Cytokine Storm: When the immune system goes awry

August 18, 2020 by Joel Fuhrman, MD

Health Concerns: Immune Function

Do you know what sparks a cytokine storm, and how it can wreak havoc on your health?  

A cytokine storm occurs when the body’s attempt to fight off an infection leads to an uncontrolled inflammatory response. This response harms cells and tissues and can lead to organ damage and even death. It has been estimated that 28% deaths from Covid-19 have been due to cytokine storm.1 If you eat a poor diet or are overweight, the associated chronic inflammation may lead to a heightened risk of developing this dangerous immune response. Following a nutrient-dense, plant-rich Nutritarian diet strengthens your immune response so you won’t be a victim of a cytokine storm. 


The trinity of COVID-19: immunity, inflammation and intervention.

Let’s take it from the top. What are cytokines?

Cytokines are a category of proteins that play an important role in cell signaling. They are produced in response to an antigen and function as chemical messengers for regulating our immunity. They are produced by virtually all cells involved in our immune response. 

So now we know that certain types of immune cells release cytokines as a form of communication with other cells. The cytokines are released to coordinate the proper immune response– for example, our body may need to recruit more immune cells to the site of an infection. There are both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Although we have uncovered a lot of information about our immune system, the response to infection involves a complex cascade of overlapping networks of cytokines. The response is so complex that scientists are still unraveling it.

What happens when a virus attacks the body?

When a virus infects a cell, it makes many copies of itself. Those copies are then released to infect more cells. 

How does our immune system respond?

Pro-inflammatory cytokines allow migration of immune cells to the affected area. Our immune cells, such as natural killer (NK) cells recognize virus infected cells and kill them. In a typical scenario, virus-infected cells release interferons causing nearby cells to raise their anti-viral defenses. Certain cells start the process of making antibodies, and the innate immune system continues to attack the virus during the days to weeks it takes to produce antibodies.  

What is a cytokine storm? 

A cytokine storm is an excessive immune response to an infection. It involves the overproduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines that causes tissue and organ damage, and sometimes organ failure and death. The inflammation starts as a localized response to infection (such as in the lungs), but once it becomes uncontrolled it may spread through the body via circulating blood.2


Into the eye of the cytokine storm.

What is the role of diet and body weight? 

A poor diet and excess weight create low-grade chronic inflammation that leaves the body more vulnerable to cytokine storm and causes our immune response to misbehave. A Nutritarian eating style supplies the vital micronutrients and phytochemicals to prevent inflammation, preserve normal immune function, and protect us against this excessive reaction, called cytokine storm. Only a properly nourished immune system can react quickly, appropriately to prevent viral replication and invasion and resolve infection without over-reacting.  

Obesity creates a pro-inflammatory environment where the signals that limit or resolve inflammation are impaired and immune function is compromised.3 The effects of obesity and poor diet-induced chronic inflammation on our immune defenses is a reminder that everything in the body is connected. The same habits that are dangerous for cardiovascular health are dangerous for immune health. Maintaining good insulin sensitivity and a healthy weight are important for all aspects of health. Being susceptible to serious illness and cytokine storm from infection depends on the overall health of the person. You can’t buy good health; you have to earn it. 


Impact of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome on Immunity

Find out more about cytokine storms – including the importance of controlling inflammation, and how obesity alters immune cells – in the Summer 2020 issue of Dr. Fuhrman’s Living Nutritarian e-magazine, created exclusively for members of the website. 

Action items: 

You can take action right now, starting with your next meal. If you’re not sure how to get started, start with the Transformation 20 series. Each Transformation 20 booklet comes with a meal plan and support group to ensure you are eating for health. 

If you have followed the diet most of the time – with, say 70 or 80 percent compliance – it’s time to get serious. Check out one of the targeted meal plans included with membership. Now is time to rev up your immune function and be an example of excellent health—and then you can help others and spread wellness and compassion to all.  

  1. Tay MZ, Poh CM, Renia L, et al. The trinity of COVID-19: immunity, inflammation and intervention. Nat Rev Immunol 2020.

  2. Tisoncik JR, Korth MJ, Simmons CP, et al. Into the eye of the cytokine storm. Microbiol Mol Biol Rev 2012, 76:16-32.

  3. Andersen CJ, Murphy KE, Fernandez ML. Impact of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome on Immunity. Adv Nutr 2016, 7:66-75.

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, seven-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional methods. Dr. Fuhrman coined the term “Nutritarian” to describe his longevity-promoting, nutrient dense, plant-rich eating style.
For over 30 years, Dr. Fuhrman has shown that it is possible to achieve sustainable weight loss and reverse heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses using smart nutrition. In his medical practice, and through his books and PBS television specials, he continues to bring this life-saving message to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.


Comments (0):



08/20/2020 04:20 PM

I wonder how there might be an opposite effect.  I was diagnosed with shingles almost two years ago.  It attacked my right eye and right side of the head.  I'm still havingt to apply eye drops - every time I stop the dose, the symptoms return.  The inflamation also still continues in my scalp and forehead, often itching so badly that I cannot sleep. In the past two years I have gained nearly 40 pounds, and feel obese and ugly.  I've never ever weighed this much, even when pregnant.  The weight keeps coming on, even though my meals are not changing.  I'm trying to follow a nutritious diet, but nothing is working.  I've been to the doctor (six months ago) and had blood tests which revealed my thyroid was low - now I'm taking a synthroid tablet daily - and vitamin D - also taking a tablet daily.  If anything, I'm gaining weight faster than before.  The inflamation does not go away, and I'm at my wits' end.  Perhaps it is the inflamation that is causing the gain in weight (?)  It seems so to me.  To be told that obesity causes inflamation only makes me feel more hopeless. I don't know what to do!  

valorie replies:

05/06/2021 11:11 AM

I took Dr Fuhrman's Transformation 20: Infection Protection in January of this year and ordered the booklet. It was great! I am still following all the advice in this program. It also helps with weight loss. You can purchase the booklet on his website. I hope you feel better soon!


08/20/2020 04:23 PM

we are doing fine nothing wrong with us we are doing good and I feel bad when people get this but we haven't yet Thank you for sending it to me.


08/20/2020 06:39 PM

Last month I watched two YouTube videos from MedCram that seem to fit your latest email on Cytokines Storm. They are numbers 63 and 65. They seem to go together. They relate to COVID-19, endothelial cells, and oxidative stress. Number 65 eventually got around to the subject of nutrition. I thought you might enjoy it.

This comment was last edited on 08/21/2020 02:55 PM