What You’ll Learn

Category: Health issues
  • Sometimes it’s not specific infections that kill; it’s your own body attacking itself
  • A cytokine storm is when your body’s immune system overreacts to a situation
  • Are certain people more susceptible to cytokine storms?
  • Can cytokine storms be prevented by actions or medicines?

Cytokines: Your Body’s Catalysts 

We all want our bodies on our side, in sickness and in health. So the last thing we want to imagine if we were lying in a hospital bed with an infection is the idea that our own body’s immune system could cause more damage than the original problem. Yet this can and does happen when the immune system over-activates and sends the body down a spiral of internal damage that can, in some cases, turn fatal.

This immune reaction is called a cytokine storm. How it could be triggered and how it might be dampened or stopped completely is fascinating biology. And of course, how this information is vitally important right now with a virus-caused pandemic in our world. Let’s dive in.

Inflammation and the Immune System 

Cytokines are small proteins (or peptides) that are secreted to regulate processes in the body like immunity and inflammation. They are quite similar to hormones but classified separately. In order to work, they must bind to receptors on cell membranes which then changes the behavior of the cell. There are dozens of known cytokines serving many different functions in the body, from triggering inflammation and new blood cell growth to inhibiting virus replication.

Usually, all of these effects are beneficial and in synergy with other bodily processes. However, cytokines can also start a cascade called a cytokine storm that can accelerate out of control causing excess inflammation and damaging major organs or even causing death. How this cascade begins and who it is likely to affect is still an area of critical and ongoing research.

A Deeper Dive on Cytokines and Your Immune System 

Now that we know the basics of cytokines as a part of our immune system, it’s worth getting a little bit more in-depth with the varieties and what they do individually and in concert. (Here comes the deep-dive!)

Most cytokines tend to act in either a proinflammatory or an anti-inflammatory way. They can switch their action based on changing environmental cues, but for now, we’ll stick to the basics. 

Inflammation is not always bad. One example is the ‘interleukin-type’ cytokines (IL-1b and IL-6) that are crucial in—healthfully—stimulating an immune response. They do this by activating ‘T-cells’ (our primary immune soldiers) to fight infections. Other pro-inflammatory interleukins are needed to stimulate the growth of new red blood cells.

Interleukin-6 covid

The anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-4 and IL-10 reduce or dampen the inflammatory response, while ‘chemokines’ call up helper cells to fight infection by secreting chemical signals to surrounding tissues. And then we have cytokines called ‘interferons’ that directly interfere with virus replication, which can reduce the need for inflammatory responses later.  

Cytokines should work in a controlled ebb-and-flow for a proper immune response without unnecessary damage. Most of the time this whole delicate balance works well and helps us to fight and then heal from pathogens. But if the ebb and flow goes awry, you can end up with the story of Dr. Ryan Padgett, a Seattle physician who nearly died from cytokine storm.  

Padgett was a 44-year old Seattle emergency room doctor during the first wave of elderly COVID-19 patients. After working with critically sick patients for weeks, Padgett was diagnosed with COVID-19 and then showed symptoms of the most well-known type of cytokine storm: an overproduction of Interleukin-6 causing tissue inflammation and fluid leakage from cells.

Major organ damage can result if the storm lasts too long. Running out of ideas, his team tried an experimental treatment designed for inflammation in cancer patients. In combination with Vitamin C and other therapies, Padgett recovered within a few weeks. It’s a great story, but it could have easily gone another way. Timing is critical: dampen the body’s immune response too early and it cannot fight the virus. Too late and there’s already critical damage.  

Cytokine IV Therapy

It seems like a far better idea to set the stage to prevent a cytokine storm from happening at all. Luckily, finding a way to avoid triggering this runaway inflammation in the first place has some promising research and inspiring stories.

Related: Why Science Suggests NAD+ Might Give Us A Fighting Chance Against COVID-19

Blood Sugar Levels and Immune Systems Reactions 

As if we didn’t already know that borderline-to-high blood sugar was unhealthy, along comes a new theory that ties together blood glucose levels with poor COVID-19 outcomes. It has to do with the body’s inability to metabolize glucose well. 

How can this be mitigated? In the short-term, it doesn’t look great. Interventions to help block the glucose runaway pathway are still being investigated. The intersecting processes that all surround glucose processing and creation and that of fighting off viruses are tied together so closely that diabetic patients are far better off doing what they can to avoid COVID-19. When the body fights the virus, the pancreas can be damaged. When the virus is fought externally by glucocorticoids, the patient’s blood sugar will rise and they could be affected by ketoacidosis and other organ damage. 

In the medium-term, those who know they have blood glucose levels in the unhealthy range can immediately strengthen their vigilance and efforts to naturally control their numbers. Patients with COVID-19 who entered the hospital with well-managed blood glucose levels were far less likely to have a bad outcome.

So at-home interventions are crucial before one even thinks they could contract the virus. Even “drastic” dietary interventions to consume only foods that are unlikely to spike blood glucose is not a bad idea. If the body can begin to healthfully regulate its own blood sugar, the benefits go far beyond the current pandemic. 

Related: The Vagus Nerve: The Key To Unlock the Gut/Brain/and Body Connection

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Naturally Calming the Cytokine Storm 

Individuals can do much to strengthen and prepare their bodies to avoid a cytokine storm. Here are a few natural external interventions to shore up the body’s defenses—without taxing the immune system prematurely, leaving it less ready to fight than before.

While you are still healthy, go with the tried-and-true. All of those herbs and supplements reputed to help overall health are on the table: garlic, curcumin/turmeric, green tea, Vitamin C, St. John’s Wort, skullcap, and astragalus. Look into adaptogens – those substances that support the immune system’s health, not tax it. 

Finally, a whole-body detox that relies on research and science rather than fads is an excellent final piece in your health plan. Make sure you’re looking at good systemic detox practices rather than taking up a quick-fix from a juice bar.

Healing from Within: The Brain-Body Connection to Reduce Inflammation  

Beyond supplements, there is much we can do to build resistance from within. Several mind-body modalities have been shown to reduce the body’s inflammatory response, even specifically lowering the cytokine of COVID-19: IL-6.

Meditation, yoga and mindfulness. It’s always a good time to start or bolster your meditative practice. Now more than ever, as meditation and yoga have been correlated with lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Another technique known as mind-body brain wave training is also an interesting way to tame inflammatory molecules and cytokine response. 

Studies have shown that yoga reduces cytokine levels known to promote inflammation.

Other ways to connect your mind and body responses are time tested with other health issues, and they will prove to be a complement to the rest of your healthy interventions. EFT (or tapping) is a modality that directly connects us to our bodies and our emotions and can be a direct path to unlearning negative emotions. With so much new research being done on the connection to stress states and disease, practices like EFT are worthwhile. 

Vagus nerve stimulation helps optimize that crucial pathway between our autonomic nervous system and our body’s response to the world, which can attenuate the cytokine storm directly. This is extremely beneficial.

The Innovative Medicine Take-Away

Getting through a global pandemic remains a topic we can all connect on, with positive knowledge and a healthy appreciation for the many ways our bodies can be kept healthy with the right attitude and the right information. 

Connecting mind, body, and spirit is more important than ever. Using both external interventions such as supplements or diet and internal modalities like meditation, EFT, or vagus nerve stimulation can come together to build resilience in each of us. Not just the next few years ahead and through the COVID-19 pandemic, but for life beyond. A healthy life that connects every part of us in growth and fulfillment. 

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About Andrea Feucht

Andrea Feucht started geeking out on the body and health in grade school, became an athlete at age 13, and started writing for joy in high school. Even while working tech and data jobs, nothing has kept her far from her early loves. She’s taken night classes on organic chemistry, read hundreds of health books, worked as a restaurant critic, and built a 30 year career as a trail and ultra runner. She’s seen the dark side, too; an eating disorder taught her more about the fragile edges of human health than any textbook could, building both knowledge and empathy. Andrea is based in Salt Lake City, a writer of emotionally evocative storytelling and some poetry on the side. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Edible Communities, Paleo Magazine, Blue Zones LLC, GapingVoid, and McCormick Spice Company. She does not like long walks on the beach or puppies. But single origin coffee and kittens…? Definitely.