Your immune system has a rather tricky job. To protect you and keep you healthy it has to stay on guard and launch strategic attacks. If it becomes too lax, you run the risk of being overrun by invading pathogens. If it becomes overzealous and hypervigilant, it can essentially go haywire and cause more harm than good.
So how exactly does your immune system manage to walk this thin line and maintain this delicate balance? While you could fill volumes of textbooks answering that question, your immune system maintains balance, in part, through specific mediators and enzymes that help sway your immune system in the appropriate direction – either ramping your response up or down.
And one of these crucial immune-mediating compounds is a little enzyme known as heme oxygenase-1. Today we’re going to dive into exactly what heme oxygenase-1 is, the role it plays in immune system regulation, and natural ways to boost levels of this incredible enzyme.
What Is Heme Oxygenase-1 (HO-1)?
Heme oxygenase-1 is an enzyme involved in a process known as heme group degradation – meaning it plays a crucial role in breaking down and disassembling a type of molecule known as heme. There are actually 3 different forms or variants of heme oxygenase which include HO-1, HO-2, and HO-3. While all 3 have similar functions, HO-1 is particularly important thanks to its ability to be influenced and induced. But before we dive into that, it’s important to have an understanding of what heme is.
Heme is a molecule that plays a crucial role in numerous biological processes. You see, heme is designed to be bound to other compounds and function in a way that supports certain cellular processes like the transport and storage of oxygen, the transfer of electrons, enzymatic reactions, and more.
But when heme is not bound to these other molecules, it becomes a potent inducer of inflammation – leaving a trail of oxidative damage in its wake.1 Fortunately, your body has an all-natural, built-in defense mechanism to help combat the inflammation-stoking properties of free-floating heme.
Heme Oxygenase-1 (HO-1) Function: Why Is Heme Oxygenase-1 Important?
Heme oxygenase-1’s ability to degrade heme is impressive enough, but this little molecule also has some other pretty remarkable effects including:2
- Cytoprotective properties: HO-1 helps protect and shield cells from being damaged by any potentially harmful agents.
- Antioxidant properties: HO-1 serves as a potent antioxidant – inhibiting a process known as oxidation caused by an influx of molecules known as free radicals that strip your cells of electrons and leave them injured and unable to function properly.
- Anti-apoptotic properties: HO-1 also helps to inhibit the process of cellular apoptosis – or the gradual collapse and eventual death of your cells.
- Immunosuppressive properties: While suppressing your immune system might sound like a negative thing at first, that’s not always the case. HO-1 helps to ramp down your immune system – allowing it to neutralize any threats and then return to a balanced healthy state of homeostasis.
- Anti-inflammatory properties: Similar to the way HO-1 helps to soothe and suppress your immune system, it also works to counteract and downregulate inflammation.
Because of these properties and the potent effect HO-1 has on your immune response, this little enzyme has been garnering more and more attention when it comes to both autoimmunity and inflammatory diseases.
Heme Oxygenase-1 (HO-1) in Autoimmune and Inflammatory Diseases
Both inflammatory disorders and autoimmune diseases stem from a malfunctioning, overzealous immune response. In inflammatory disorders, inflammation levels spiral out of control – with inflammatory changes inducing continuous damage to cells and tissues that causes a spike in symptoms. Similarly, autoimmune diseases also cause your immune system to spiral out of control – triggering your immune system to essentially go haywire and begin mistakenly attacking your own healthy cells and tissues.
While these two classes of disorders are separate, they are intricately linked and both stem from an immune system that has gone off the rails to some extent. Because of HO-1’s impressive ability to modulate and calm the immune system while dampening inflammation, it’s been employed as an approach to naturally treating several immune-derived disorders such as:3
- Multiple sclerosis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
But autoimmune and inflammatory disorders aren’t the only immune-mediated imbalances that HO-1 plays an important role in. This enzyme can also be a key player when it comes to combating invading pathogens and recovering from an infection.
Heme Oxygenase-1 As an Antimicrobial
Studies have found that heme oxygenase-1 can also help protect you from harm from invading pathogens. HO-1 can help combat numerous bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections in a couple of distinct ways:3,4
- Heme degradation: When HO-1 breaks down heme molecules it releases three compounds – biliverdin, carbon monoxide, and iron. Both carbon monoxide and biliverdin (or its derivative bilirubin) can directly neutralize and kill certain pathogens.
- Cellular protection: Thanks to HO-1’s potent cytoprotective properties, it can help protect infected cells from pathogen-inflicted oxidative stress.
While it’s not clear if HO-1 exerts its potent antimicrobial properties on all invading pathogens, there’s clear evidence that it can play an important role when it comes to combating a number of pathogenic infections.
Considering that HO-1 can play such an important role in our health, how exactly can we recruit this enzyme to help address the underlying dysregulation in immune-mediated conditions?
Heme Oxygenase-1 Inducers: How Can We Naturally Boost Heme Oxygenase-1 Levels?
As it turns out, increasing levels of bioavailable HO-1 has been found to be a potent way to protect cells from rampant inflammation while serving as a feedback mechanism that helps trigger the downregulation of your immune system. And one of the best ways to naturally boost heme oxygenase-1 levels is by introducing specific nutrients that stimulate the production of this powerful enzyme.
Just a handful of nutrients that have been found to induce and increase your natural production of HO-1 include:5
- Anthocyanins: Anthocyanins are natural pigments that give food their blue, black, red, or purple color. Anthocyanins are found in high levels in foods like berries, currants, grapes, tropical fruits, red to purplish blue-colored leafy vegetables, grains, roots, and tubers.
- Caffeic Acid Phenethyl Ester: Caffeic acid phenethyl ester is one of the main active components of a compound known as propolis – a resinous, waxy substance found in beehives as well as in various plants and trees (like poplars and other cone-bearing trees).
- Capsaicin: Capsaicin is the main compound that gives chili peppers their hot, spicy flavor.
- Carnosic Acid and Carnosol: Carnosic acid and its derivative carnosol are plant constituents found in high concentrations in herbs like rosemary and sage.
- Celastrol: Celastrol is a natural product derived from a group of plants stemming from the Celastraceae family.
- Curcumin: Curcumin is the primary bioactive compound that gives the spice turmeric its bright yellow color. My Super Turmeric delivers a hefty dose of curcumin alongside a handful of other health-boosting compounds found in turmeric.
- Epigallocatechin gallate: Epigallocatechin gallate is a powerful polyphenol found primarily in green and black tea.
- Garlic-derived organosulfur compounds: These plant-derived compounds can be found in plants like garlic, mustard, asafoetida, and other food extracts. An easy way to get a concentrated dose of these compounds is by taking a simple daily supplement like Super Garlic.
- Isothiocyanates: Isothiocyanates are compounds found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. If eating these veggies doesn’t sound too appetizing to you, you can still reap the benefits of isothiocyanates with my BroccoBoost Plus.
- Phlorotannins: Phlorotannins are compounds found exclusively in marine plants like brown algae, kelp, and rockweeds.
- Quercetin: Quercetin is a flavonoid or plant pigment found in many fruits and vegetables – particularly red onions and tea leaves. My supplement Hist Assist contains quercetin along with a targeted blend of flavonoids, antioxidants, proteolytic enzymes, and botanicals to help supercharge your HO-1 levels.
- Resveratrol: This potent plant compound is found in many fruits and vegetables, and in particularly high concentrations in things like grapes, cocoa, peanuts, berries, and wine. My supplement ResveraMax packs a powerful punch by combining resveratrol with several other antioxidant-boosting compounds to provide unmatched detoxification while stoking HO-1 production.
Naturally inducing the production of HO-1 may be a strategy to give your immune system the leg up it needs to combat infection or immune system dysregulation.
Heme Oxygenase-1: A Promising New Treatment in Autoimmune and Inflammatory Disorders
While more time and research are needed to truly understand how we can best harness the immune-supporting power of heme oxygenase-1, this enzyme may hold promise for helping us better understand and combat many immune-derived conditions. As exciting as new discoveries and treatment options are, the truth is, there is no singular compound or “health hack” that’s going to truly address an imbalance in your health.
Things like boosting HO-1 levels are like tools in our toolbox – arming us with another tool to help us protect, preserve, and optimize our health. To truly heal the underlying root cause of any imbalances and experience vibrant health and longevity, we must take a big-picture approach – utilizing our whole arsenal of “tools” in our toolbox. The day-to-day choices you make about the way you eat, move, sleep, think, and interact with your environment are all key pieces to the puzzle when it comes to creating a true foundation of health.
If you’re looking for more tools to add to your toolbox and some simple, science-backed, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-implement ways to prioritize and upgrade your health, I’ve got you covered. Head over and browse through my blog to access hundreds of articles that help you do just that. And if you want to take it even deeper, you can get my best content delivered straight to your inbox by entering your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn about HO-1’s role in immune regulation? Do you have any tips for incorporating any of the HO-1 boosting nutrients into your diet? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- The macrophage heme-heme oxygenase-1 system and its role in inflammation – ScienceDirect
- Therapeutic potential of HO-1 in autoimmune diseases – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Host heme oxygenase‐1: Friend or foe in tackling pathogens? – Singh – 2018 – IUBMB Life – Wiley Online Library
- Modulation of Antiviral Immunity by Heme Oxygenase-1 – ScienceDirect
- Frontiers | Naturally Derived Heme-Oxygenase 1 Inducers and Their Therapeutic Application to Immune-Mediated Diseases (frontiersin.org)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.