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Lactoferrin and Immunity


A First Line Immune Defense

   Two important factors in a healthy immune system are: 

1. The ability to activate

2. And (often underestimated) a healthy digestive system.  

        Lactoferrin helps both! 

   Lactoferrin appears to have a wide variety of uses in biological systems.  It is considered a first line immune defense in the human body.  Though a natural component mothers milk, lactoferrin is also found throughout the human body.  It occurs in secretions of mucous membranes such as saliva, tears, bronchial and nasal secretions, hepatic bile, pancreatic fluids.   

   As an immunity defense, lactoferrin is also concentrated in oral cavities!  Why?  Well, there it can come in direct contact with pathogens (i.e. viruses, bacteria, etc.).  It can then kill or greatly suppresses these pathogens through a variety of different mechanisms.   

How It Works – Iron 

   Published studies that have examined the use of lactoferrin as a supplement and its effects on immunity have been very promising.  Studies have found the ingestion of lactoferrin to have direct protective effects on the regulation and modulation of the immune system. 

   For example, one study that examined the immune response to severe septic shock found that feeding lactoferrin to mice dramatically reduced the lethality - while improving immune response parameters.(1)  Another study with pigs found the death rate from escherichia coli dropped from 74% to only 17% when fed lactoferrin! (2)  This is a major finding since septic shock isthe most frequent cause of death for intensive care patients and the 13th leading cause of death in the United States.   

   Two studies, using healthy human volunteers, found lactoferrin derived from cows milk augmented the immune response.  This lead the researchers to conclude “bovine (cows) lactoferrin may be applied in the clinic to improve the immune status of the patients.”(3)  A similar human study using ten people who ingested lactoferrin concluded“these results suggest that lactoferrin administration may influence the primary activation of the host defense system.”(4)  These are powerful statements!  

   Exactly how lactoferrin accomplishes all of its immune modulating or immune enhancing functions is not entirely clear.  Most people point to its iron-binding ability.  While important, lactoferrin is known to enhance the immune response both directly and indirectly (passively) in response to a wide range of immune challenges.  Specific receptors for lactoferrin are found on many key immune cells - such as lymphocytes, monocytes and macrophages.  It is known to be directly involved in mobilizing of natural killer (NK) cell activity.  Most research points to lactoferrin as being more of an immune modulator rather than a simple immune stimulant.

The Digestive System 

   Lactoferrin appears to be particularly important in the health and function of the intestinal tract.  It has been found to greatly reduce systemic and intestinal inflammation in such conditions as inflammatory bowel disease and others.  Animals were subjected to a variety of pathogens, known to cause both systemic and intestinal inflammation and damage.  They showed much greater resistance and reduced inflammation when fed lactoferrin!   

   The gastrointestinal tract must be viewed as an ecologic system.  This is a balance between both good and bad bacterial flora (micro flora) exists.  An overgrowth of bad bacteria in the intestinal tract is known to cause a wide range of severe problems.  This can cause a myriad of pro-inflammatory mediators to be released, causing disruptions throughout the entire body.

   When fed to adult animals and human infants, lactoferrin showed a dramatic increase in good micro flora - such as bifidus - and a decrease in bad bacteria, such as E. coli, streptococcus, clostridium and others.  The result was desirable intestinal flora, known to be essential for optimal health, immunity and resistance to disease.  An extensive review that examined the role of lactoferrin in inflammation and the health of the intestinal tract stated, “The possibility that lactoferrin limits the auto-destructive inflammatory response presents a new alternative for the future management of systemic inflammation.”(5) 

   Some research also suggests that lactoferrin is able to stimulate intestinal cell growth and may lead to better digestive functions.  This is in addition to its ability to enhance the growth of “good” microflora in the intestine.  There is little doubt that, in addition to its immunomodulating effects, this natural peptide derived from whey has powerful pro-biotic properties. 


1. Zhang GH, Mann DM, Tsai CM. Neutralization of endotoxin in vitro and in vivo by a human lactoferrin-derived peptide. Infect Immun 1999 Mar;67(3):1353-8.

2. Lee WJ, Farmer JL, Hilty M, Kim YB. The Protective Effects of Lactoferrin Feeding against Endotoxin Lethal Shock in Germfree Piglets. Infect Immun Apr. 1999: Vol 66 No 4, 1421-1426.

3. Zimecki M, Wlaszczyk A, Cheneau P, Brunel AS, Mazurier J, Spik G, Kubler A. Immunoregulatory effects of a nutritional preparation containing bovine lactoferrin taken orally by healthy individuals. Arch Immunol Ther Exp (Warsz) 1998;46(4):231-40.

4. Yamauchi K, Wakabayashi H, Hashimoto S, Teraguchi S, Hayasawa H, Tomita M. Effects of orally administered bovine lactoferrin on the immune system of healthy volunteers. Adv Exp Med Biol 1998;443:261-5.

5. Kruzel ML, Harari Y, Chen CY, Castro GA. The gut. A key metabolic organ protected by lactoferrin during experimental systemic inflammation in mice. Adv Exp Med Biol 1998;443:167-73.



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