Lactoferrin - What are the Benefits?

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Lactoferrin. Not an ingredient that usually comes to mind when thinking of a supplement, is it? Many may not have even heard of it before. However, this multifunctional protein has a range of useful qualities, and it plays a number of very important roles within the body. Proteins are essential nutrients and have many different functions as a result. Some well-known sources of protein are items such as eggs, meat, nuts, and cheese. They are one of the building blocks of body tissue and can also serve as a fuel source. Lactoferrin’s specific function is to bind and transport iron through the blood, but that's not all it has to offer. 

Lactoferrin is quite a new discovery (in terms of medicine), as it was first isolated from cow milk in 1939.[1] From then onwards there has been a significant amount of research into its structure, amino acid sequence, and uses within the body. It was in 1960 that Lactoferrin was determined to be the main iron-binding protein in human milk, and the molecular structure and amino acid sequence were discovered in 1984.[1]

What is Lactoferrin?

Lactoferrin is an iron-binding glycoprotein [5] that is found in human milk and cow milk and possesses various biological functions, including roles in iron metabolism, cell proliferation and differentiation, and antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic activity.[1] It is comprised of a single polypeptide chain containing 703 amino acids, and is capable of binding a large amount of other compounds and substances other than iron.[1] At some points in the body it is part of the first line of defense, as it is considered to be a feature of the innate immune system.[1] The major source of Lactoferrin is milk, and human milk has the highest concentration of the protein compared to other mammals [5] - this is because it’s so beneficial to newborn children.

So, what are the benefits?

There are a number of benefits associated with Lactoferrin, one of which is immune defence. The abilities of the protein to regulate the immune response and to protect against infection and septic shock have been described in numerous studies, making it an extremely useful ingredient to consume.[4] Although the highest concentration of Lactoferrin is in milk, the compound has also been found in tears, mucus, and saliva, which are known as mucosal fluids. It’s because of this strategic position on the mucosal surfaces that the compound is a part of the first defence system against microbial agents invading the organism (via the mucosal tissues, e.g the throat or the nose).[1] Additionally, an analysis of Lactoferrin revealed a wide array of enzymatic activities [5], meaning that along with being able to exert a bactericidal effect and curbing the generation of other microbes (fungi and viruses) [2], it has an effect on speeding up some of the general processes of the body.

As well as this, the recent research into Lactoferrin has suggested that it may promote cell growth [3], which is necessary for the body’s proper function, as dead cells need to be replaced with newer, healthier ones. The ability of the protein to bind to a wide variety of cells and tissues can also enhance its ability to prevent free-radical mediated damage.[3] Free radicals are waste oxygen atoms that have an uneven number of electrons. They are produced during chemical reactions in the body, and when built up they can cause damage. Preventing their detrimental effect is very beneficial to the body’s wellbeing. 

There have been questions about whether Lactoferrin has probiotic properties because it is a milk product. Studies have shown that it does promote the growth of certain probiotic strains, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli [5], although it does not have probiotic capabilities on its own. These particular bacterial strains are essential for maintaining a healthy gut, and they are well known as ‘friendly bacteria’. Along with encouraging probiotic growth, Lactoferrin displays anti-inflammatory properties, and contributes to the maintenance of homeostasis and the control of life-threatening diseases in the intestine of consumers [5], supporting the normal function of the body. 

One study has suggested that there is potential for using Lactoferrin (along with probiotic bacteria) to restore intestinal homeostasis, in order to reduce the use of antibiotics.[5] This formula would be in pharmaceutical products specifically formulated to enhance and strengthen the mechanisms for the restoration of intestinal homeostasis.[5] This is a very interesting theory, as the over-use of antibiotics has resulted in some forms of drug-resistant microorganisms. If that could be combated with a combination of Lactoferrin and probiotic bacteria, it would be extremely beneficial to everyone. 

In summary, Lactoferrin is a very versatile and valuable protein, one that has many functions and uses. Not only does it bind and transport iron through the blood, it has properties that aid the body’s immune response, promote cell growth, and encourage probiotic strains of bacteria. Therefore, Lactoferrin should be on the radar of every health enthusiast, as it’s not an ingredient to be missed. 

 

1)  Adlerova L, Bartoskova A, Faldyna M. Lactoferrin: a review. Veterinarni Medicina [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2021 Mar 17];53(9) 457–468. Available from:  https://www.agriculturejournals.cz/web/vetmed.htm?volume=53&firstPage=457&type=publishedArticle

2) Levay PF, Viljoen M. Lactoferrin: a general review. Haematologica [Internet]. 1995 [cited 2021 Mar 17];(80):252–67.  Available from: https://www.haematologica.org/article/view/683

3) Sanchez L, Calvo M, Brock JH. Biological role of Lactoferrin. Archives of Disease in Childhood [Internet]. 1992 [cited 2021 Mar 17];(67):657–61. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1793702/?page=1 

4) Legrand D, Elass E, Carpentier M, Mazurier J. Lactoferrin: a modulator of immune and inflammatory responses. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences [Internet]. 2005 [cited 2021 Mar 17];(62):2549–59. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00018-005-5370-2

5) Vega-Bautista A, de la Garza M, Carrero JC, Campos-Rodriguez R, Godinez-Victoria M, Drago-Serrano ME. The Impact of Lactoferrin on the Growth of Intestinal Inhabitant Bacteria. International Journal of Molecular Sciences [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2021 Mar 17]; 20(19):4707. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6801499/

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