What is lactoferrin? Everything you need to know

It’s something we all have in our bodies already, but what is lactoferrin? And how can we use it for our health?

Lactoferrin is a protein found in the milk of most mammals. It’s an extraordinary ingredient that mothers give to make sure newborns are getting optimal immunity. It helps protect young mammals before their bodies have had the chance to build up their own immunity. It’s antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, making it a brilliant support for the immune system and a great defence against infection.

How does lactoferrin support immunity?

Lactoferrin is antimicrobial, which means it prevents bad bacteria from entering healthy cells and replicating. In this way, lactoferrin acts as a kind of gatekeeper for the digestive, respiratory and reproductive systems in our bodies.

Along with milk, you’ll also find lactoferrin in other bodily fluids, such as tears and saliva. As a result, the protein is a first line of defence when a virus enters the body through the eyes, mouth and nose. By suppressing and neutralising infections, lactoferrin slows the growth of viruses, and its bactericidal qualities means it can bind to bacterial cell walls too and kill them outright.

Lactoferrin can also stimulate our own innate immunity. The protein improves the response from our white blood cells, which our bodies naturally use to fight infection. By recruiting other cells for support, lactoferrin ensures a fast and effective response to harmful invaders.

Not only does it encourage an immune response from the body, lactoferrin also ensures that the response is proportionate. As an anti-inflammatory, the protein prevents harmful immune responses that can actually damage the body. Lactoferrin is an immunomodulatory. This means that it simultaneously fights against germs while also moderating our immune response to this same infection. It means that lactoferrin encourages homeostasis – the state of the body being in balance – by regulating our immune cells and making sure they don’t overdo the rescue mission. In doing so, lactoferrin helps us to recover more quickly from infection.

How else does it help the body?

Another reason lactoferrin supports our immunity is how it promotes the growth of several strains of beneficial gut bacteria. Having diverse microbes in the gut helps to fight harmful bacteria as well as having positive effects as wide ranging as better skin and improved mood.

Lactoferrin is an iron-binding protein. This means it binds with and helps to transport iron around the body. This can be an effective treatment for low iron levels in the blood. It can be especially effective during pregnancy.

The anti-inflammatory benefits of the protein are also beneficial for our coronary system, lowering the risk of heart disease.

There is also evidence that the mineral hydroxyapatite could help to protect against osteoporosis by promoting bone-forming osteoblasts. Studies show too that lactoferrin has a positive effect on skin health, reducing the occurrence of acne when given in milk to participants.

Its role against Covid-19

A recent study suggests that lactoferrin could help in the fight against Coronavirus. The Covid-19 virus first enters our cells through docking stations called HSPGs – heparin sulphate proteoglycans – which are the gateways through which the virus gets into the cell to damage it. Lactoferrin also attaches to these same cell docks, blocking this gateway and possibly preventing some of the Covid virus entering our cells in the first place.

Covid-19 can also cause something called a cytokine storm in some patients who become severely ill. Cytokines are immune system proteins that surge when the body needs an extra boost of infection fighters. Sometimes, this is too strong a reaction and can cause cell damage. It also can’t be switched off once activated. It’s thought that some of the organ and tissue damage, especially in the lungs, that causes Long Covid could be a result of excess cytokines.

Lactoferrin has anti-inflammatory effects and immune modulating properties. This can lower the release of key inflammatory cytokines. This leads to optimism that lactoferrin could likely prove a promising tool for the treatment of the  hyperinflammation/immune response seen in some Covid-19 patients. Also in possibly preventing a patient getting to such serious levels of illness.

How can we increase our lactoferrin?

Lactoferrin is something that naturally occurs in the body. We produce it everyday to help regulate and protect vital functions in our organs. There are certain lifestyle factors, however, that can compromise our production of the protein. Stress, a lack of sleep, poor diet or simply being run down can mean we’re not creating enough lactoferrin.

There are ways to boost your levels through diet and supplementation. Humans can absorb the protein from drinking cow’s milk. Quite a high proportion of the protein in organic dairy survives digestion and can be absorbed by the body.

Supplements can help to boost levels of the protein in the body. These supplements are normally made from cow’s milk, and often combined with other nutrients, though a powder supplement can sometimes be made from genetically modified rice.

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With special thanks to Emma Davies

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