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How This Works
So why do activated immune systems inflame the brain? And how does that make us feel bored?
Why do some of us direct our grumpiness outward at other people while others of us just go home and feel miserable all by ourselves?
Cytokines are hormones: chemical messengers that carry signals bossing our cells around. The messages they carry are frequently alarming. Cytokines1 tell our immune cells that other immune cells are detecting an attack. This is more than a little like kicking an anthill, or maybe a beehive.
When cytokines mobilize immunity it’s a bit like the Pentagon calling up the reserves and going on a war footing. Resources get diverted. We get edgy.
Think about the last time you snapped at somebody while in the early stages of a flu: that was cytokines talking. Invading viruses get noticed by our immune cells: they release cytokines and the whole array of sickness behavior symptoms can appear:
- We get headaches.
- We can lose our focus and ability to concentrate.
- We want to to be left alone and can act out accordingly when others get in our face or infringe on our space
We can retreat into our inner worlds; we want to be entertained and safe rather than engage in social activities with their inevitable complexity and vulnerabilities
- We lose energy and may want to spend a lot of time horizontally.
… And we can become very grumpy. If sickness behavior takes over our entire lives, we become dysfunctional. We become diagnosable.
When Toxins Kick Immunity’s Beehive
Here’s the thing: the immune system responds to more than cold and flu viruses. Those immunity can usually handle and after a quick response immune activity returns to “normal.”
But today the immune system also has to respond to an increasingly toxic environment and the toxic body burdens we accumulate over a lifetime. Our immune systems’ reactions to that stays with us: a constant drumbeat of low-to-moderate grade inflammation.
Researchers tell us that 30-60% of the population has genetic quirks that impair their detoxification pathways to a greater or lesser extent.2,3,4 This can have a selective, exaggerated impact on anyone with these genetic vulnerabilities when they’re exposed to the hundreds of thousands of industrial chemicals that have been released into the biosphere over hundreds of years.
For the longest time it was unimaginable that the atmosphere, oceans and landfills couldn’t endlessly accept all the wastes our industrialized societies produced. The solution to pollution was dilution. But now we understand why some of us are much more affected than others. We also understand that current statistical models applied to safety testing methods can easily be manipulated to wash out the impacts on those most affected, rendering them statistical road kill.
Today, if we’re affected, it’s easy to see the effects of this in our own bodies once we learn to recognize the signs.
The physical signs of inflammation aren’t that hard to spot. Headaches. Foggy-headedness. Itching skin. But mostly … the body discharging something. Loose stool right after a meal. Nasal congestion twenty minutes to an hour after eating (although occasionally it can take days.)
One of the odd things about the healing business is the way problems seem to come in waves. One season it’s everyone’s shoulders that need help, another their backs; in another season it seems no one can sleep.
This season the problem is chronic sinus congestion. At least every other patient I’ve had for the last several months has been dealing with what seems to be a chronic infection, from which, however, nothing can be cultured. Antibiotics don’t help. And the congestion often occurs along with a sensation of being wooden-headed.
OK, it’s pollen season. So here’s how that works: there are innate immune cells in the gut, nasal cavities and lungs. Innate immune cells in the brain and bones. Innate immune cells in the nasal sinuses. And they all talk to each other.
Get innate immunity stirred up enough in one area and it’s not long before they all start chattering to each other with messages of alert and alarm. They swing into action and generate inflammation. That makes membranes porous and fluid accumulates. If it happens in our guts we get loose stool. If it happens in our sinuses we get symptoms that can seem like sinus “infections” but can really be reflections of inflammation occurring somewhere else in the body, such as the gut after a meal full of something that sets off our immune alarm bells.
Even if frank congestion doesn’t occur, early signs can often be apparent in our thoughts, emotions, behavior. The brain is only 2% of the body’s weight but burns through 20% of the body’s energy. So that can be another place that displays symptoms promptly when innate immunity activates.
Again, sickness behavior.
We lash out. Then we self-isolate. We worry, then maybe we give up.
But ultimately, that’s boring.
That’s when some of us like to start fights, or maybe just find one to watch.
Stagnation, Pain, Sugar and Inflammation
In Chinese medicine it’s said that stagnation causes pain. That can be taken very literally: when we twist an ankle or knee it’s a stagnant accumulation of fluid pressing on nerve endings that creates much of the pain.
But the image applies widely. When communication stagnates between friends it hurts. When hope for a better future is taken away and it seems our lives are stagnating, we feel pain. When resources are hoarded by the fortunate and large parts of society struggle to keep their economic footing, entire cultures become full of hurt and rage.
Junk TV pulls eyeballs by undulging cheap drama. Social media networks draw eyeballs in much the same way. The stress hormones fighting generates (adrenaline, norepinephrine) are momentarily stimulating. They get our bodies ready to run or fight for our lives, and one crucial response is that emergency stores of our body’s sugar fuel (glycogen) are quickly turned into sugar and released. This raises blood sugar, so we can outrun, outthink or outfight our opponent with all the neuroendocrine support a billion years of evolution can provide.
This can become addicting because increases in blood sugar trigger dopamine release. Dopamine is our reward neurotransmitter; it helps us feel pleasure and interest. It rewires the brain to repeat whatever behavior gave us a a dopamine hit.
(This is one of the reasons sugar can taste so good … and why it can be so addictive.)
Guess what else causes dopamine release.
Yup. Cytokines5 (the immune system’s messenger molecules.)
When toxins, agricultural or industrialized food chemicals or infections arouse the immune system it feels like an emergency to the rest of the body. Dopamine, norepinephrine and other neurotransmitters instantly mobilize stored blood sugar and amino acids to fuel the flood of activity immune mobilization requires … this can be momentarily exciting.
But it’s not long before those neurotransmitters clear, leaving us inflamed by our cytokines and the inflammation they set in motion.
Then we can get bored and antisocial. Sometimes for hours, days, lifetimes.
Joints become stiff and painful. Mindsets become dogmatic; opposing sides lock into argumentive positions and refuse to budge. Judgment blocks new information. Problems go unaddressed. Communication stops, between both body systems and people. Stagnation sets in and along with it, more pain and a slow breakdown of all the processes that sustain life. Bodies, lives and cultures slide into a slow decay.
The solution: movement. Breaking up the stagnation and draining it if necessary . But if there’s one key lesson I’m pretty sure I’ve learned here in my fourth decade of healing work, it’s this: stagnation needs to be broken up, detoxified and drained very cautiously if things are to go smoothly.
Yet another example of baby steps being better than giant steps.
Food, Inflammation & Rage
Our highly industrialized food, designed to addict us to its unnaturally strong flavors and unheathily high levels of processed fats, sugar and salt … is a setup for the chronic, low-grade inflammation we now understand as one root of many psychological disorders.
When I was young I was a card-carrying junk food junkie. I loved my hamburgers, fries and chocolate malts … and identified with highly industrialized foods as a mark of cultural identity. People who worried too much about what they ate were health freaks.
And I was a very angry young man, surrounded by angry fearful people. This is not the place to analyze this style in depth. It’s probably enough to note that it involved a lot more shouting than talking.
But shouting doesn’t solve problems; indeed, it usually makes them worse. Much later I would gradually come to understand my rage as a function of the chronic immune activation I was inviting by being so unconscious about the full effects of what I found so irresistably delicious.
If our immune systems rise to the occasion when viruses attack we’re under the weather for a week or two and then normal life resumes.
If immunity is not up to the challenge and infections grow in strength, cytokine release can create so much inflammation we develop a fever. If that goes high enough we can hallucinate as we get closer and closer to losing consciousness altogether.
And of course there are DSM-V psychiatric diagnoses characterized by hearing voices.
Things work a little differently, but not all that differently, when it’s the chronic, low-grade inflammation constant exposure to industrial toxins and industrialized food generates. As I became more and more inflamed, I never heard voices.
Instead … those of us harboring low-grade, chronic inflammations can experience a long, slow, gradual loss of function instead. That’s what I was beginning to go through. Years later I’d use some of the same techniques I employed to arrest my cognitive decline to stop my 90 year-old father’s slow slide into dementia.
Because no matter the early emotional or mental signs of an inflamed brain, eventually it all almost always leads to a similar place. We call that dementia or, if certain criteria are met, Alzheimer’s Disease.
An experienced eye can see the first signs of an oncoming dementia in the angry ravings of a still-cogent if deluded inflamed brain. As we look around us at the state of society today …
Could it be that we’re witnessing the end results of hundreds of years of inadequate toxin control regimes, where the solution to pollution was allowed to be dilution, until now all those chemical chickens are coming home to roost, especially in those among us whose genetically impaired detoxification pathways leave us the most vulnerable?
But even if so … there’s a silver lining to all this.
Those who are genetically the most vulnerable most often carry the same genes as the gifted.
Which is a very old story. More on that soon.