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The Immune-Inflammation Loop

Most of us define the strength of our immune systems by “how often we get sick.” And we define “being sick” as having a sore throat, runny nose, cough, and fatigue or fever. I hear a lot of my clients resist when I inform them that we need to improve their immune systems by telling me this exact phrase: “But I never get sick?!” But the more we learn about the symphonic complexity of how the immune system works, the more we are realizing that immune system “strength” is not necessarily defined by as the absence of cold symptoms. The immune system does not function optimally by being strong– it does so by being balanced.

The immune system is a highly intelligent, intricate, predetermined, and intercommunicating organism that is designed to identify, then tolerate or kill. The more effectively it is able to do these 3 things, the healthier you will be.

When the immune system’s “surveillance system” encounters something suspicious, it does so by recruiting (via Il-1b, and TNFa) a class of white blood cells known as neutrophils to the region. The “something” that needs to be addressed is frequently thought of as a foreign invader such as bacteria, a virus, or other such pathogens. But it also has to address tolerogenic things such as new foods, food sensitivities, injured cells or dead cells that require removal, or other exogenous toxins. This is important to understand because it helps to underscore how an immune system can be driven to unnecessarily work overtime when a person is repeatedly exposing themselves to an unknown food irritants (like gluten or dairy), heavily processed foods, or environmental toxins like heavy metals, food dyes, plastics, cosmetics, pesticides, etc. The neutrophil will then gobble up the offending agent, and send several more chemical signals. Some signals call for macrophages (another class of white blood cells) to come and pick up for removal to the lymphatic system, and other signals call to cancel further recruitment of neutrophils to the region since the threat has been contained.

You can think of the neutrophil as analogous to a police officer who has identified a threat, made an arrest, and has called for backup to come take the criminal for processing. While on the call, the officer also indicates that SWAT and National Guard can stand-down.

Here is the kicker: the neutrophil that has eaten the offending agent only has a so much time to wait for the macrophages to come and remove it to the lymphatic system. If that time clock expires, then the neutrophil will actually die, spilling its contents along with the digested offending agent. This process causes tissue inflammation and damage, which activates the whole immune system loop again. This causes even more neutrophils to pour into the tissue to respond to the debris that has been caused by the original neutrophil’s death. In our analogy, you can liken this scenario to our police officer and arrested criminal mysteriously dying while awaiting processing, and more officers being dispatched to the scene. Now there is an elevated level of alarm and suspicion, and many more vehicles and reinforcements arrive at the scene. Before, all that was needed was a police escort to jail. Now we need the coroner, an ambulance, a detective, and a full on investigation to resolve the situation appropriately.

So what happened in our story? Why did it take so long for our police escort to take our criminal to jail? Why did our immune system’s “resolving phase” of inflammation never occur? The answer is that this immune system is NOT well balanced – which creates a situation where an acute inflammatory response becomes cyclically chronic instead of quickly resolving, requiring the immune system to mount a larger response, and making it that much harder to resolve the issue. The tissue damage and level of inflammation becomes larger and larger, ultimately leading to a state of chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation of this sort often presents as an autoimmune disorder.

Thankfully, there are ways to naturally prevent these threats from spiraling out of control. Pro-resolving mediators known as resolvins and protectins facilitate the resolution of inflammation by inhibiting new neutrophils from coming into the tissue and promoting more macrophages to come to the region in order to escort the offending agents to the lymphatic system for removal from the body. These pro-resolving mediators are known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). More commonly known as long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, or simply omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA are found in cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, and anchovies. DHA is also found in algae. Additionally, Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can be converted into EPA and DHA, and is found in flax, hemp, chia, canola, walnuts, and soy. When your body has a sufficient amount of EPA/DHA, it can more effectively balance neutrophil/macrophage influx into the tissue thus reducing and resolving an inflammatory process.

So if you are chronically inflamed—don’t look now, but if you are alive right now, you are likely chronically inflamed, because stress chemistry drives inflammation—you are someone who would benefit from more effectively balancing your immune system through adding EPA and DHA.

Including more EPA and DHA into your diet, through foods or supplements can help resolve inflammation in the body, and also help to balance and quiet down the immune system. It can serve to improve cognition, support and improve skin rashes and irritations, and has been studied to improve mood, depression and anxiety.

Click the link below to view some of my favorite formulations:


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