Cell Danger Response-The True Root Causes of Chronic Illnesses (Part 1)

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Cell Danger Response is a mechanism of cellular function which has been studied extensively for the last twenty years, but recently has gotten a bit more press because of an increased number of people suffering with “adrenal fatigue” as well as the increasing number of younger people struggling with chronic diseases. To date, over 60% of adults and 30% of children and teens (United States data) now live with a chronic illness. This trend of people having difficulty recovering from sickness has prompted more interest in mitochondria function and the concept of cell danger response. 

Mitochondrial dysfunction is actually the true cause of what we coin “adrenal fatigue” and is interrelated with chronic sickness and cell danger response.  Under normal circumstances, cell danger response (CDR)  is a normal part of healing and adaptation. CDR that persists with mitochondrial dysfunction leads to a wide variety of chronic illnesses because the body remains in a perpetual healing cycle. It explains why some people stay sick and others recover more efficiently. 

In this article, we will dig into cellular biology a bit and dust the cobwebs off of some of the science we learned in high school, while making it relevant. We will look at the normal function of the mitochondria, as well as some of the less known functions that mediate cell danger response (CDR). We will also look at the relationship between CDR and chronic conditions, particularly chronic fatigue syndrome/fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme disease and childhood behavioral issues (autism/spectrum and ADHD). Lastly, we will focus on one of the primary triggers for ongoing CDR- our rapidly increasing exposure to chemicals and need for detoxification.

Review of Basic Cell Function and Mitochondrial Physiology

Our body is composed of different organ systems which coordinate with one another to maintain the function, defense and health of the whole person. Within the ecosystem of each organ, we have individual cells unique to those organs which communicate with one another and as well as with different organ systems.

Scaling down even further, we enter the microscopic and profoundly majestic world inside of the cell. This intracellular space houses 2/3 of the water in our bodies as well as organelles, (nucleus, golgi bodies, endoplasmic reticulum, mitochondria and cytoplasm). The cellular organelles/components undergo ongoing a constant harmonic waltz between one another as the perform their respective functions: they create energy and transfer it between one another to make new DNA, new proteins, allow electrolyte and lipid movement and production as well as dozens of other functions. They also detoxify the byproducts (biotoxins) created through metabolism, take in nutrients as substrates to make energy, and create new proteins to make new cells. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Zooming into one of the most important organelles of the cell, the mitochondrial, we discover a world of complex and systematic functions that are more consistent than a well timed and automated factory assembly line. The mitochondria packages and transfers glucose, oxygen, hydrogen and electrons to create water, other important substrates and most importantly,  ATP, the energy of all life.

So, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Each cell contains anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 mitochondria per cell depending on the cell type.

The brain has the highest concentrations of mitochondria, with the average exceeding 10,000 mitochondria per cell.

What is less well known about the mitochondria is that it not only functions to produce energy, but also to sense the changes in energy (voltage) of the cell. Electron movement occurs in, around and out of the cell through metabolic processes causing voltage changes picked up by the mitochondria. Toxins, like metals and VOC’s, radioactive elements and plastics will carry a positive charge which promotes an electron steal  to occur (the toxins, literally steal an electron), which causes a drop in cellular voltage. The mitochondria recognize this energy drop as a threat to homeostasis and quickly switch from their primary function in metabolism to a protection and defense mode, otherwise known as CDR.  Several threats can trigger a change in energy:

  • Biological stressors: viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi. Others include nutrient deficiency/depletion, oxidative stress, poor oxygenation and inflammation. 
  • Chemical stressors: chemical and heavy metal toxicity, medications.
  • Physical stressors: exercise,* physical abuse, trauma, such as injuries, accidents, burns, surgeries, major infections or even chronic low grade infections.
  • Psychological stressors or trauma: divorce, emotional abuse/neglect, loss of a loved one, emotional abuse and war-related trauma, major financial difficulties and even the emotional stress of dealing with chronic disease. Loud noises and the shock response can also be a trigger. 

Without normal mitochondrial function the body is unable to stimulate the energy for the body to do the important functions of health. Of all the energy produced in the body, 90% of it comes from the mitochondria. Some of the functions impaired with mitochondrial dysfunction include: 

  • Cell water production – (structured water produced by the mitochondria during their metabolism holds the DNA helix together; so no water production means DNA dysfunction and errors.)
  • Cell signaling 
  • Heat production
  • Apoptosis (stimulated cell death) of unhealthy cells to prevent mutations and cancer
  • Upregulation of detoxification- so, if the mitochondria are in CDR, they are unable to communicate with the body to increase the process of cellular detoxification.
  • Production of steroid hormones
  • Repair RNA

Fun Fact: Did you know that our bodies contain the electrical potential of a lightning bolt! The combined energy of all the mitochondria in the body is THAT POWERFUL!

What we know now:

Thanks to pioneers like Robert Naviaux, we have gained a more fully orbed understanding of CDR. Cell danger response is a highly complex cell mechanism designed to allow our bodies to have a healthy adaptation to cellular threats, but the problem occurs when the threat(s) are never removed and the cell continues in a cycle of cell danger until chronic illness occurs. There are 8 primary changes that occur due to CDR:

  1. Cellular metabolism shifts away from making complex proteins. It does this by blocking the function of the DNA/RNA, which makes them, in order to prevent pathogens from hijacking the new proteins.  This process is meant to block the spread of the pathogen and limit it to the one or few cells infected. In other words, we stop making proteins so that the viruses can’t use them to spread.  This also leads to oxygen being absorbed into the cell cytoplasm (the gue inside the cell)  instead of being used for energy production in the mitochondria. That’s good for the immediate increase in oxygen demands, but bad long term because it leads to lots of oxidation and free radicals being produced.
  2. CDR leads to stiffening of the membranes of the cell, walling off the area of damage to limit pathogens from leaving the cell. One researcher aptly describes it this way: “When cells are threatened, they behave the way nations do when they go to war. They harden their borders and don’t trust their neighbors.” When the threatened cell hardens its membranes, it loses efficient communication with the surrounding cells…Not good long term if you are, say, a liver cell, a brain cell, a heart cell, ect.
  3. The cell releases antiviral and antimicrobial chemicals into the space between the cells. This triggers inflammation and signals the immune system to react.
  4. Cells increase autophagy (when the body consumes the bad cells to get rid of them). Part of this process is the consumption and sequestering of dysfunctional mitochondria. This is the quality control check function of the cell! It is a good checkpoint process for the short term to catch dysfunctional mitochondria….but if you are chronically consuming your mitochondria due to CDR that has never properly completed its process… you begin to experience chronic fatigue and disease sets in.
  5. Cells change the way they methylate the DNA as well as the cell recruitment pathways, which leads to altered gene expression. (As well as methylations and detoxification issues)
  6. Cells mobilize the good bacteria from your flora and other mobile genetic elements in order to produce healthy genetic variations. This is different from epigenetic changes, though they are interconnected mechanisms. You can see why, yet again, a good health gut flora is necessary for a healthy response.
  7. CDR warns the surrounding cells of danger, both neighboring cells and distant effector cells. To understand what a distant effector cell is, think of how the adrenal gland cell releases cortisol which can communicate with the cells of the pancreas, the gut and other distant cells that they effect. (spelling error intended here 🙂 )
  8. CDR alters the behavior of the whole person to prevent the spread of infection to others and changes sleep patterns to facilitate healing. 

Other important pathways of metabolism are affected in CDR because they are regulated by the mitochondria. These include:

  • Cholesterol Production
  • Gut Biome Metabolism and Enzyme Function
  • Immunity and Inflammation
  • Metabolism of Amino Acids
  • Methylation
  • Mineral and Metal Metabolism
  • Oxygen and ATP production
  • Phospholipid Production
  • Vitamin D Activation

In Part 2, we will discuss the different stages of cell danger response, the diseases that correlate with them and some things we can do help support our bodies to heal and recover from chronic CDR.

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