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The Cytokine Storm: A Runaway Immune Response

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The Cytokine Storm: A Runaway Immune Response

Sometimes our immune systems work against us. What's a 'cytokine storm', why you should know, and is there a treatment?

Since the start of Covid-19, there has been a big spike in information, studies and media on the immune system and how it works for you or sometimes works against you. When it goes wrong, like in the second week crash, your immune system can put you into overreaction, known as a ‘cytokine storm’. Let’s take a closer look into the role of your immune system, the ‘cytokine storm’, and how both are relevant for preventing and treating our current coronavirus pandemic.

Cytokines are a large group of molecules comprising of proteins, peptides and glycoproteins, which act as molecular messengers between cells and control normal cellular processes in the body. These molecules are also produced by the cells of the immune system to help fight infection and can trigger inflammation. 

With most infections, the body is able to control the inflammation but in some cases the body’s response to an infection can go out of control. For COVID-19, the virus goes into the lungs and triggers an immune response which attracts neutrophils (white blood cells) to the lungs to attack the virus.  This results in inflammation within the lungs. In some patients, the release of cytokines is excessive resulting in a “cytokine storm” and even more cells enter the area resulting in hyperinflammation.

Hyperinflammation is basically an excessive immune response and symptoms can include acute respiratory distress, pneumonia, and multi-organ failure, which can lead to death.

Current research indicates that the immune system and not the virus itself, may be the cause of fatality by Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) as a result of COVID-19. Essentially, the immune system is trying to protect the body but unfortunately ends up causing more damage with this cytokine storm.

So, what can we do?

While some doctors and researchers are investigating anti-inflammatory drugs to slow down an overactive immune system, and that block specific cytokines, others are studying the role of intravenous vitamin C. Many studies have been initiated on the use of vitamin C for use in the treatment of respiratory infections including one study of 140 patients with coronavirus and severe respiratory complications, involves 12g of intravenous vitamin C, twice a day for seven days. Which is over 100 times the standard recommended daily adult vitamin C intake of around 65 – 90mg.

While the study is expected to be completed by 30 September 2020, preliminary results are positive, showing that adequate vitamin C may in fact prevent the cytokine storm and dangerous complications that can result.

Several human clinical studies have been conducted on the use of oral vitamin C on patients with respiratory infections along with dozens of animal studies. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled treatment trial studied the effect of 200mg/day of vitamin C on seniors (aged 66-94) who were in the hospital because of pneumonia. Vitamin C was added to their daily medications and results showed significant improvement in the “total respiratory score” of the most severely ill patients compared to no effect on the less ill patients. 

Of course, more research on vitamin C for respiratory infections are warranted as we want to learn more about how our lifestyle and diet can influence our health and the prevention of disease.

 Learn more about how to support your immune system by reading the article Seven tips for supporting your immune system.