It's one of the lesser-known health supplements, so is lactoferrin something you should be considering taking for the good of your immune system? Here's a look at what this food supplement, which is also produced naturally by the body in the form of secretions, can do for you when taken in tablet form.
What is lactoferrin?
It's a protein that's produced by the human body and is present in secretions including saliva, tears and breast milk. Lactoferrin has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties as well as being an antioxidant. It binds iron and helps to transport it more efficiently and safely around the body, while starving bacteria of it, inhibiting infection from setting in. Lactoferrin is also present in cow's milk.
What does it do?
Lactoferrin inhibits the survival, growth and spread of bacteria, viruses and fungal infections. As the second most abundant protein in breast milk it's responsible for conferring immunity on newborns in the first few weeks of life. It also encourages the growth of good gut flora (beneficial bacteria within the stomach) and destroys many disease-causing bacteria. Although cow's milk contains lactoferrin, the human form has been found to be far more potent. There are scientific studies currently underway to discover whether adding lactoferrin to infant formula for bottle-fed babies can confer similar benefits to breast milk. So far, the addition of lactoferrin derived from cows' milk protein doesn't seem to be very advantageous.
Why take a supplement?
Claims made for lactoferrin relate to its known properties. Its ability to bind iron helps to absorb and transport iron safely around the body, minimising the free radical damage that unbound iron can cause. Preventing the damaging effects of iron on blood vessel walls is behind the claims that suggest lactoferrin can reduce heart disease, Alzheimer's disease or cancer. While lab studies on cancer cells show a benefit of added lactoferrin, early work in humans doesn't show a similar benefit.
Lactoferrin is popular with endurance athletes such as runners, cyclists and triathletes.
Lactoferrin has an important role in bone turnover, helping to maintain healthy bone.
How is it taken?
Supplements commonly provide between 250-750mg a day, with human studies suggesting 200mg daily is sufficient to support immune function. Up to 3g (3,000mg) a day is considered acceptable by the EU if used for specific medical purposes. Lactoferrin appears to be a safe nutritional supplement with no known adverse effects.
Where is it available?
Lactoferrin is widely available online and through health-food shops and some pharmacies.
Dietitian reviewed by Catherine Collins