Cytokines are an important class of signaling molecules that play critical roles in fighting infection, repairing injury, and maintaining tissue health. But they can also cause inflammation, pain, headaches, mucus discharge, and worse.
Let’s Talk Cytokines
“The British are coming! The British are coming!”
Most Americans are familiar with the famous – though probably apocryphal – cry attributed to Paul Revere. His heroic gallop through Massachusetts to alert American colonists about the British troops played a crucial role in the Americans winning the Revolutionary War.
What we’re probably less aware of, however, is the fact that our bodies are filled with their own miniature, molecular versions of Paul Revere. These little molecules are called cytokines (pronounced “sigh-tuh-kines”) and they’re incredibly important to our health.
The term “cytokine” comes from the Greek “cyto” (meaning “cell”) and “kinos” (meaning “movement”). They’re signaling molecules made of protein and they serve a wide variety of functions in the body, such as tissue repair and production of blood cells.
One important type of cytokine are the chemokines (pronounced “kee-mo-kines”), which induce immune cells to move toward a target. They’re the ones to raise the alarm whenever injury or infection occurs. When needed, their concentrations can increase to nearly 1000x normal levels and they circulate throughout surrounding tissues and the entire body. “Help! Help!” they shout, and the immune system responds by sending reinforcements to the site of the problem.
This is a very, very good thing because the influx of immune cells is critical to killing germs, removing debris, repairing damage, and making the body whole and healthy again.
Elevated levels of cytokines can make us feel lousy.
However, cytokines also trigger physiologic reactions that are responsible for a lot of discomfort. Whether it’s fever, chills, pain, inflammation, mucus, headache, sneezing, or a clogged nose, cytokines are directly or indirectly at the root of many conditions we’d rather not have to deal with. An over-abundance of pro-inflammatory cytokines also contributes to chronic health conditions such as heart problems, respiratory disorders, arthritis, and more. And in extreme cases, the body can produce a condition called a “cytokine storm” where cytokine levels spin out of control, causing severe symptoms and sometimes even organ failure or death. These occur most commonly in connection with the flu and their treatment requires hospitalization; but they occur only rarely.
So, like everything else in the body, cytokine levels have to be properly modulated. When they’re working properly, they serve to help fend off invaders, repair damage, and maintain our health. But when they’re excessive or imbalanced, they can cause significant discomfort and even damage.
Optimal health is always a balancing act, finding a middle road between extremes.
Please note: The above is a highly simplified overview of cytokine and chemokine function. For a deeper understanding, we suggest this article from LiveScience.com.
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