Healthy Immunity with Bovine Colostrum and Lactoferrin

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  • dairy cows in field

Bovine colostrum is the pre-milk liquid produced from the mammary glands of cows during the first 24 to 48 hours after giving birth. Bovine colostrum is rich in immunoglobulins (antibodies), growth factors, various proteins, and enzymes. One of the most interesting components of bovine colostrum is lactoferrin. 

Lactoferrin plays a critical role in nourishing the newborn as well as protecting it from infection via its immune enhancing and antimicrobial effects. Researchers comparing how bovine lactoferrin compares to human lactoferrin found that after being broken down to lactoferricin in the gastrointestinal tract, bovine lactoferricin is even more potent than human lactoferricins.[1]

Colostrum and Immunity

There is absolutely no doubt that human colostrum transfers many important active immunological compounds to the human neonate. The question regarding bovine colostrum is if these factors meant for the calf exert any immune enhancing effects in humans. Research studies using colostrum derived from cows hyperimmunised to produce unusually large amounts of a specific antibody in their colostrum definitely indicate a significant transfer of immunity. 

For example, in a double-blind study, children with diarrhoea caused by a rotavirus were treated with immunoglobulins extracted from immunised bovine colostrum.[2] Compared with the placebo, administration of the immunoglobulins significantly reduced the amount of diarrhoea and the amount of oral rehydration solution required. In addition, the rotavirus was eliminated from the stool significantly more rapidly in the immunoglobulin group than in the placebo group (1.5 days vs. 2.9 days). 

In addition to a positive effect against acute rotavirus diarrhoea, there is also evidence that colostrum derived from hyperimmunised cows are effective against diarrhoea caused by Escherichia coli, Cryptosporidium parvum, Helicobacter pylori and Clostridium difficile.[3]
Human clinical studies indicate that bovine colostrum exerts non-specific immune enhancement. For example, in one study bovine colostrum supplementation in highly trained male road cyclists prevented a post-exercise decrease in serum imuunoglubolin G (IgG) concentrations.[4] In another study bovine colostrum supplementation in distance runners for 12 weeks produced a 79% increase in median levels of secretory IgA (sIgA), an effect that may be responsible for the trend towards fewer upper respiratory tract infections observed in the treatment group.[5]

Lactoferrin’s Effects on Immunity

Through modern filtering technology, bovine lactoferrin can now be separated out from cows milk. As a result there has been a virtual explosion of research into this extremely valuable biological agent showing a broad range of clinical applications.[6,7] Of course, rather than using isolated lactoferrin, preparations of bovine colostrum with concentrated lactoferrin and immunoglobulins are preferred.

The name lactoferrin signifies that this compound is from milk (lacto) and is able to bind iron (ferrin). Initially because of its close resemblance to transferrin, research focused on lactoferrin’s iron-binding property and how that relates to its impact on iron absorption, antimicrobial activity, and iron metabolism during inflammation. For example, one of the ways in which lactoferrin inhibits the growth of so many microbes is by making iron unavailable to these organisms.[8] However, there has since been research to show that lactoferrin exerts biological activity via other means as well. 

Key actions of lactoferrin 

  • Regulation of iron metabolism
  • Antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties
  • Promotion of a healthy gut flora
  • Enhancement of immune function
  • Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects

Lactoferrin and Iron Metabolism

Lactoferrin was first thought to play a role in iron absorption in newborns, however, recent research seems to indicate that it does not regulate iron metabolism in normal circumstances. Instead, lactoferrin is able to enhance iron absorption and improve iron status when iron stores are low as well as modulate iron metabolism during infection and inflammation. In the latter situations iron acts to add fuel to the fire. In the case of an infection iron stimulates the growth of the infecting organism. In the case of inflammation, free unbound iron generates free radicals that damage body tissues.[9] By binding to iron, lactoferrin may be able to reduce the amount of free radicals in the inflammatory environment. This action may be particularly useful in sequestering free iron in the joints of patients with rheumatoid arthritis [10] with further potential in conditions of elevated iron levels such as haemochromatosis. 

Gastrointestinal Microflora and Health 

Both colostrum immunoglobulins and lactoferrin exert broad spectrum antimicrobial action by effectively inhibiting the growth of disease-causing protozoa, yeast, bacteria and viruses.[3,11,12] More important than actually killing organisms, lactoferrin prevents the attachment of pathogens to cells that line the mouth and entire gastrointestinal tract. At the same time, lactoferrin is a powerful growth promoter of health promoting bacteria including bifidobacteria and lactobacilli species.[8] By preventing growth of harmful bacteria while promoting the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, lactoferrin assists in the development of a healthy microflora environment.

In general, lactoferrin appears to be particularly important in the health and function of the intestinal tract. Many clinicians have found lactoferrin to greatly reduce intestinal inflammation in such conditions as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Some research also suggests that lactoferrin is able to stimulate intestinal cell growth and may lead to better digestive function in general.[6,7

Antimicrobial Effects 

The clinical application of lactoferrin’s antimicrobial effect has focused on two areas: 

(1) the treatment of peptic ulcers and digestive disturbances caused by the bacteria H. pylori, and
(2) chronic viral hepatitis. 

Lactoferrin in Peptic Ulcers

H. pylori infection can lead to a peptic ulcer because it weakens the protective mucous coating of the stomach and duodenum. The standard medical treatment of H. pylori infection is a 1- or 2-week course of treatment called triple therapy. It involves taking two antibiotics to kill the bacteria and an acid suppressor drug. Unfortunately, it does not resolve digestive disturbances or heal ulcers in all patients and typically involves taking as many as 20 pills a day. Also, mild side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dark stools, metallic taste in the mouth, dizziness, headache and yeast infections are common. 

Lactoferrin alone or in combination with triple therapy may soon be the treatment of choice based upon the results of recent clinical trials. In one study, 150 H. pylori positive patients suffering from indigestion symptoms were given either triple therapy alone or with bovine lactoferrin. H. pylori status assessed eight weeks after the end of the treatment indicated a 95.9% eradication rate for the group receiving lactoferrin while the other group had only a 72.5% eradication rate.[13] There is no question that bovine colostrum is a vital adjunct to H. pylori eradication as it not only increases the eradication rate in most studies, but is also associated with a reduction in antibiotic associated side effects.[14-16]

Lactoferrin in Viral Hepatitis

Lactoferrin has shown direct antiviral effects against hepatitis B and C viruses. Preliminary clinical trials have also shown beneficial effects in some patients with chronic hepatitis C.[17-21] The key is that it is most effective for people with lower viral loads. People with moderate to high viral loads will need stronger nutritional liver support. In patients on the combined therapy of interferon and ribavirin, bovine lactoferrin was shown to be a useful adjunct in reducing viral load.[21] 

Closer Examination of Immune Enhancement

Research on lactoferrin provides insight on the wide range of effects on the immune system produced by bovine colostrum. Researchers using various animal models (including rats, sheep, pigs and cats) as well as two human clinical trials on healthy subjects have found bovine lactoferrin to have direct effects on the regulation and modulation of the immune system. While some of these effects may involve its iron binding action, it has also shown effects unrelated to this mechanism. In particular, lactoferrin has shown an ability to impact a number of anticancer mechanisms including regulation of natural killer cell activity; expression of mediators of white blood cell function; inhibition of the formation of blood vessels to feed tumours; and enhancement of cellular suicide of cancer cells.[6,7,22-24

In perhaps the most significant human study, the effect of pre-surgery oral administration of bovine lactoferrin vs. a placebo was evaluated in patients after thyroid surgery.[24] Those who had been taking lactoferrin showed significant improvements in a variety of parameters including the proliferative response of white blood cells, the production of important immune system regulators, and white blood cell counts. Interestingly, the data presented revealed an increased immune responsiveness in all patients treated with lactoferrin. This result is significant as it suggests that lactoferrin can help prevent the common occurrence of post-surgical infections.

Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Actions

In addition to preventing iron-generated free radicals, there is now a substantial amount of research to show that lactoferrin directly regulates the inflammatory response. One interesting mechanism is the binding of bacterial endotoxins.[25] These lipopolysaccharide components of certain gut-derived bacteria are major stimulators of inflammation. For example, the level of circulating endotoxins from the gut has been shown to correlate with the severity of psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. These gut-derived toxins are among the major contributors to the excessive cell replication in the skin and inflammation seen throughout the body in people with psoriasis.[26] By binding to these compounds, lactoferrin may prove useful in conditions linked to excessive absorption of endotoxins such as psoriasis, cirrhosis of the liver, and symptoms of candidiasis.[26-28

Clinical Summary


  • General immune support

  • Protection against ulcer formation

  • Antimicrobial support 

  • Promotion of improved gastrointestinal health and microflora

  • Adjunct to detoxification programs 

Precautions and Considerations

  • Colostrum contains lactose and cows milk proteins. 

  • Colostrum is not suitable for pregnant and lactating women, and is not to be used in children under 12 months of age unless under the supervision of a healthcare practitioner. 

Recommended Dosage

Two servings daily of bovine colostrum concentrate containing the following per serving:

  • Immunoglobulin G    750mg

  • Immunoglobulin A    45mg

  • Lactoferrin                100mg

  • Lactoperoxidase       500mcg



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  2. Sarker SA, Casswall TH, Mahalanabis D, et al. Successful treatment of rotavirus diarrhea in children with immunoglobulin from immunized bovine colostrum. Pediatr Infect Dis J 1998;17(12):1149-1154. [Abstract
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  15. Tursi A, Elisei W, Brandimarte G, et al. Effect of lactoferrin supplementation on the effectiveness and tolerability of a 7-day quadruple therapy after failure of a first attempt to cure Helicobacter pylori infection. Med Sci Monit 2007 i;13(4):CR187-CR190. [Full Text
  16. de Bortoli N, Leonardi G, Ciancia E, et al. Helicobacter pylori eradication: a randomized prospective study of triple therapy versus triple therapy plus lactoferrin and probiotics. Am J Gastroenterol 2007;102(5):951-956. Epub 2007 Feb 21.  [Abstract
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Dr Michael Murray
Dr. Murray is one of the world’s leading authorities on natural medicine. He has published over 30 books featuring natural approaches to health. His research into the health benefits of proper nutrition is the foundation for a best-selling line of dietary supplements for which he is Director of Product Science and Innovation. He is a graduate, former faculty member, and serves on the Board of Regents of Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington.