Immune cells require amino acids from protein in their formation. High quality whey protein supplements not only contain amino acids but also a number of unique compounds that have been studied to improve immune function. One such compound is lactoferrin, a key immune boosting molecule that is secreted primarily in breast milk, boosting the baby’s immune system at the same time as delivering iron. In adults it is secreted in many external fluids (such as saliva or lung mucous) as a first line of defense. Studies have found lactoferrin’s multifunctional role encompasses antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antioxidant and immune-balancing activities.9,10 Neonatal hospital units have also successfully used lactoferrin to help reduce infection in hospitals. Lactoferrin’s anti-microbial activity is partly due to its ability to bind to iron, which is essential for the growth of pathogenic bacteria and is also a major contributor to the generation of damaging reactive oxygen species. The evidence suggests that supplementation with lactoferrin increases the activity of immune cells known as leukocytes and stimulates the production of natural killer cells.1,2 Another unique action lactoferrin has is to turn on important immune related genes in the small intestine. Lactoferrin not only stimulates the immune system but also has a balancing effect, which explains why some studies have also found it to have an anti-inflammatory effect. 1,2
What about lactoferrin and autoimmune conditions?
We can think of lactoferrin as a mediator that is part of the immune system rather than an antibiotic or immune stimulant. While lactoferrin is not directly part of the adaptive immune response which is responsible for autoimmune action, it is a powerful immune modulator which balances the immune system. Stimulating or quenching an immune response as needed, so it is still very helpful in autoimmune conditions.4
What about applications to cancer?
In cancer, it is often the situation that the body is not able to mount a targeted response to attack the tumor cells. Lactoferrin has the ability to turn on the T-helper cells that regulate this anti-cancer action. Since lactoferrin has so many beneficial actions on the immune system and inflammation it has been successfully studied as an adjunct to chemotherapy to improve the immunity of cancer patients undergoing treatment and to reduce the side effects of the chemotherapy.5
The majority of lactoferrin research has been done on non-small cell lung carcinoma patients. The evidence is impressive, showing almost double the survival time in stage 4 patients.6,7 In human trials Lactoferrin has been found to be particularly active against lung cancer in doses up to 5g. To achieve this effective dose of lactoferrin a powdered supplement is easiest to use at a cost of about $300 per month. Unfortunately, human lactoferrin is not available commercially as a supplement so a bovine source must be used.6,7
Debunking the myth- can Lactoferrin be used as an iron chelator for hemochromatosis?
Since lactoferrin has the ability to bind iron some internet blogs have suggested it is beneficial for iron overload conditions. However, lactoferrin sequesters iron, which explains its antimicrobial role with the immune system. Lactoferrin sequesters iron not only from pathogens but also in other tissues including aiding in absorption from the gut.8 In fact, studies have shown that it can improve iron deficiency anemia (see below). This actually is counter-productive for hemochromatosis. The reality is that there is not a lot of research supporting the use of lactoferrin for sequestering iron for iron-overload conditions such as hemochromatosis. So while in theory lactoferrin looks like a good option for iron overload it most likely is not helping and or is even making it worse.
What about lactoferrin and iron deficiency anemia?
As we mentioned earlier lactoferrin has the ability to bind iron and increase its absorption from the gut. Recent data suggests that it is capable of interacting with the most important components of iron homeostasis increasing iron levels without actually supplementing with iron. A number of controlled trials have shown that lactoferrin (200-250mg) supplementation is superior to iron sulphate in increasing hemoglobin level in iron deficient patients.9, 10 What is so intriguing about these results is the evidence suggests that lactoferrin can modulate systemic iron homeostasis independently of the concentration of lactoferrin-bound iron. Lactoferrin and ferrous sulphate exhibit a similar capacity in iron absorption but the big difference is that lactoferrin has the ability to lower Il-6, a powerful inflammatory molecule.10 When inflammation is high, the ability of iron to be released into the blood stream is impaired. Lactoferrin addresses this problem, restoring iron homeostasis thus increasing iron and hemoglobin levels. From a practical perspective iron as lactoferrin is much better tolerated then most oral iron supplements (doesn’t cause constipation or nausea) so it provides a valuable alternative for sensitive populations such as the elderly, children and pregnant women. Further it can lower inflammation that can be contributing to iron deficiency in the first place.
Where are you getting your iron?
1) García-Montoya et al. Lactoferrin a multiple bioactive protein: an overview. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2012 Mar;1820(3):226-36.
2) Actor JK, Hwang SA, Kruzel ML. Lactoferrin as a natural immune modulator. Curr Pharm Des. 2009;15(17):1956-73.
3) Rodrigues L, Teixeira J, Schmitt F, Paulsson M, Månsson HL. Lactoferrin and cancer disease prevention. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2009 Mar;49(3):203-17.
4) Jeffrey K. Actor et al. Lactoferrin as a Natural Immune Modulator. Curr Pharm Des. 2009; 15(17): 1956–1973.
5) Rodrigues L, Teixeira J, Schmitt F, Paulsson M, Månsson HL. Lactoferrin and cancer disease prevention. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2009 Mar;49(3):203-17
6) Parikh PM, Vaid A, Advani SH, Digumarti R, Madhavan J, Nag S, Bapna A, Sekhon JS, Patil S, Ismail PM, Wang Y, Varadhachary A, Zhu J, Malik R. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase II study of single-agent oral talactoferrin in patients with locally advanced or metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer that progressed after chemotherapy. J Clin Oncol. 2011 Nov 1;29(31):4129-36.
7) Kelly RJ, Giaccone G. The role of talactoferrin alpha in the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer. Expert Opin Biol Ther. 2010 Sep;10(9):1379-86
8) González-Chávez et al. Lactoferrin: structure, function and applications. Int J Antimicrob Agents. 2009 Apr;33(4):301.e1-8.
9) Rezk et al. Lactoferrin versus ferrous sulphate for the treatment of iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy: a randomized clinical trial. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2016;29(9):1387-90.
10) Paesano et al. The influence of lactoferrin, orally administered, on systemic iron homeostasis in pregnant women suffering of iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia. Biochimie. 2009 Jan;91(1):44-51.