Scientists says breast milk protein pill wards off colds and flu

A key component of breast milk, lactoferrin, is one of the very first nutrients we receive in our earliest moments of life. Now the multi-functional protein is being sold as a supplement that is being hailed by experts for its ability to boost our immune systems and fight off viruses.

“Scientists are calling it the Swiss army knife of our defence system as it does so much,” says nutritionist Emma Davies. “It’s so clever. Lactoferrin is found in the body naturally – particularly breast milk and colostrum – and something that we make ourselves is always going to have more than one benefit.”

Colostrum – the thick, creamy fluid made in the mammary glands in the first few days after a baby is born – has been dubbed liquid gold and contains seven times more lactoferrin than mother’s milk which comes in three to five days after a woman gives birth. “Breast milk is very rich in nutrients including lactoferrin, which is a glycoprotein that the body uses to help prime and develop the baby’s immune system,” explains Emma.

However, it’s not something we only benefit from as newborns. Our bodies continue to produce lactoferrin naturally throughout our lives as part of our defence system against bugs and viruses. It’s found in our saliva, tears and mucus membranes, and when we come into contact with someone with a cold, it’s the lactoferrin that is found naturally in our eyes, nose and mouth that starts to fight back.

In May 2022, in a study, The Lactoferrin Phenomenon, Polish scientists cited it as a miracle molecule for all its properties. They concluded: “Lactoferrin has numerous beneficial properties that may play an important role in maintaining health from foetal life to old age.”

Dr Younas Dadmohammadi, research associate at Cornell University in the United States, agrees. Dr Dadmohammadi and his team are currently working on a joint project with Oxford University and visiting Professor Michael Zimmerman looking at how to improve iron absorption through lactoferrin, funded in part through a donation of £6million in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr Younas says: “Lactoferrin is a multi-faceted molecule. The literature shows it is antimicrobial and antiviral. Specifically after Covid it supports the immune system, anti-inflammation and wound healing by enhancing the tissue repair process.”

Unfortunately, if we are stressed, run down, or not sleeping and eating properly, our body’s ability to produce it can diminish, leaving us more vulnerable to infection and illness. And while some dairy products contain lactoferrin, you would need to consume vast quantities to see any benefit, so it isn’t a nutrient we can access through our diet.

However, lactoferrin can be extracted from cow’s milk, and there are a growing number of supplements on the market. As with any supplements or dietary additions, check with your GP before using them, particularly if you have a medical condition, are pregnant or breastfeeding.

And always make sure you choose a reputable source. Busy mum-of-two Stephanie Drax first tried lactoferrin in 2018 on the advice of a scientist friend. “I’d been on the hunt for a natural remedy to stop the endless colds that came home from nursery with my two young sons,” she says. “We took it at the first sign of a tickle in the throat or a runny nose and found it worked.”

She was so impressed by its results that two years later she launched her own company, Leapfrog Remedies, and introduced a chewable tablet containing lactoferrin. It’s since become a go-to for many wellness experts, with celebrity advocates including Anthea Turner and wellbeing guru Liz Earle. This first supplement, Leapfrog Immune (£34.99; contains 250mg of lactoferrin as well as zinc citrate and Vitamin C, with the recommended dose of 250mg per day for prevention if you are feeling a bit low on energy or run down, and 500mg if you feel the early symptoms that a bug is lurking.

As well as our immune system, lactoferrin helps our gut and skin. Georgie Cleeve, founder of Oskia Skincare, has been a long-time fan of the glycoprotein. “I probably first came across lactoferrin about 30 years ago and have used it ever since,” she says.

“I’ve got an amazing immune system and I’m sure it has got something to do with it. “It has lots of different benefits, obviously to the immune system but also to gut health, which is key to skin health. They completely tie together.”

Studies show that lactoferrin helps the gut by promoting beneficial bacteria and inhibiting harmful bacteria. “It’s a fantastic anti-inflammatory and helps reduce a particular oil in your sebum,” says Georgie. “It reduces this particular triglyceride [a type of fat in your blood] by about 33 percent and is particularly good for acne because of this. It makes your skin less oily, less susceptible to bacteria and clearer. It sees a reduction in acne lesions too. There’s also this amazing data that it kickstarts cell regeneration. It’s fantastic for skin health.”

Oskia’s Lactoferrin+Food Supplement (£68; also contains the amino acid L-Glutamine. “It’s like giving an espresso shot to your immune system. It gives you that energy back,” says Georgie.

As well as gut and immune health, one of lactoferrin’s best known qualities is iron absorption. “We know lactoferrin has a great iron-binding affinity,” says Dr Younas. “It helps iron transport through the body and helps it to be sequestered [hidden] from bugs. “We are focusing on it specifically for anaemia, focusing on low and middle income countries in Africa. We are trying to use the lactoferrin as a carrier so we can deliver more iron.

“Lactoferrin is pretty stable in an acidic environment in the gut, and it can carry iron all the way to the duodenum, the top part of the intestine. That is a great location for iron to be absorbed.”

If looking for help with anaemia, Life Extension Lactoferrin Caps (£57.54 for 60; is made with apolactoferrin, a form of lactoferrin that is chemically altered to make it particularly good at boosting iron absorption.

Airline pilot Charlie Hogan has been taking lactoferrin for several years. “I’ve taken lactoferrin when I’ve had a cold coming on,” he explains. “I’ve been a pilot for a major airline for almost 10 years and so obviously travel all over the world as part of my job.

“It’s always a challenge to stay healthy with shift work, time zone changes and being around lots of different people and environments – crew, passengers, dirty airports and hotels. After Covid everyone started coughing and spluttering and getting colds. While on a layover, I picked up a nasty bacterial throat infection, was hospitalised and had to have antibiotics. The infection returned four times in the following five months and required another few doses of antibiotics.

“I had a ski trip coming up and really didn’t want to get sick again so, my mum recommended I try lactoferrin as a precaution as she had been taking it herself. Since then, I’ve always kept a couple of packs with me and if I’m feeling especially run down or with flu/cold symptoms starting up, I take them.”

It’s not a cheap supplement to buy and you’ll struggle to find a low-cost one on the market. That’s because, explains Dr Younas, extracting lactoferrin in the first place is an expensive process. “In the States lactoferrin costs about £600 a kilo,” he says.

But for Kirsty Hitch, a company director from Hertfordshire, the high price point is worth it. “I started subscribing to Leapfrog Immune after trying it and this was the first winter I’ve not had one single illness,” she says. “I spend about £30 a month but most women would spend that on a cream or a night out with friends. “It’s not the cheapest supplement but it’s worth it because I don’t get sick. I feel that, slowly and surely, it pays for itself.”

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