milk, to avoid related side effects.

Those who follow a vegan diet should also check the ingredients when choosing a product to ensure not only that they are made from rice, but that the capsule coating is not made from animal-derived substances.

Dietary supplements are largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but it is illegal to market such a product as a treatment or cure for a specific disease, or to alleviate the symptoms of a disease.

When choosing a supplement, it's best to look for products that have been certified by ConsumerLabs, U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), or NSF International. These organizations don't guarantee that a product is safe or effective, but they do provide a certain level of testing for quality as well as assurance that what is listed on the label is what is actually in the product itself.

A Word From Verywell

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 healthcare provider first to weigh the potential risks and benefits and to discuss whether it's appropriate for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does lactoferrin do?

    Lactoferrin binds with iron and transports it throughout the body. It also helps fight infections. It prevents bacterial growth by binding with the iron and keeping it from providing nutrients to the bacteria.

  • What is a fecal lactoferrin test?

    A fecal lactoferrin test helps detect inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. If the levels of lactoferrin in your stool are high, you may need further testing for inflammatory bowel disease.

  • Are lactoferrin and apolactoferrin the same thing?

    You may see the word apolactoferrin used on supplement bottles. Apolactoferrin is a component of lactoferrin. Over 90% of the lactoferrin in human milk is in the form of apolactoferrin. This form does not contain ferric iron.

  • Can I get mad cow disease from a lactoferrin supplement?

    Since medicinal lactoferrin may be sourced from cows, there has been some worry among consumers that mad cow disease might occur with supplement use. While possible, the risk is considered very small.

Was this page helpful?
10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wakabayashi H, Oda H, Yamauchi K, Abe F. Lactoferrin for prevention of common viral infections. J Infect Chemother. 2014;20(11):666-71. doi:10.1016/j.jiac.2014.08.003

  2. Sachdeva A, Rawat S, Nagpal J. Efficacy of fermented milk and whey proteins in Helicobacter pylori eradication: a review. World J Gastroenterol. 2014;20(3):724-37. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i3.724

  3. Ishii K, Takamura N, Shinohara M, et al. Long-term follow-up of chronic hepatitis C patients treated with oral lactoferrin for 12 months. Hepatol Res. 2003;25(3):226-233. doI:10.1016/s1386-6346(02)00279-6

  4. Moreno-expósito L, Illescas-montes R, Melguizo-rodríguez L, Ruiz C, Ramos-torrecillas J, De luna-bertos E. Multifunctional capacity and therapeutic potential of lactoferrin. Life Sci. 2018;195:61-64. doi:10.1016/j.lfs.2018.01.002

  5. Kim J, Ko Y, Park YK, Kim NI, Ha WK, Cho Y. Dietary effect of lactoferrin-enriched fermented milk on skin surface lipid and clinical improvement of acne vulgaris. Nutrition. 2010;26(9):902-9. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2010.05.011

  6. Chan H, Chan G, Santos J, Dee K, Co JK. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to determine the efficacy and safety of lactoferrin with vitamin E and zinc as an oral therapy for mild to moderate acne vulgaris. Int J Dermatol. 2017;56(6):686-690. doi:10.1111/ijd.13607

  7. Montesi M, Panseri S, Iafisco M, Adamiano A, Tampieri A. Coupling Hydroxyapatite Nanocrystals with Lactoferrin as a Promising Strategy to Fine Regulate Bone Homeostasis. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(7):e0132633. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0132633

  8. Bharadwaj S, Naidu AG, Betageri GV, Prasadarao NV, Naidu AS. Milk ribonuclease-enriched lactoferrin induces positive effects on bone turnover markers in postmenopausal women. Osteoporos Int. 2009;20(9):1603-11. doi:10.1007/s00198-009-0839-8

  9. Jahani S, Shakiba A, Jahani L. The antimicrobial effect of lactoferrin on gram-negative and gram-positive bacteriaInternational Journal of Infection. 2015;2(3). doi:10.17795/iji27594

  10. Abraham BP. Fecal lactoferrin testingGastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2018;14(12):713-716.