How Lactoferrin Regulates Iron Throughout the Body and Keeps You Performing Your Best

Iron Regulation


Sports Nutrition


As you’ve likely heard by now, TurtleTree has created sustainable lactoferrin using precision fermentation technology.

In this post, we’ll explore how lactoferrin helps the body maintain proper iron levels and what that means for your physical fitness.

From the circulatory and respiratory system, to recovery after exercise, iron is essential to the body’s proper functioning. Most of the iron in the body is used to construct a protein known as hemoglobin, which is found inside red blood cells.

Hemoglobin serves as a transport protein and reservoir for oxygen, allowing red blood cells to absorb oxygen from lungs and release it into our muscle and other tissues, where it is used to break down sugars and lipids into energy.

Hemoglobin, and iron by proxy, is crucial to ensuring that muscles get the oxygen they need.

Iron’s function in the body.

Lactoferrin is a protein that plays a major role in maintaining iron homeostasis throughout the body. This functionality comes from its tertiary structure, which allows it to bind two iron atoms.

As a component of human and cow’s milk, lactoferrin is highly soluble due to the presence of sugars attached to the protein.

The protein is found in three possible states in the body – one free of any iron, one with only one iron ion attached, and one in which two iron ions are attached.  These multiple states allow lactoferrin to modulate the iron concentrations in its surroundings, picking up excess iron or releasing iron as needed.

Proper maintenance of iron levels is necessary to healthy human physiology. While too little iron can cause anemia, where there are not enough healthy red blood cells with hemoglobin to transport oxygen, excess iron can lead to toxicity and cell damage.

Iron is highly reactive and has the ability to catalyze the formation of free radicals that damage cellular structures if their production is left uncontrolled.

Lipids found in the cell membrane, which keep cells intact, are especially susceptible to the presence of free radicals. Some scientists hypothesize that the accumulation of oxidative cellular damage caused by free radicals is a major contributor to aging.

If this theory is true, by binding iron and scavenging these harmful free radicals, lactoferrin may help to slow aging.

How the body loses iron.

The connection between athletic performance and iron

Iron is imperative for athletic performance because it aids in energetic metabolism and helps to circulate oxygen through the body. Typically, athletes lose iron during periods of intense exercise through sweat or urine.

As many as 10% of male athletes and 20% of female athletes suffer from low iron levels, which can greatly impact athletic performance in the long term.

Indeed, athletes lose more iron compared to the general population because of their greater metabolic needs. Lower iron status can be detrimental to athletic performance.

An interesting insight from the research on iron status in athletes shows that female athletes tend not to meet their daily recommended iron intake, despite the fact that they tend to consume more iron-rich foods compared to their male counterparts. This is likely because of the higher iron needs of women due to blood loss from their menstruation cycles.

Especially in female athletes, deficient iron levels are relatively common.

In a study based in Pakistan, researchers looked into the levels of iron biomarkers in semi-professional female basketball, volleyball, and handball players. They found that as many as one third of all the players suffered from low ferritin levels, an essential blood protein that latches on and stores iron.

The style of athletic sport also seemed to impact the iron levels, with significantly different concentrations of iron between the basketball, volleyball, and handball groups.

How the body processes iron.

Luckily, iron supplementation has been shown to help improve iron status in female athletes.

However, one problem with iron supplementation is that excessive consumption of free iron can lead to more oxidative stress and damage from free radicals, and iron supplementation from conventional iron sources (i.e. ferrous sulfate) can cause gastrointestinal upset.

Therefore, while iron supplementation can be extremely beneficial, particularly for female athletes, one must be careful as too much iron can also be dangerous for long-term health.

With lactoferrin, the iron is bound directly to the protein which helps regulate its passage from the gastrointestinal system to the blood. This helps prevent any excess release of iron that can lead to gastrointestinal issues and side effects like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Studies have found that iron-bound lactoferrin doesn’t act as much as a direct iron supplement, like ferrous sulfate, as much as it serves as an iron regulator that helps improve iron status throughout the body.

Researchers speculate that lactoferrin can help reduce the damaging effects of excess iron in the body by binding to iron, modulating the immune system, and regulating the side effects caused by high iron load at the interface of the gastrointestinal lining.

This likely indicates that depending on factors like what sport you’re playing and your body’s particular needs, each person will require different amounts of iron intake to achieve optimal performance.

For some, lactoferrin and iron supplementation may be the solution.

Improving athletic health through lactoferrin supplementation

study conducted by Japanese researchers evaluated the effect of lactoferrin supplementation on female long-distance runners. Since regular athletic exercise requires a significant amount of oxygen for fueling muscles, blood iron concentration and red blood cells play a large role in improving performance. The female participants in the study were either given bovine lactoferrin with iron, or a sugar placebo with iron everyday.

After 8 weeks, the researchers found that female athletes who supplemented with lactoferrin had higher red blood cell counts than those who did not. The athletes who took lactoferrin also had higher levels of hemoglobin, the key protein that carries blood in red blood cells.

Lactic acid, which tends to build up in the muscles and blood if there isn’t sufficient oxygen in the body, and leads to sore muscles, was also measured between the two groups.

The researchers found that the group that supplemented with lactoferrin had less lactic acid in the blood after strenuous exercise compared to the control group.

This study suggests that taking lactoferrin with iron supplements helps maintain the physiology needed for optimal athletic performance throughout periods of intense training.

Lactoferrin improves exercise performance.

Lactoferrin as a scavenger of other micronutrients for sports health

Lactoferrin also has the ability to loosely bind to other metals essential for athletic performance, such as zinc and copper.

Zinc improves strength and cardiorespiratory function, while both zinc and copper help protect the body against excessive levels of oxidative stress.

Lactoferrin’s ability to regulate the transportation of these metals and help the body to better absorb them is another way in which lactoferrin can improve sports performance.

It is an important protein in the body for ensuring athletes can perform at their optimal levels.

By helping athletes to absorb, transport, and release iron throughout the body, lactoferrin is able to not only provide the building blocks for red blood cells and keep muscles oxygenated, but also protect athletes against the deleterious effects of excess iron.


TurtleTree’s very own vegan certified, precision fermentation derived lactoferrin, LF+, is ushering in a new era of functional nutrition in consumer goods.

Interested in LF+? Contact our sales team today: