A strong immune system with appropriate inflammatory responses are crucial for the health of both mother and child. Infections or high levels of inflammation can lead to poor health and neurodevelopmental outcomes for the foetus and is a potential risk factor for preterm births.
Several factors in breast milk, produced by the mother’s innate and acquired immune system, protect the child against these risks; however, this requires the mother to have a healthy immune system and balanced intestinal microbiota. Additionally, formula-fed babies, which many preterm infants are, may miss out on some of these essential factors.
One nutrient that has been proven safe and effective in supporting immunity and microbiota levels, pre- and postnatally, is lactoferrin.
Lactoferrin is the second most abundant protein after casein in human breast milk and bovine milk; however, it is also found in smaller amounts in mucosal secretions and bodily fluids, including vaginal fluids, semen, gastrointestinal fluids, neutrophils, blood plasma and amniotic fluid.
Reviewing both preclinical and clinical studies of human and bovine lactoferrin, researchers recently sought to discover if this glycoprotein was the main protective factor in breast milk associated with decreased rates of infection and improved immune responses in infants.
Studies showed both human and bovine lactoferrin had antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects by:[1,2]
- sequestering free iron; thereby reducing its availability to bacteria and parasites
- disrupting the cell membrane and wall of bacteria and candida
- demonstrating antiviral activity against enveloped and naked viruses
- binding or degrading specific virulence proteins of pathogenic organisms
- inhibition and disruption of biofilm formation
- microbiota modulation; promoting the growth of bacteria with low iron requirements, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria
- promotion of intestinal cell health, development and maturation.
By sequestering iron, lactoferrin modulates iron homoeostasis during inflammation. This provides additional benefit to the mother as it restores the physiological export of iron from the cells to circulation, which is useful in the treatment of iron deficiency anaemia. Lactoferrin may also directly modulate immune function, including downregulating pro-inflammatory cytokines in intestinal cells.
The research appeared to show that lactoferrin is increased in amniotic fluid under inflammatory situations, and by providing this nutrient to pregnant women, it might prevent preterm delivery and reduce several major morbidities related to prematurity. In a few studies, lactoferrin supplementation decreased maternal inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins, suppressed uterine contractility, modulated cervical activity, and increased pregnancy length.
Clinical studies on children show a protective effect against neonatal infections, with larger trials currently underway to provide more evidence of lactoferrin’s role in neonatal health care. It was reported as a safe and well tolerated supplement for children and pregnant women.
- Ochoa TJ, Sizonenko SV. Lactoferrin and prematurity: a promising milk protein? Biochemistry and Cell Biology. 2017;95(1):22-30. [Abstract]
- Giansanti F, Panella G, Leboffe L, et al. Lactoferrin from milk: nutraceutical and pharmacological properties. Pharmaceuticals (Basel) 2016;9(4). [Full Text]
- Paesano R, Pacifici E, Benedetti S, et al. Safety and efficacy of lactoferrin versus ferrous sulphate in curing iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia in hereditary thrombophilia pregnant women: an interventional study. Biometals 2014;27(5):999-1006. [Abstract]