Cytokines…a word that looks complex. Scientifically speaking, cytokines DO play a complicated role in immune system function. But you’ll need only a basic understanding to appreciate how cytokines can help or harm your body’s ability to heal naturally.
It’s my goal to empower you to reverse root causes of illness and restore your joy in living by uniting science and spirit to support natural healing. Abnormal cytokine function may be at the root of your chronic condition. So here’s what I’ll cover about cytokines in this article to aid you on your healing journey:
- A simplified overview of cytokines and the work they do to keep your immune system functioning properly by activating or inhibiting inflammation in the presence of infection.
- A basic explanation of cytokine dysregulation and the conditions that trigger an exaggerated or insufficient immune response, leading to disease.
- Evidence-based approaches and spiritual practices to support your immune response
What Are Cytokines and Why Should I Care?
Cytokine is a general term for protein molecules that serve as messengers. They carry instructions and bind to receptors throughout your body to regulate an immune response. If you get the flu, cytokines are secreted, communicating orders to other cells to destroy pathogens. By relaying the location and other information about an infection or injury, cytokines ensure the effectiveness of the healing process.1
You can probably imagine the negative consequences if the message is forgotten or lost in translation. If you’re suffering from chronic inflammation or persistent infection, cytokine dysregulation is involved. Your body’s ability to heal is dependent on proper cytokine function. That’s why it’s important to understand what you can do to support cytokines and other players in your immune system. Before we discuss that, let’s look at immunity and how cytokines regulate healing by causing or suppressing inflammation.
The Role of Cytokines in Immunity
The immunity we’re born with is called the innate immune system while the immunity we develop is called the adaptive immune system. The innate immune system functions by targeting any and all foreign invaders, but the adaptive immune system, via cytokine signaling, programs itself to remember and recognize specific pathogens it’s previously encountered, providing long-term immunity against infection.
The idea behind vaccinations is the activation of the adaptive immune system. By introducing a small dose of an infection to the innate immune system, cytokines communicate with and aid in programming the adaptive immune system to create antibodies that are released whenever the specific infection is present. Even without vaccines, you’re immune to many infections thanks to cytokines.2
In some cases of infection, however, the adaptive immune system is unable to understand cytokine signaling from the innate immune system, and antibodies are not produced. Because the infection is unrecognized and appears to be new to the body, the innate immune system continues to send cytokines to initiate an immune response, potentially resulting in persistent infection and chronic inflammation.
The Role of Cytokines In Inflammation
Ask anyone with an inflammatory condition such as CIRS, celiac disease, hepatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, or even allergies what they think of inflammation, and you’ll probably hear how troublesome and painful it is. While that’s unfortunately true, inflammation is also a defense mechanism necessary for optimal health.
Inflammation (heat, redness, pain, swelling, and loss of function) is initiated when harmful foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens that can cause disease are present or injury occurs and tissue is damaged3. The body responds with a sequence of chemical signals that causes white blood cells called leukocytes to move toward the injured tissue. It’s these activated leukocytes that produce cytokines and begin the inflammatory response.4
Pro-inflammatory Cytokines and Anti-inflammatory Cytokines
There are both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. The balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines determines the success of the inflammatory response. Cytokine dysregulation leads to an imbalance and the onset of disease.
The Role of Pro-inflammatory Cytokines
Pro-inflammatory cytokines are cytokines that regulate immune function by signaling an increased inflammatory response. When a pathogen is detected or injury occurs, pro-inflammatory cytokines both respond to inflammation as well as initiate and maintain inflammation while your immune system sends reinforcements to destroy the threat.
The Role of Anti-inflammatory Cytokines
Anti-inflammatory cytokines regulate the immune response by controlling the pro-inflammatory response. Ideally, as an infection subsides, anti-inflammatory cytokines inhibit and eventually end the pro-inflammatory response, returning the immune system to its normal state.
What is Cytokine Dysregulation?
Cytokine dysregulation occurs when cytokine signaling malfunctions, disrupting cellular communication and affecting cytokine balance5. When anti-inflammatory cytokines are unable to keep pro-inflammatory cytokines in check, chronic inflammation can develop and lead to autoimmune disorders. But an insufficient release of pro-inflammatory cytokines or an overactive anti-inflammatory response that shuts down pro-inflammatory cytokines too soon means infection will spread quickly or an immunodeficiency disorder could develop.
While we’re most concerned with number five for the purposes of this article, the following represent potential outcomes of the immune response as a result of cytokine balancing:
- The immune response is too weak, allowing the infection to take over.
- The immune response is too strong, killing the infection but also damaging healthy tissue.
- The immune response is sufficient yet unable to kill the infection.
- The immune response is sufficient, killing the infection and reducing inflammation (healthy response).
- The immune response matches the strength of a persistent infection and a standoff ensues. In time, the body sustains a mild level of constant inflammation to keep the infection in check, but it is not destroyed.6
Causes and Effects of Cytokine Dysregulation
Recall that normal immune system function produces immunity to foreign invaders by programming the adaptive immune system to release antibodies. When cytokine signaling fails to do so, a stalemate could ensue where persistent infections such as Lyme’s disease or toxic exposure such as mold carry on in opposition to the immune system for days, weeks, or even years, wreaking havoc on the body and mind through the perpetuation of constant low-level inflammation.
While the original cause of cytokine dysregulation may be difficult to identity, inflammatory symptoms start to develop, including:
- Acid reflux
- Weight gain or weight loss7
With these and a laundry list of other seemingly unrelated symptoms, many sufferers visit doctor after doctor seeking relief. They’re often diagnosed with allergies, a chronic disease, or even an autoimmune disorder and are told there is no cure, only alleviation of symptoms. While the exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown, cytokine dysregulation produced by a combination of genetics, infection, and environmental factors plays a significant role.8
How to Support Cytokine Function and Strengthen Your Immune System
A significant rise in chronic inflammatory disease over the past one hundred years suggests environmental factors have a major impact on the immune response. While more research is needed, we know certain biological and chemical triggers in water, air, and food have an impact on cytokine function.9 Therefore, supporting cytokine levels to maintain proper balance and function is highly dependent on diet, but you’ll also want to add moderate exercise and manage your stress. Here are my top recommendations to ensure healthy cytokine function.
Diet for Cytokine Support and Immune System Strength
In my practice I’ve discovered different diets work for different people. For those recovering from biotoxin illness, for example, a low-amylose diet is recommended as part of the Shoemaker Protocol. The low-amylose diet is also a gluten-free diet. We know dietary gluten changes cytokine expression toward a higher pro-inflammatory response while a gluten-free diet produces an anti-inflammatory cytokine profile.10
As a general guide, eat organic, non-GMO, whole foods with a focus on anti-inflammatory foods, including colorful, non-starchy vegetables, fresh fruits, locally-sourced lean meats, and good fats. Here are some great options for daily intake:
- Olive Oil
It’s best to avoid gluten and all refined carbohydrates such as white flour and sugar. Steer clear of fried and processed foods as well as margarine, lard, and shortening. Finally, limit your intake of red meat and processed meat products.
Supplements for Cytokine Support and Immune System Strength
While the food you choose to eat is the most powerful means of maintaining optimal immune function, you can boost your nutritional intake with high-quality supplements such as these:
- Vitamin C: boosts immune function
- Vitamin D3/K2: modulates the innate and adaptive immune responses while decreasing susceptibility to infection
- Fiber: changes immune cells from pro- to anti-inflammatory11
- Fatty Acids (EPA & DHA): reduces inflammation through regulation of the production and secretion of cytokines12
- Probiotics: induces production of cytokines
- N-Acetylcysteine: improves immune function and serves as a precursor to the antioxidant glutathione13
Exercise for Cytokine Support and Immune System Strength
The anti-inflammatory role of cytokines as a result of regular exercise is well-documented.14 Interleukin 6, a common cytokine with both pro- and anti-inflammatory functions, is produced by muscle fibers and signals other anti-inflammatory cytokines to circulate throughout the body causing an anti-inflammatory environment.15
Both healthy adults and individuals with chronic disease should do a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity to improve health.16 So move your body for at least 20 minutes a day. Swim, jump, cycle, climb…engage in exercise that supports your immune system and brings you joy.
Stress Reduction for Cytokine Support and Immune System Strength
Stress is truly a silent killer. You can read about the role of stress in autoimmunity on my blog, but know that keeping stress in check is vital to cytokine balance. Long-term or chronic stress floods your body with a continuous release of the hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune response by decreasing lymphocyte count and altering the balance between type 1 and type 2 cytokines.17 Visit my blog post for evidence-based stress-reduction practices.
Healthy Sleep Habits for Cytokine Support and Immune System Strength
Inadequate sleep habits shift cytokine balance from type 1 to type 2, causing constant pro-inflammatory cytokine signaling and chronic inflammation.18 Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night. Follow these guidelines if you have trouble falling or staying asleep:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
- Stop exercise at least 2 hours before bed
- Avoid caffeine after lunch
- Limit large meals and alcohol before bed
- Create your ideal sleeping environment
- Reduce EMFs in the bedroom
Spiritual Practices for Cytokine Support and Immune System Strength
Like a regular exercise routine, a daily spiritual practice can do wonders for health and well-being. Keep it light and fun with uplifting mantras or songs of praise. Or commit to a new level of devotion by practicing gratitude before those healthy meals you eat, giving a daily vigil, or doubling down on your meditation practice. Acknowledging and appreciating the gift of life from a higher Power can shift your attention from a place of pain and suffering to an outlook filled with hope and the promise of a better tomorrow.
I believe a relationship with Spirit can raise your vibration so your organs, tissues, cells, and cytokines are filled and enfolded by the light and presence of God, Source, Great Spirit, whatever you choose to call the Oneness that connects us all. Maintaining this higher vibration promotes healing, empowering the innate wisdom of the body to heal itself naturally.
While there’s an encyclopedia of knowledge to explore about cytokine function, this overview should leave you with a simplified understanding of their role in immunity, infection, and inflammation. As messenger molecules, cytokines hold the power to regulate optimal health and well-being through regulation of innate and adaptive immunity. Their work in balancing pro- and anti-inflammatory responses to infection and injury makes them vital to the healing process. When that balance is interrupted, disease isn’t far behind, so it’s important to support cytokine function with diet and lifestyle choices that keep your immune system strong.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have questions about cytokine function? Are you battling inflammation or are you living with an autoimmune condition? If so, have any of the recommendations above helped you, or do you have another to share? Leave me a message in the comments.