What is the Cell Danger Response (CDR)? Blog post explaining how this relates to chronic illness. Find My Energy.

What is the Cell Danger Response?

…and how could it help you understand and recover from a chronic illness?

In 2016, Dr Robert Naviaux and a team of researchers published a scientific paper talking about the Cell Danger Response (CDR). Gradually, this became a kind of buzzword in the chronic fatigue community. Suddenly, it seemed, CFS might make more sense. So, let’s briefly explore what this piece of research revealed and how you might find it helpful in your recovery.

What is the Cell Danger Response?

We typically think about our Mitochondria as the batteries for our body’s cells. The energy production mechanism. (If you don’t understand what that means, follow this link to read a blog post that gives you a simple overview).

Well, it turns out, the Mitochondria also play a critical role when the body is attacked. Dr Naviaux’s paper demonstrated that the Mitochondria are designed to go into a kind of shut-down to keep the body safe and allow it to recover from whatever threat it is facing.

What does that look like? Very much like the generalised symptoms of illness:

  • brain fog
  • fatigue
  • achiness
  • desire to rest
  • no energy or desire to be social.

Most of us experience these types of symptoms for a few days when we contract a virus or infection. In Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – and other chronic illnesses – these types of symptoms end up continuing for weeks, months, years, or even decades.

Specific illnesses will also be accompanied by a variety of additional symptoms that vary from illness to illness. Those symptoms would be a reflection of the pathogen that is attacking and the part of the body it has attacked. So, they might look different from one illness to another.

A side note: localised CDR

I also want to mention that the Cell Danger Response can be localised to the specific area that was originally attacked by the pathogen. So, we’re not necessarily saying this is happening in every single cell in the body. But it can be happening in multiple cells and multiple areas at once.

You also need to remember that the body is a highly complex system. So, a shut-down (or slow-down) in one area can end up having knock-on effects across multiple other systems. Which is why many people with chronic complex illnesses experience issues in a lot of different areas, all at once.

What is the purpose of the Cell Danger Response?

In a word: survival. This is both survival of the organism (person/animal etc.) and also survival of the species. That feeling of not wanting to go out and socialise is designed to protect the rest of your species from coming into contact with whatever (potentially) dangerous thing is attacking your body.

The desire to rest is about your survival. It allows your body to focus 100% of its energy on supporting the immune system while it repels the threat.

So, the CDR is also a signal to the immune system. “Houston, we have a problem here!” That signal will activate the immune response to quarantine the area, creating inflammation, then safely destroying any cells that have been too greatly damaged, or any bacteria or virus that are causing the damage. (In very simple terms).

Having done that, the mitochondria sense that all is well once more, switch off the CDR signal, and the affected cells (and body) returns to normal, healthy functioning.

What this research revealed is that chronic illness may be the result of the CDR remaining stuck in activation, rather than switching off.

What does this mean for your illness?

Again, the quick answer: rather than your Mitochondria being “damaged”, it seems they are actually working perfectly, but have become stuck in a natural adaptation. This adaptation is a critical survival mechanism, but it is designed to respond to acute emergencies, not become a normal way of life.

Incidentally, this links to another blog post (which you can view at this link), where I explained how energy production in the Mitochondria becomes impaired. Viewed in the light of CDR, the “impairment” is not reflecting “damage”. It is actually a deliberate act to reduce the cell’s energy so that energy cannot be used to feed the virus/bacteria that is attacking the cell.

So, if you are willing to accept that view, then the next question becomes… How did the CDR get stuck in the “on” position?

And, even more importantly, if we could identify what caused the cells to become stuck, could we then do something about that to get them “unstuck”? In other words, how do you switch off the Cell Danger Response?

Dr Naviaux is still engaged in researching those questions. You can follow his research on his website, at this link.

But before you get carried away thinking the answer is to simply develop a drug to block the CDR, consider this… Your CDR is critical to your survival. You need it to be able to switch on when your Mitochondria sense danger. So, perhaps another interesting question to consider is this…

Why don’t your Mitochondria recognise that you are safe?

Let’s take a recent example: COVID and Long COVID. That could fit into the Cell Danger Response model. So, contracting Corona Virus will trigger the CDR to switch on, calling in the immune system. The immune system deals with the threat (or whatever necessary intervention is used to deal with the threat), and you recover. But in some people, energy, health and vitality don’t fully return. So, the patient is left feeling the set of symptoms that we’re identifying as Long COVID, yet doctors can’t find evidence that the virus is still attacking.

What if this is another example of the CDR getting stuck? Why hasn’t everyone’s body been able to recognise that the virus is no longer attacking their cells?

Or, could we be looking at some kind of secondary effect? So, it’s not that the body can’t sense safety, but that something else has been triggered to keep the body sensing danger?

What might that be?

I’m not about to answer that question. In the case of Long COVID, I’m pretty sure the researchers are considering that angle. That angle has also been considered (and is still being considered) in other chronic illnesses.

What we’re really asking here is: does the body lose its ability to sense what safety looks like? Or is there still something attacking the body, but we just haven’t identified it yet?

Some intriguing ideas

Well, if we consider the idea of the body losing its ability to sense safety, let’s turn to the cell’s Cortisol receptors. Cortisol is one of the “stress hormones” that the adrenal glands release in order to tell the body it is under threat.

So, each cell is constantly monitoring the levels of Cortisol in the body. When the level gets over a certain threshold, this would trigger the CDR.

What if the receptors themselves have become damaged? What if they have been exposed to Cortisol for such a long time that they have become somehow over-sensitised to it? In other words, as soon as they sense a tiny amount, which shouldn’t signal a threat, they panic and press the alarm button. That means tiny, tiny stresses that we should be able to cope with, can end up triggering a full-scale CDR which shuts down the affected cells.

If that were the case, then repairing the Cortisol receptors might be a viable solution. It would retain the necessary survival mechanism, but allow the CDR to switch off at the appropriate time.

Further thoughts

In very recent years, a huge amount of attention has also turned to the topic of Trauma and its effect on our biology. Two important points have emerged in that discussion, so far.

First: the biology of Trauma is not about the event. Rather, it is about how the body responds to the event. Any kind of threatening situation is designed to create a stress response, to allow us to protect ourselves. Just as we have been discussing. But on some occasions, the stress response doesn’t turn off again: instead, it creates permanent changes in our biology. Are you seeing some links here?

Second: having understood that the biological changes are not about an “event”, it has become clear that we need to look more widely. So, our attention is being drawn to things like Developmental Trauma.

Now, this is a huge topic that I will develop further in other blog posts. I just want to throw one seed of an idea to you here. What if you need to be focusing some attention on Trauma as you look for recovery paths?

And if you are immediately dismissing that because you know you don’t have Trauma, you need to read this blog post. Click here to read it now.

Ongoing dangers

Let’s briefly consider the second possibility now. So, that raises the potential that there are other dangers lurking that your body is detecting, even though you may not be aware of them. Could you genuinely be living in an unsafe environment?

Interestingly, many Functional medicine approaches to chronic illness are looking at this question. You might be aware of some practitioners who are arguing that our bodies have become overloaded with chemicals and toxins. This would create an “unsafe” environment.

Do you eat a diet that truly supports your body? Are you drinking enough water? Do you spend enough time outside? How is your exercise and movement?

All of these elements go towards creating an environment that is supportive of the body, and therefore feels safe. So, could it be that your body is feeling threatened by more than just the last virus that attempted to take up residence? Is it possible that your immune system cleared that virus, but the cells are signalling that they still feel depleted? In other words, is the CDR justified in remaining switched on?

Treatment Philosophy

All of these considerations have led to the type of treatment philosophies that many CFS practitioners are using. Find ways to clean up the body, gain awareness of your environment, and bingo!… Your CDR can switch off because your cells are now receiving the support they need.

Well, many people do report significant (even full) recovery through following that methodology. It is certainly something worth exploring. (If you are interested, you can check out the Resources page here).

Even if it can’t return you to the full vitality that you would ideally like, perhaps it can still improve your quality of life to a good degree.

And, perhaps this is really about the combination. Cleaning up your environment will provide your body with support. But maybe that wouldn’t be enough to induce your Cortisol receptors to re-regulate… Or would it?

What next?

The field of CFS is still riddled with more questions than answers. But I hope some of these perspectives have given you something to think about. Maybe even opened up new paths to explore on your recovery path.

And, if you would like to get a better picture of your body’s energy field, have you considered booking a free bioenergetic scan? This can give you a picture of where your body may be experiencing energy blocks. That paves the way to correcting those areas, so you can enjoy more energy. Follow this link to find out more.