Chronic Inflammation brings a “Civil War” Within Yourself…. How Can Your Body Win?
DNA+Environment+Triggers+Chance = War and Peace within Your Cells
Win Your DNA-Triggered “Inflammation Wars” through Modifying the Expression of IL6 and MTHFR Genes
-Bruce Alan Kehr, M.D.
Reader, no body wants to wage a civil war. If you read that sentence and 1) asked yourself if you’ve accidentally happened upon a newspaper’s Opinion Page by accident, or 2) immediately noted the seemingly misspelled “no body” instead of “nobody”, let me assure you that, yes, we’re still very much concerned about mental wellbeing on this blog, and yes—I did mean no body. So why did I invoke “civil war”? Because this week, we’re talking all about the Inflammation domain of our own bodies—and as it happens, the mechanisms behind a civil war are directly parallel to what’s happening in our own bodies when inflammation strikes. And just as a long and drawn out civil war has the power to destroy a country and wreak havoc upon the lives of its citizens, chronic inflammation has the power to slowly but surely destroy our own bodies, piece by piece, until our wellness outlook has been completely devastated. Chronic inflammation has been implicated in cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorder, and cognitive decline. It can also predispose us to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. War is serious. So is inflammation. Pay attention, and you may be able to take control of the battle and prevent a full-scale war on all of the cells of your body before it’s too late.
The Inflammation Domain: The Cell War
If the war metaphor sounds familiar, you might recognize it from Session 3 of our Nurture Your Nature series—in that post, we discussed the tools our bodies have at its disposal to keep our bodies in a state of equilibrium, or balance: primarily the tools of upregulation and downregulation of DNA, and inflammation. Now, you might remember that upregulation and downregulation of the DNA inside our cells occur when a cell determines it needs more or less of a particular cellular component, respectively. You might consider this as a diplomatic effort on behalf of our bodies to restore the “peace” that is known as homeostasis. Cells during upregulation or downregulation aren’t fighting—they’re trying to sort the problem out through negotiation around the production resources.
Inflammation, on the other hand, is all-out war. Civil war, in fact. When there’s damage elsewhere in our body or inside our brain, our glial cells—that army of soldiers used to fight infection and clear out cellular debris—immediately respond by sweeping the affected environment for toxic substances to destroy. They are able to swing into action because they upregulate themselves, thus calling for increased energy production to power their cleanup actions, which requires them to consume increasing amounts of sugars and ketones to feed their mitochondrial “power plants” as they continue their fight. But who, exactly, is feeding them the food supply that produces that extra energy? Perhaps you can guess based on endless accounts of fiction and nonfiction wartime tales: civilians who soldiers have been tasked to protect return the favor by showing the soldiers to their own supply. In the body, the energy stores of nearby “civilian cells” (the 100-200 billion neurons, and their 40,000 trillion synaptic connections, inside our brains that are critical for cognition, mood regulation, and conscious control of our behaviors) are depleted so the glial warriors can keep fighting—after all, this could be a potentially fatal threat to fend off, such as a bacterial or viral infection.
Oftentimes, the war is short and sweet: glial cells swoop in and destroy, as they’re trained to do when a threat arises. Other times, however, the war is protracted and prolonged… and resources get depleted. Those civilian cells are hungry and unprotected. Enthusiasm is low. Suddenly, the threat to the body isn’t just on the battlefield—it’s in the entire body itself, in every cell that’s suffering.
Inflammation Gene by Gene… IL6 and MTHFR Genes
Chronic inflammation can affect every cell… and every system. As systems biology tells us, what happens within one domain has ripple effects in every other one. Chronic inflammation can affect our cognition, our sleep, our gut health, and so much more. It’s important to understand what may predispose us to inflammation, and what additional tools in our own war chest we can use to help our glial cells fight the good fight. Let’s take a look at two genes—IL6 and MTHFR—which have a particular impact on how inflammation is expressed in our bodies:
The IL6 gene: IL6, short for “Interleukin 6”, helps stimulate immune responses in the body, and is a primary determinant of a protein that acts as a marker of inflammation and tissue damage. Interestingly, IL6 seems to play a role in both reducing inflammation and, well, inflaming it. But one polymorphism in particular—C174C—has been implicated in a wide range of inflammation-related diseases, including dementia, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and fatigue. The gene is also associated with periodontitis—inflammation of the gums – linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and osteoporosis. C allele carriers have 32% reduced odds of being diagnosed with periodontitis as compared with their G counterparts. Bottom line? If you have a risk allele on this gene, you might want to mitigate its effects and work to epigenetically shift that risk through lifestyle factors. For instance, there are a number of dietary changes you might make to reduce inflammation, including introducing a regimen of curcumin—a substance found in turmeric—or switching to a Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to reduce inflammation as well. Probiotics may also provide a useful role.
The MTHFR gene: We first discussed MTHFR in the DNA: I Am Who I Am… Or am I? blog series, calling it the “manufacturing gene” for its role in the neurotransmitter supply chain that keeps you emotionally healthy. People with risk alleles on this gene—specifically the C677T; T variant and the A1298C; C variant —lead to reduced enzymatic activity of MTHFR, resulting in inefficient conversion of folic acid into methylfolate. If you recall, this methylated version of folic acid has a huge role in synthesizing norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin: all of which play an equally huge role in mood regulation. Inflammation reduces the manufacture of critical neurotransmitters; and it also affects DNA methylation, a necessary process that turns off or silences certain genes, like those that predispose to cancer. Inflammation can slow this necessary methylation process and cause “bad genes” to express themselves. If you take Genomind’s Mindful DNA test and confirm an MTHFR risk allele, you might consider with your doctor whether taking 5 MTHF supplements may be beneficial.
Fighting inflammation through dietary changes could also benefit your health. For example:
- Fruits like grapes, apples, pears, cherries, currants, plums and berries
- Cocoa, green and black tea, coffee, red wine
- Vegetables like artichokes, onions, spinach, broccoli, kale and leeks
- Omega 3
- Hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, pecans
- Mediterranean Diet
Preventing or Negotiating a Cease-Fire in the “Civil War” within your Body, One Gene at a Time
Chronic Inflammation is associated with not just the two genes mentioned above, but many—including several that have already come up before. For instance, we’ve spoken about TREM2 in both of our prior blogs for its deep connection to the brain and Alzheimer’s disease. This gene codes for proteins that help regulate the activities of the brain’s microglial cells, tasked with both clearing debris/repairing the brain and triggering the brain’s immune response. When this gene isn’t functioning normally due to a risk allele, neuroinflammation can become chronic, and Alzheimer’s disease can be the ultimate consequence, decades long in the making.
Mindful DNA gives you the insights to change your habits to reduce your risk of chronic inflammation—and along with it a whole host of full-body consequences you seek to avoid. Lifestyle changes through epigenetic influencers can play a huge part. It’s never too late to start the fight—and win the war against inflammation to bring about the lasting peace of better health!
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(*Dr. Kehr holds no ownership interest in Genomind and receives no consulting fees)