What is lactoferrin and how does it ward off colds and bring on better sleep? We have the answers

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It’s fair to say the quest for both a robust immune system and better sleep are high on all of our agendas. Potential help is at hand in the shape of countless remedies and supplements promising to boost immunity and gadgets such as the Sensate 'power nap pebble' to aid better sleep, but few have garnered so much recent interest from immunology experts as lactoferrin. An anti-inflammatory protein abundant in breast milk that can help prevent colds and other respiratory infections from coming on and lessen their severity, it also plays a role in managing stress and inducing better sleep

Lactoferrin's benefits extend to gut microbiome support, iron regulation, oral health, bone health, and skin health and it’s got one leading immunologist in particular very excited.

“The benefits of lactoferrin frankly sound too good to be true,” says immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi in an Instagram Live conversation with Stephanie Drax, founder of Leapfrog lactoferrin supplements. “But as a scientist and teacher, my snake oil filter is acute, and I cannot over-sell remedies for reasons of integrity. In this case, it’s hard to overstate how beneficial the lactoferrin protein is.”

“I call it the Swiss army knife of our immune defence system,” says Drax. “It’s a protective, antimicrobial, antiviral, bactericidal multi-tasker that may even have anticancer properties.”

What is lactoferrin?

Lactoferrin is derived from milk: both breast milk and a baby’s ‘first milk’, known as colostrum, are particularly rich in it. It plays a vital role in establishing a newborn’s immune system. As adults we rely on it too for our own defences. We make it ourselves, but as with all beneficial substances, we use it up faster than they are restored if the body is under any kind of stress. “So when you’re ill or run-down, the body’s supplies will run low and you need to send in more recruits to see off pathogens,” says Drax.

Lactoferrin hit the headlines during the pandemic in 2021, when pharmaceutical scientist Dr Hamid Merchant of the University of Huddersfield did a study on all the clinical trials on lactoferrin . He concluded that it “significantly reduced odds of developing respiratory infections.” And if you did have a respiratory infection such as a cough, cold or Covid-19, lactoferrin could have a “beneficial role in managing symptoms and recovery” he said. It could also potentially be used “as an adjunct in Covid-19,” meaning it could help strengthen your immune system when fighting Covid-19 symptoms.

NHS psychiatrist and Daily Mail columnist Dr Max Pemberton recently lauded the lactoferrin-containing tablet Leapfrog Snooze, from £34.99, as a “clever anti-stress and sleep supplement,” (it works by supporting another related milky molecule called lactium – more on which below).

Reason enough, we think, to take a closer look at how you might get the most out of lactoferrin, whether you’re under the weather or wide awake all night.

What is lactoferrin and what does it do in our bodies?

Lactoferrin is abundant in breast milk and present in many other bodily fluids such as tears, amniotic fluid, saliva, blood and bile,” says Dr Macciochi. “It’s a glycoprotein that’s part of the immune system in the same way that white blood cells and barrier tissues like the gut lining and skin barrier are. It’s secreted onto these tissues when the body detects trouble, like a sort of chemical barrier on top of your physical barriers.”

“Like a security guard, lactoferrin prevents viruses and bacteria from entering cells,” says Dr Merchant. “But it also initiates a release of multiple cellular immunity and antibody molecules to mount a response against infection.” A true bug-busting multi-tasker, it appears.

Why is lactoferrin so prevalent in mother’s milk?

“Breast milk may have significant levels of lactoferrin, but there’s seven times more of it in colostrum [the ‘first milk’ produced in pregnancy and released by mammals’ for up to four days after birth],” says Dr Macciochi. “That’s because a baby is born without a full immune system, and it’s the colostrum and breast milk that allows for the colonisation of the child’s protective microbiome.”

With lactoferrin so prevalent, it’s not hard to suppose a link between the protein and a healthy microbiome and, therefore immune system. “It’s proven to support the specific bacteria that a baby's gut is rich in and that are important for the prevention of allergies. Lactoferrin is essential for cultivating a gut environment fundamental for a healthy immune system in the first three years of life,” says Dr Macciochi.

What are lactoferrin supplements made of? Is lactoferrin vegan?

As a milk protein, lactoferrin is not vegan. In supplement form, lactoferrin is normally extracted from cow’s milk, “which is biologically very close to human milk,” says Drax. “But the extraction process is tricky, and cutting corners can mean a low-quality supplement. So we make sure our provider’s ethics and technology are up to scratch, and the milk they use is from grass-fed cows.” Her Leapfrog Immune supplement, from £34.99, comes in the form of chewable milky-tasting tablets.

How does lactoferrin prevent colds?

Unlike over-the-counter cold and flu remedies, lactoferrin doesn’t mask the symptoms of colds and flu, it works with the body to get rid of the causes,” says Drax. As said, it both helps prevent pathogens making you sick as well as helping the body to fight off infections fast and efficiently. It also “regulates the hyperinflammatory process,” says Dr Merchant, meaning that swelling and inflammation will be reduced and you might not get that horrendously sore throat and swollen glands.

But don’t rely on a single ‘magic pill’ in terms of immune-supporting substances. “The right diet and lifestyle always come first,” says Dr Macciochi. “After that, it's about being savvy with supplements.”

She advises having a small ‘medicine box’ stocked with immune defenders to take when you notice the first signs of a cold, or before you go into a germy environment. “You need zinc and vitamin C – we have a lot of research to show that these reduce the duration of colds and flu when you take them in their early onset. Then lactoferrin also has ample clinical studies to show it’s beneficial against those frequent respiratory conditions we get as the weather turns.”

How do you take lactoferrin?

“The mouth has receptors for lactoferrin; says Drax. “Once it reaches the gut, your stomach acid may annihilate a lot of it if you take it as a capsule, so we chose to provide it as a chewable tablet that stays in the mouth long enough for the lactoferrin to be absorbed by the cells in the oral cavity.” Chewable tablets are also easier than horse pills to give to kids, who can safely take it from age 4. Pop one or two tablets daily at the earliest sign of a cold to quell the symptoms – or take one tablet daily in the Winter months to boost your immunity and keep bugs at bay.

How can a lactoferrin supplement help you sleep?

In Leapfrog Snooze, lactoferrin plays a supporting role with anti-inflammatory properties, and research shows it has a beneficial effect on sleep quality. The star turn comes courtesy of alpha-s1 casein hydrolysate, or Lactium, which contains a calming peptide that’s responsible for babies nodding off after getting their fill of their mother’s milk. “Lactoferrin is an anti-inflammatory milk protein with an effect on stress and sleep,” says Drax, “while Lactium has a direct impact on stress hormone levels and the nervous system.”

“As grown-ups, our digestive systems can no longer effectively break down milk to release this peptide,” says Dr Macciochi. So Lactium does it for you, with “nine clinical trials and 15 years of research showing that it reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) and binds to GABA-A receptors (which process calming neurotransmitters) in the brain,” says Drax.

“Those are the same receptors that sedatives such as Valium and Diazepam target in order to calm the central nervous system, but Lactium has none of their habit-forming side effects,” she says. “Like breast milk, it calms the body to help you sleep, and aids deeper, more restful slumber.”

Don’t just take her word for it: the FDA, the American regulatory body that regulates health claims, has just authorised all of Lactium’s claims regarding stress relief and sleep quality improvement.

Dr Macciocchi likes the fact that Lactium is something the body naturally produces and advises taking Leapfrog Snooze, from £34.99 for 15 caps, which also features vitamin B6 (it plays a role in generating calming neurotransmitters such as GABA), as part of a night Time ‘wind-down’ routine. 

Best lactoferrin supplements

Best lactoferrin supplement to ward off colds and flu: Leapfrog Immune, from £34.99 for 15 tablets

These tasty, chewable tablets (they’re orange-flavoured) have 250mg lactoferrin, which is considered to be an active dose that’s safe for ages seven and upwards. Teamed with fellow proven immunity booster Vitamin C, the supplement has a host of rave reviews from fans who’ve all seen the backs of multiple colds before they could get a chance to develop, thanks to popping one of these at first sniffle.

Best lactoferrin supplement to settle skin: Oskia Lactoferrin+, £66 for 60 caps

Skincare and supplement brand Oskia highlights lactoferrin’s skin health benefits, recommending one daily cap containing 200mg lactoferrin and 300mg l-glutamine, to calm inflammation in blemish-prone complexions and support skin regeneration to minimise acne scarring. The caps can be swallowed or tipped into some water and gargled; take three, suggest the brand, if you want to nip flu or a cold in the bud.

Best lactoferrin supplement to also boost iron absorption: Life Extension Lactoferrin Caps, £49 for 60 caps

One of lactoferrin’s benefits is that it can improve iron (essential for making red blood cells, for cell detoxification, and to support immunity, energy and growth) absorption in the body. Apolactoferrin, which this supplement is based on, is a chemically altered form of lactoferrin that has been shown to be better at this than so-called ‘native’, or bio-identical, lactoferrin, directly derived from milk. More is not always better though, warns Dr Macciochi: "The great thing about native lactoferrin is that it regulates free iron: it helps boost it when a body needs it, but sequesters (meaning it keeps it away from our cells) it when there’s too much.”

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