Jun 25, 2008
Lactoferrin is a fascinating biologically protein that is a key component of human and bovine colostrum. It plays a critical role in nourishing the newborn as well as protecting it from infection via its immune enhancing and antimicrobial effects. Through modern filtering technology, bovine lactoferrin can now be separated out from cow’s milk. As a result there has been a virtual explosion of research into this extremely valuable biological agent showing a broad range of clinical applications.1,2
The name lactoferrin signifies that this compound is from milk (lacto) and is able to bind iron (ferrin). Initially because of its close resemblance to transferrin, research focused on lactoferrin’s iron-binding properties and how that relates to its impact on iron absorption, antimicrobial activity, and iron metabolism during inflammation. For example, one of the ways in which lactoferrin inhibits the growth of so many organisms is by making iron unavailable to these organisms. However, recent research has shown lactoferrin to exert biological activity via other means as well. Here are just some of the key actions of lactoferrin:1,2
Enhancement of immune function
Antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties
Promotion of a healthy gut flora
Regulation of iron metabolism
How does bovine lactoferrin compare with human lactoferrin?
One of the first things that researchers discovered was that through digestion in the human intestinal tract that bovine lactoferrin is converted to compounds known as lactoferricins. These compounds have been shown to be even more potent than human lactoferricins.3
Does lactoferrin affect iron metabolism?
Lactoferrin was first thought to play a role in iron absorption in newborns, however, recent research seems to indicate that it does not regulate iron metabolism in normal circumstances. Instead, lactoferrin is able to enhance iron absorption and improve iron status when iron stores are low as well as modulate iron metabolism during infection and inflammation. In these latter situations iron acts to add fuel to the fire, in the case of an infection iron stimulates the growth of the infecting organism. In the case of inflammation, free, unbound iron generates free radicals that damage body tissues. By binding the iron, lactoferrin reduces the amount of free radicals in the inflammatory environment. This action may turn out to be particularly useful in sequestering free iron in the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis. Lactoferrin is definitely indicated in people with elevated iron levels such as hemochromatosus.
What are lactoferrin’s antimicrobial properties?
Lactoferrin exerts broad spectrum antimicrobial action as it has been shown to be effective in inhibiting the growth of disease causing protozoa, yeast, bacteria, and viruses. More important than actually killing organisms, is the recent discovery that lactoferrin prevents the attachment of disease causing organisms to cells that line the mouth and entire gastrointestinal tract. At the same time, lactoferrin is a powerful growth promoter of health promoting bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species. By preventing growth of harmful bacteria while promoting the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria, lactoferrin assists in the development of a proper intestinal flora.
In general, lactoferrin appears to be particularly important in the health and function of the intestinal tract. Many clinicians have found lactoferrin to greatly reduce intestinal inflammation in such conditions as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Some research also suggests that lactoferrin is able to stimulate intestinal cell growth and may lead to better digestive functions in general.1,2
Are there any clinical studies showing anti-infective actions?
Yes, research has focused on two areas; (1) the treatment of peptic ulcers and digestive disturbances caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori; and (2) chronic viral hepatitis. H. pylori infection is very common in the United States: About 50 percent of people over 60 years have it. Although most infected people do not develop ulcers, many may experience digestive disturbances associated with H. pylori infection. H. pylori infection can lead to a peptic ulcer because it weakens the protective mucous coating of the stomach and duodenum. The standard medical treatment of H. pylori infection is a 1- or 2-week course of treatment called triple therapy. It involves taking two antibiotics to kill the bacteria and an acid suppressor drug. Unfortunately, it does not resolve digestive disturbances or heal ulcers in all patients and typically involves taking as many as 20 pills a day. Also, mild side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dark stools, metallic taste in the mouth, dizziness, headache, and yeast infections are common.
Lactoferrin alone or in combination with triple therapy may soon be the treatment of choice based upon the results of recent clinical trials. In one study, 151 H. pylori positive patients, suffering from indigestion symptoms were given either triple therapy alone or with lactoferrin. H. pylori status assessed 8 weeks after the end of the treatment indicated a 95.9% eradication rate for the group getting the lactoferrin while the other group had only a 72.5% eradication rate.4
Is lactoferrin helpful in chronic hepatitis?
Lactoferrin has shown direct antiviral effects against hepatitis B and C virus. Preliminary clinical trials have also shown beneficial effects in some people with patients with chronic hepatitis C.5-8 The key is that it is most effective for people with lower viral loads. People with moderate to high viral loads will need stronger nutritional support like the Liver Health Formula and DetoxiTech from Natural Factors.
Does lactoferrin exert immune enhancing effects?
Yes, lactoferrin seems to exert a wide range of effects on the immune system. Researches using various animals models (i.e., rats, sheep, pigs and cats, as well as others) as well as two human clinical trials on healthy subjects have found bovine lactoferrin has direct effects on the regulation and modulation of the immune system. While some of these effects may involve its iron binding action, it has also shown effects unrelated to this mechanism. In particular, lactoferrin has shown an ability to impact of number of anticancer mechanism including regulating natural killer cell activity; the expression of mediators of white blood cell function; inhibit the formation of blood vessels to feed tumors; and enhancement of cellular suicide of cancer cells.1,2,9,10
In perhaps the most significant human study, the effect of oral administration of bovine lactoferrin vs. a placebo was evaluated in patients after a surgery.11 Those taking the lactoferrin showed significant improvements in a variety of parameters (e.g., the proliferative response of white blood cells, the production of important immune system regulators, and white blood cell counts). Perhaps the most interesting result from the study was that the data presented revealed an increased immune responsiveness in all patients treated with lactoferrin. This result is significant as it suggests that lactoferrin can help prevent the common occurrence of post-surgical infections.
What about antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions?
In addition to preventing iron-generated free radicals, there is now a substantial amount of research lactoferrin directly regulates the inflammatory response. One interesting mechanisms is lactoferrin’s binding to bacterial endotoxins. These lipopolysaccharide components of certain gut-derived bacteria are major stimulators of inflammation. For example, the level of circulating endotoxins from the gut has been shown to correlate with the severity of psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. These gut-derived toxins are among the major contributors to the excessive cell replication in the skin and inflammation seen throughout the body in people with psoriasis. By binding to these compounds, lactoferrin may prove useful in conditions linked to excessive absorption of endotoxins such as psoriasis, cirrhosis of the liver, and symptoms of candida.12
Can lactoferrin be taken if people are lactose sensitive or allergic to milk?
It depends upon the source of lactoferrin. If it is a highly purified lactoferrin product like the one from Natural Factors, then it can be taken with confidence by people with lactose-intolerance or milk allergies.
Does lactoferrin contain iron?
Again, it depends upon the source of lactoferrin. The highly purified lactoferrin product from Natural Factors is virtually free of iron (less than 180 mcg per gram). This form of lactoferrin is referred to as “apolactoferrin” as it is free of iron.
What is the proper dosage?
The dosage of lactoferrin varies from one manufacturer to another. Most of the research on bovine lactoferrin has been on the highly purified product. The dosage for this product is typically 250 to 500 mg one to three times per day. The dosage depends on an individual’s size and indication. Lower dosages are for general health promotion, children, and smaller individuals; higher dosages are for specific indications and adults. For maximum absorption, lactoferrin should be taken before meals or on an empty stomach.
Brock JH. The physiology of lactoferrin. Biochem Cell Biol 2002;80(1):1-6.
Lönnerdal B, Iyer S. Lactoferrin: molecular structure and biological function. Annu Rev Nutr 1995;15, 93-110.
Vorland LH, Ulvatne H, Andersen J, et al. Lactoferricin of bovine origin is more active than lactoferricins of human, murine and caprine origin. Scand J Infect Dis 1998;30(5):513-7.
Di Mario F, Aragona G, Dal Bo N, et al. Use of bovine lactoferrin for Helicobacter pylori eradication. Dig Liver Dis 2003;35(10):706-10.
Okada S, Tanaka K, Sato T, et al. Dose-response trial of lactoferrin in patients with chronic hepatitis C. Jpn J Cancer Res 2002;93(9):1063-9.
Tanaka K, Ikeda M, Nozaki A, et al. Lactoferrin inhibits hepatitis C virus viremia in patients with chronic hepatitis C: a pilot study. Jpn J Cancer Res 1999;90(4):367-71.
Hirashima N, Orito E, Ohba K, et al. A randomized controlled trial of consensus interferon with or without lactoferrin for chronic hepatitis C patients with genotype 1b and high viral load. Hepatol Res 2004;29(1):9-12.
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.
Zimecki M, Wlaszczyk A, Cheneau P, Brunel AS, et al. Immunoregulatory effects of a nutritional preparation containing bovine lactoferrin taken orally by healthy individuals. Arch Immunol Ther Exp 1998;46(4):231-40.
Yamauchi K, Wakabayashi H, Hashimoto S, et al. Effects of orally administered bovine lactoferrin on the immune system of healthy volunteers. Adv Exp Med Biol 1998;443:261-5.
Zimecki M, Wlaszczyk A, Wojciechowski R, Dawiskiba J, Kruzel M. Lactoferrin regulates the immune responses in post-surgical patients. Arch Immunol Ther Exp 2001;49(4):325-33.
Zhang GH, Mann DM, Tsai CM. Neutralization of endotoxin in vitro and in vivo by a human lactoferrin-derived peptide. Infect Immun 1999;67(3):1353-8.