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Typical American Diet Depletes Artery-Protecting Immune Cells


Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology found that a diet high in fat and cholesterol reduces numbers of artery-protecting immune cells by changing them into inflammatory agents. This transformation worsens the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaque responsible for cardiovascular disease.

In addition, the team discovered that high-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as good cholesterol, helps prevent this harmful change. The effect keeps arteries clean by protecting the immune cells from losing their identity.

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Inflammation is a major contributor to atherosclerosis, which is the narrowing and hardening of the arteries that often culminates in heart attacks and strokes. The immune system is the part of the body that mediates inflammation.

People think atherosclerosis is just about cholesterol, diet, and exercise, but its actually an immune disease, said coauthor Dalia Gaddis, Ph.D. The blockage of arteries is very much due to the immune system reacting to excess cholesterol and lipids in the walls of blood vessels.

How Protective Immune Cells Are Transformed into Harmful Immune Cells

Different types of immune cells have opposing actions in atherosclerosis some worsen it while others help prevent it, Gaddis explained. In the new research, she and her team studied the variety of immune cells called T-cells or Tregs that protect against atherosclerosis.

Prior studies show when mice are fed a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet, called the Western diet, their number of Tregs decline. Therefore, Gaddis wanted to see what was happening to them.

In the first phase of the study, the researchers fed one group of mice a Western diet and a control group of mice a healthier diet. After 15 weeks, they examined the rodents immune cells. In all the mice, T-cells were noted in the aorta, the large artery that transports blood from the heart to other parts of the body. However, in the mice that ate the Western diet, a significant amount of ex-Tregs, or transformed Tregs, were found in the aorta and lymph nodes.

Next, Gaddis and her colleagues analyzed the molecular structure of the converted T-cells and saw that some had become follicular helper T-cells (Tfh), which are very important components of the immune system. The scientists knew Tfh cells play a role in fighting bacterial and viral infections, but they werent aware how they affect atherosclerosis.

Further experiments revealed Tfh cells promote atherosclerosis. When Tfh cells were blocked, the development of plaques in the arteries of mice fed the Western diet was reduced.

How HDL Protects Against Atherosclerosis

In the last phase of the study, the researchers endeavored to find out how HDL, which eliminates excess cholesterol from cells, protects against atherosclerosis. They postulated that HDL might produce this benefit by preventing the loss of T-cells. To test their theory, they administered the primary component of HDL to the mice. In response to the treatment, the T-cells didnt change into Tfh cells even though the mice were fed the Western diet.

“With a western diet, protective cells change to damaging cells, causing more inflammation,” says Gaddis. “What we’re finding is that HDL the good cholesterol actually helps shield the protective cells against the damaging changes that occur during atherosclerosis plaque development.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

How the Western Diet May Permanently Change the Immune System

Research published in early 2018 in the journal Cell indicates that the immune system responds to a Western diet similarly to how it responds to infection-causing bacteria. This study, like the above study, found this reaction involves producing inflammation, but it sheds further light on the exact mechanisms by which it occurs.

Scientists fed mice an unhealthy diet consisting of high-fat, high-calorie, low-fiber and junk foods. After one month, the mice displayed the same inflammatory reaction that manifests in bacterial infections. Upon investigating the reason for the effect, the research team found the Western diet triggered the activation of genes in bone marrow, where precursors of immune cells are located.

The most troubling finding came when the mice were switched back to a healthier diet. After being on nutritious food for four weeks, the inflammation decreased, but the fundamental harmful change in the immune system the gene activation in bone marrow remained unchanged. The authors concluded that aside from producing inflammation, the Western diet creates long-term genetic alterations to the immune system. This means that switching to a healthful diet cant reverse all the negative effects of an unhealthful diet.

Evidence increasingly implicates inflammation as a major cause of most chronic diseases, and the Western diet has been shown to be a key driver of the condition. Now, the very latest studies are discovering the damaging effects on the immune system by which unhealthy food produces inflammation. The revelations all underscore the profound importance of diet in wellness.


Mary West is a natural health enthusiast, as she believes this area can profoundly enhance wellness. She is the creator of a natural healing website where she focuses on solutions to health problems that work without side effects. You can visit her site and learn more at Ms. West is also the author of Fight Cancer Through Powerful Natural Strategies.

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