How to avoid a life threatening “Cytokine Storm”

Research into Covid19 has revealed there are clear risk factors which increase the likelihood of serious illness or dying from the virus:

  • – Age
  • – Obesity
  • – Type II diabetes
  • – Gender (males are more at risk)
  • – Pre-existing chronic diseases especially high blood pressure but also heart disease, asthma, smoking, cancer
  • – Dark coloured skin
  • – Low vitamin D levels

The key underlying problem for those with a severe Covid19 infection seems to be a heightened inflammatory response called a “Cytokine Storm”.  At its worst this massive switch on of the immune system results in damage to the brain, organ failure and death.

Fundamentally our immune system needs to be turned on and off to respond to infections such as Covid19.  The chemical messengers that turn on our immune system are built from omega-6 essential fats 

Recent scientific studies have shown that:

  • (1) the current known risk factors associated with COVID19 have a common pathophysiological pathway through inflammation
  • (2) omega-3 fats have been demonstrated to be useful in the treatment of this inflammatory pathway in high blood pressure patients
  • (3) this has now been extended to the treatment of the cytokine storm associated with severe Covid19 reactions

Omega-6 are “essential” because our bodies can’t manufacture them and so we’re dependent on consuming them from vegetables oils like sunflower, corn and palm oils, nuts and seeds.  To operate effectively our anti-inflammatory response also needs mediators which are derived from omega-3 based essential fats.  We get these fats from oily fish, certain nuts and seeds and from eating grass-fed animals such as cows and sheep.  

Historically we are thought to have consumed roughly an equal amounts of these two essential fats.  However, the dietary movement of the 1970’s resulted in us eating less saturated fats (such as butter, eggs and red meat) we have replaced the saturated fat with pro-inflammatory omega-6 poly-unsaturated vegetable oils such as sunflower oil.  This has massively distorted the ratio of omega 6:3 fats that should be 1:1 and we now commonly see at 15:1 or higher.   

So what does this mean for us in everyday life?

A heightened inflammatory response is the key difference seen amongst those suffering a severe Covid19 infection.  As our intake of omega-6 fats has increased we’ve experienced a dramatic increase in the incidence of many inflammatory conditions such as asthma, hay fever, eczema, arthritis and even higher blood pressure. 

Vitamin D is also known to be a significant mediator of our inflammatory response to infection.  

Unfortunately those who have darker skin make less vitamin D in temperate climates like the UK.  The low vitamin levels common in ethnic minorities are exacerbated for those who are overweight as their vitamin D gets held within fat cells, meaning there is less available to deliver its function.  This, together with diets that encourage high intakes of omega-6 lead to an adverse inflammatory response, which can result in a life-threatening cytokine storm.

The good news is that whilst seeing some sunshine or taking a vitamin D supplement can correct low levels, a small number of straightforward changes to our diets can increase our omega-3 fat intake and decrease our omega-6 intake significantly reducing our risks further

These include:

  • cook with olive oil, coconut oil or an animal fat
  • follow Government advice to eat 2-4 portions of oily fish each week
  • for those who don’t like fish try flax seed muffins or take an omega-3 supplement
  • avoiding processed foods that typically contain vegetable oils
  • remove plant-based vegetable oils, including sunflower, corn and canola oils

Creating better balance in our diets, by reducing our intake of omega-6 and increasing our omega-3 intake, will improve everyone’s ability to deal with Covid19 – it’s not a question of if we should be making these changes, and more a case of when am I starting?