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Three Natural Solutions to Halt a Cytokine Storm

The emergence of the novel SARS-coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the subsequent pandemic it has caused reignited discussions about a common complication of respiratory illnesses known as a cytokine storm. This phenomenon became more widely known outside of medical and research circles after the 2005 avian H5N1 influenza virus outbreak. Illnesses like COVID-19 and influenza can be fatal if a cytokine storm occurs. The scramble to find solutions for cytokine storms has increased since it was associated with a poor outcome after infection with SARS-CoV-2. As usual, Mother Nature has beat drug manufacturers to the punch and provided us tools to keep us healthy. Here are three natural solutions that can help halt a cytokine storm.

What is a cytokine storm?

Cytokines are proteins released by cells, including immune cells, involved in cell signaling. These chemical messengers coordinate the immune system’s response against infection and increase inflammation. Important pro-inflammatory (cause inflammation) cytokines involved in cytokine storms include tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), interleukin 1 alpha (IL-1α), interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β), and interleukin 6 (IL-6).

After infection by a pathogenic germ, your immune system activates troops—like white blood cells—and innate defenses to efficiently control the invader and maintain a healthy state. Sometimes the body’s response to infection overreacts and becomes harmful rather than helpful. When this occurs, activated white blood cells release excessive inflammatory cytokines in response to an invader, which in turn activates more white blood cells. This dangerous feedback loop makes the immune system go into overdrive and allows inflammation to flare out of control. If this cascade of events isn’t resolved quickly, the germ becomes more aggressive and causes severe illness. The subsequent inflammation damages tissues and organs, which can seriously harm or even kill a person.

Cytokine storms can partially explain why younger people are not as affected by COVID-19 and why people with preexisting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory diseases are more likely to experience severe illness or die. Young people tend to produce lower levels of inflammatory cytokines and people with certain preexisting conditions have a decreased ability to regulate immune responses. Dysfunction of the immune system makes people more susceptible to an overactive immune response and the release of massive numbers of inflammatory cytokines. Moreover, research shows that older persons tend to have elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines, which makes them more susceptible to experience a cytokine storm after certain infections.

Turmeric

Used for centuries for inflammation, turmeric and its active constituent curcumin, are a promising natural solution for cytokine storms. Curcumin blocks the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as the IL-1 family, IL-6, and TNF-α. (1) Experimental models of illnesses where cytokine storm plays a significant role in severity and mortality demonstrate that curcumin helps improve the subjects condition. It plays such a significant role in regulating the inflammatory and immune responses that the study authors called it as “a potential therapy for patients with Ebola and other severe viral infections.” Another experimental model reported that turmeric reduced the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines when taken after influenza A infection. (2) This shows that turmeric and curcumin can help regulate the immune response and control inflammation after infections.

Emerging clinical research supports the preliminary experimental trials. A clinical study found that taking 500 mg of curcumin twice daily reduced pro-inflammatory cytokine release in people with metabolic syndrome. (3) Another study demonstrated that taking 500 mg of curcumin three times a day decreased inflammatory cytokines in people suffering from chronic pulmonary complications. (4) These studies suggest that taking 500 mg of turmeric—standardized to curcumin content—two or three times daily may help control inflammatory cytokine release.

One of the challenges with turmeric is the poor bioavailability of curcumin. To overcome this, take turmeric with turmeric essential oil (7- to 10-fold higher bioavailability), fenugreek galactomannan (15.8 times greater bioavailability, or turmeric black pepper extract to increase absorption (2000% increase in bioavailability). (5),(6),(7) Most studies use 500 mg of turmeric two to four times daily.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Found in fish and red algae, the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are unique because they are precursors to the production of lipid-based inflammatory mediators called resolvins. Resolvins help resolve cytokine release without dampening the inflammatory response completely. This allows the immune system to continue its inflammatory assault against the germ but not overreact and cause tissue damage. (8)

Supplementation with 1.5 grams of EPA and 1.0 grams of DHA daily significantly reduced blood levels of inflammatory cytokines in older adults. (9) Several additional studies show supplementation with DHA and EPA reduces the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. (10),(11),(12)

A typical fish oil capsule contains about 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA. Some supplements are concentrated to provide 250 to 500 mg of EPA or DHA per capsule. These are far from therapeutic levels, so you need to take multiple capsules to get an optimum amount of DHA and EPA. Aim for at least 2000 mg of total DHA and EPA (for example 100 mg of DHA and 1000 mg of EPA) daily for maximum effects. Lower amounts are not likely to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokine production.

Copaiba essential oil

Derived from the oleoresin of Copaifera species trees, copaiba essential oil contains very high levels of the sesquiterpene and cannabinoid beta-caryophyllene. This bioactive constituent can directly bind to CB2 receptors in the immune system and regulate immunity and inflammation. Experimental models demonstrate that copaiba essential oil significantly reduces the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and helps control the immune response to infections. (13),(14) Clinical studies for copaiba essential oil are sparse currently but anecdotal evidence from tens of thousands of people show that copaiba oil can reduce inflammation and support healthy immune and respiratory function.

Because of a lack of clinical research, the optimum amount of copaiba oil to take is a bit of a mystery. Commonly used amounts are one to two drops directly under the tongue up to three times daily or three to five drops in an empty vegetable capsule (fill the rest with olive oil) up to five times daily. Adding a drop of lavender, lemongrass, or fir (balsam of Siberian) to the capsule can augment the bioavailability and activity of copaiba oil.

Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The mentioned natural solutions are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult an integrative health professional before using the solutions.

Reverse biological aging by naturally balancing cellular pathways

Billions of dollars are spent every year with one goal in mind — to maintain youth. Creams are applied, surgeries undergone, and extreme exercise or calorie restriction executed to maintain a youthful glow and youthful function. Knowing this, scientists have performed thousands of hours of research in search of the next miracle drug, molecule, or supplement to extend healthy human lifespan. Recent discoveries of cellular pathways — AMPK and mTOR — make this dream more of a reality.

What is AMPK?

Adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is an important enzyme found inside every cell in the body. It serves as a master regulator of energy metabolism. AMPK detects energy levels (the number of ATP molecules) inside cells and controls responses when ATP levels are too high or too low. When activated, AMPK speeds metabolism, accelerates fat burning, and even influences how long you live.

Its activity level also closely regulates aging. The enzyme is most active in days of youth but its activity gradually decreases with each passing year. (1) This decreased activity is partially responsible for the buildup of visceral (belly) fat and muscle loss that occurs during the aging process. Excess weight, and the accumulation of fat around the waistline, accelerates aging. (2) Abdominal fat also generates an abundance of inflammatory chemicals. Indeed, deep abdominal fat transforms into an inflammation-promoting factory, leading to metabolic diseases. (3)

What happens when AMPK activity decreases?

Given that AMPK is the master cellular regulator of metabolism, it’s not surprising that a whole host of adverse effects can occur when its activity slows down.

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Increased visceral fat
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Accelerated aging
  • Dyslipidemia (high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides; low HDL)
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction
  • Poor blood glucose control

AMPK promotes cellular renewal and clean-up

Your cells continuously generate energy to remain viable. The process of energy creation produces toxic debris and metabolic waste that must be carefully managed by your body. Autophagy is the primary process cells use to clear damaged proteins and mitochondria, and other metabolic waste products. It is your cell’s internal housekeeping process.

The easiest way to think about this process is to consider fireplaces and a chimney sweep. Fireplaces are your cells. Inside these fireplaces, a series of oxidation reactions occur to convert food molecules into energy. As a result, the inside of the cell accumulates debris (like soot). The chimney sweep is autophagy, which cleans out the debris so the cell can operate more efficiently. Maintaining optimal autophagy is critical to cellular health and function.

Emerging scientific research suggests that autophagy is involved in virtually every intervention proven to extend healthy lifespan. (4) This discovery is a major advance in the quest to slow and reverse the aging process.

mTOR: AMPK’s partner in longevity

AMPK regulates autophagy and fat-removal partly by modulating a protein, and its partner in crime, called mTOR. mTOR stands for mechanistic target of rapamycin (an immunosuppressive drug that targets mTOR activity), and when properly balanced, triggers the breakdown of fat stores to produce cellular energy. (5) Indeed, scientists have discovered that mTOR functions as a central coordinator of metabolism and cellular growth in response to environmental and hormonal signals.

In essence, mTOR is the master conductor of your cellular symphony of processes. mTOR responds to stimuli such as amino acid levels, cellular energy status, oxygen level, and insulin growth factors. Its two complexes (mTORC1 and mTORC2) serve as a communication hub that integrates cellular nutrient and stress statuses and then formulates an appropriate response.

Like AMPK, mTOR activity is directly associated with the aging process. Animal research demonstrates that decreasing mTOR activity extends lifespan. (5) Conversely, mTORC1 signaling activity is increased in a number of diseases, including cancer. (5) The discovery of mTOR’s involvement in aging and age-related diseases creates an exciting prospect to not only delay aging, but reduce the risk of age-related diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

The role of exercise and eating in AMPK activation and mTOR regulation

Before we explore proven natural solutions to slow aging at the cellular level, it is important to emphasize the importance of regular exercise and eating better. It’s no revelation to those who live a healthy lifestyle that vigorous activity and reducing caloric intake are two well-established strategies to active AMPK activity and regulate mTOR. (6)(7) Calorie restriction triggers mechanisms that improve metabolism efficiency and protect against cellular damage. Many of the health benefits of exercise are linked to mTOR activity in muscle, brain, fat, and liver tissue. (8) Achieving optimal AMPK and mTOR activation is therefore critical for overall health and healthy lifespan.

Health really is a product of what you eat, how you move, environmental factors, and your thoughts and emotions. You simply can’t outpace the effects of poor eating, inactivity, or chronic stress. Nutrition and regular activity are foundational and the longevity results achieved with other natural measures will be amplified when they are properly established.

Natural methods to increase autophagy and AMPK activation and regulate mTOR

  • Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Jiaogulan). Dubbed the immortality herb for good reason, jiaogulan is prized for its ability to promote youthfulness and longevity. Its health benefits are often attributed to its effects on AMPK activity. Laboratory research demonstrates that GP potently increases AMPK activation almost seven-fold (660%). (9A)(9B)(9C) Remarkably, that is far greater than increases achieved with the diabetes drug metformin (1.3–1.6-fold increase) — metformin’s best-studied mechanism of action is through AMPK activation. (10) A randomized clinical study showed GP busts abdominal fat. Scientists observed an 11% reduction in visceral fat when individuals took 450 mg daily. (11)
  • Hesperidin. The citrus bioflavonoid hesperidin also significantly increases AMPK. Clinical research suggests that hesperidin benefits people with metabolic syndrome (high blood sugar, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, systemic inflammation, and excess abdominal fat). What scientists found was that hesperidin (400 mg to 500 mg daily) reduces systemic inflammation and abdominal fat. (12)(13)
  • Nicotinamide riboside. Preliminary research suggests that the NAD precursor nicotinamide riboside potently triggers autophagy, and improves mitochondrial function to extend lifespan. (14)(15) Typical doses are 100 mg daily.
  • Citrus bergamia (Bergamot) essential oil. Both bergamot essential oil and one of its primary constituents (limonene) stimulate autophagy according to laboratory research. (16)
  • Boswellia species (Frankincense), Pinus densiflora (Pine), and Pelargonium graveolens (Geranium) essential oil. Researchers discovered that three essential oils modulate the activity of the AMPK/mTOR signaling pathway. (17) Regulation of the AMPK/mTOR pathway is likely best achieved through ingestion of the essential oils. Perhaps as few as 1-3 drops daily may be effective. This will need to be determined by clinical research.

Caution

Turning down mTOR and activating AMPK (and therefore autophagy) is not for everyone. Those with sarcopenia (degenerative loss of muscle tissue) or other frailty-associated conditions could experience aggravation of symptoms through chronically decreased mTOR and elevated autophagy. (18)

Conclusion

Emerging evidence surrounding the AMPK/mTOR signaling pathway is an exciting cellular pathway to slow down the aging process and reduce age-related disease burden. Even more exciting is the possibility of influencing aging and age-related diseases with natural products. Don’t take your chances with expensive and risky surgeries to look and feel younger. Mother Nature prepared multiple solutions that you can give a try instead.