The Health Benefits of Lactoferrin

A Milk Protein That May Help Treat Infection

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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 to gain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Health Benefits

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

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

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. But contradictory data have been published regarding the capacity of lactoferrin to prevent the entry of the virus into the target cell.

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 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.

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, 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.

Ulcers

Lactoferrin may help protect against Helicobacter 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 Helicobacter pylori and reduce infection rates.

Other Benefits

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

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

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

Possible Side Effects

Lactoferrin is generally considered in typical amounts found in food (such as cow's milk). Human lactoferrin that is made from specially processed rice appears to be safe for up to 14 days.

Consuming higher amounts of lactoferrin from cow's milk might also be safe for up to a year. 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.

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.

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

Lactoferrin powder is typically sourced from cow's milk or genetically modified rice. Those with lactose intolerance may want to check the source of their supplement to stay safe. Those who follow a vegan diet should also check the source of their preferred product.

Also, it's important to keep in mind that dietary supplements are largely unregulated by the FDA, however, it is not legal to market a dietary supplement 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, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, 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.

Other Questions About Lactoferrin Supplements

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 is a possibility. However, the risk is considered very small. Also, most medicinal lactoferrin is made from specially engineered rice.

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.

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

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