From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published March 21, 2012 03:24 PM

The Painful Process of Getting Healthy

A lot of times, when people feel sick, it is not germs that are causing the feeling, it is their own immune systems. A new research study has taken a look at this odd aspect of healing in which the individual will actually feel worse. The researchers from the University of Tennessee (UT) and University of New Mexico (UNM) focus closely on the immune system component known as the acute-phase response. This is the response to bacteria, viruses, or pathogens when they infect the body. The response affects blood protein levels, metabolic function, and physiology. Changes in these vital bodily functions often manifest themselves in pain and stress.


The authors of the study, Edmund LeGrand from UT Knoxville and Joe Alcock from UNM describe the acute phase response as the body's form of "immune brinksmanship." This brinksmanship model bets that creating enough stressors to the body will "harm the pathogens relatively more than the host."

LeGrande compares the body's brinksmanship to an international trade dispute. If one country places trade sanctions on another, both countries take an economic hit. However, the country imposing the sanctions is betting that the other country's economy will fare worse.

The stress from the acute phase response comes in the form of raised body temperature, mild anemia, and a loss of appetite. Also, some important nutrients are taken out of the blood stream, such as iron, zinc, and manganese. This raises the question, why would the body shut off important nutrients and reduce food intake, when it could use all the strength it can get to fight the pathogen?

The researchers suggest that the restriction of food and nutrients make it harder for the infection to multiply. The bacteria have to alter their metabolism, making them more vulnerable to stresses such as extreme heat. This is why the body goes through a fever, raising its temperature to attack the weakened invaders.

While all these stresses are coming down on the pathogens, they are also getting beat up by the foot soldiers of the immune system, the white blood cells.

To attack the invading pathogen, the body has to, in effect, attack itself. The obvious risk of this strategy is that the body can weaken itself during this time, leaving it vulnerable to other infections. Sometimes, the immune system may even go overboard by inflicting more stressors than are required to defeat the pathogen.

This study was published in the journal, The Quarterly Review of Biology.

Sick Woman image via Shutterstock

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