By Bo Martinsen, MD
By now, most people have learned that surviving COVID-19 often comes down to having a well-performing immune system. But how do you know if your immune system is in good shape?
New research shows that interleukin levels may be one of the strongest predictors of future health outcomes, including for COVID-19 patients. This article aims to provide a simplified explanation of what interleukin-6 does – and what factors can reduce high levels of interleukin-6 in the body.
What Are Interleukins?
Interleukins are cell proteins that are heavily involved in controlling our immune system. Having too many – or too few – of these interleukins is equally bad and puts us at risk. These immune system markers can be measured (typically through blood or saliva tests) in order to get a better indication of our bodies’ readiness to fight infections and diseases.
While there are many different interleukins, let’s focus on interleukin-6 (IL-6), which has been rigorously researched since its discovery over 30 years ago.
What Does Interleukin-6 Do?
IL-6 has been described as a sort of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” molecule, with both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory functions.
Because of its dual role, some conditions – like immunodeficiency – are characterized by too low levels of IL-6. In the majority of cases, however, people suffer from having too high levels.
High IL-6 is strongly associated with chronic inflammation and most pro-inflammatory diseases, including obesity, arthritis, and cancers. For this reason, IL-6 is typically used as an inflammation marker. While IL-6 will not give you a specific diagnosis of what’s wrong, you can think of it as an alarm bell.
A Predictor of Early Death
High IL-6 levels are a strong predictor of all-cause early mortality in older adults. Particularly, if a patient’s IL-6 levels do not go down during treatment for cancer or severe infections, it is an ominous sign as to the patient’s outcome.
This pattern holds true for COVID-19 patients as well. In studies, patients who were classified as “critically ill” with COVID-19 had higher IL-6 levels at the start of their illness, and their levels continued to rise (rather than decrease) despite treatment.
Ways to Decrease Interleukin-6 Levels
As mentioned above, almost all pro-inflammatory conditions are characterized by increased IL-6. So how can we reduce IL-6 levels?
As it turns out, many common wellness strategies can make a significant difference, including:
1. Getting Good Quality Sleep
It’s no surprise that getting a good night’s rest is important for maintaining normal IL-6 levels. A meta-analysis of 72 studies found that sleep disturbances were associated with higher IL-6 levels.
Sleeping poorly is typically related with lower production of the “sleep hormone” melatonin. But for those who do not sleep well, a sizable body of research has also documented that melatonin supplementation can reduce IL-6. Indeed, some studies found that IL-6 levels dropped with as much as 34% after high dose melatonin supplementation.
2. Eating a Nutrient-Dense Diet
Eating fast foods made with processed ingredients and loaded with sugar is associated with high IL-6. On the other hand, studies show that people who adhere to a Mediterranean diet – rich in fibers and polyphenols from nuts, legumes, fruits and vegetables – typically have lower IL-6 levels.
Consuming enough probiotics and seafood also has a significant beneficial effect.
3. Exercising Regularly
It’s important for the body to generate enough IL-6 for the right occasions. After exercise, for instance, the body produces more IL-6 to help maintain energy and repair any muscle damage. This is generally a positive thing.
While acute spikes in IL-6 is normal, having chronically high levels becomes problematic. Research shows that those who are less physically active have higher IL-6 levels than disciplined exercisers. In addition, researchers have also found that regular exercise, combined with eating a low calorie diet, significantly decreases IL-6 levels.
4. Taking Enough Omega-3s
As mentioned above, eating more seafood is associated with lower IL-6 levels. In addition, research consistently shows that taking omega-3 supplements helps reduce IL-6 levels too. Consider one 2018 study, which found that taking 2500 mg of EPA/DHA daily reduced IL-6 levels by 22% over 8 weeks.
Omega-3 supplementation appears to be so effective for reducing IL-6 that three recent systematic reviews called it “one of the most promising treatments targeting inflammation in older adults.”
Getting an effective omega-3 dose, however, is important. Studies have found that people typically need more than 2000 mg of EPA/DHA per day to reduce the production of proinflammatory interleukins. In addition, higher EPA/DHA doses may be necessary to reduce levels of proinflammatory interleukins in obese individuals.
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Bo Martinsen, MD
Dr. Martinsen is an omega-3 specialist, innovator, and advocate for natural foods. As co-founder and CEO of Omega3 Innovations, he has created several medical food products that combine effective doses of omega-3s with fibers and other nutrients. Before Omega3 Innovations, Dr. Martinsen practiced medicine in Norway for 20 years.
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