Breathing Fire: Unveiling the Hidden Battle of Oxidative Stress, Inflammation & Immunity Amidst Wildfires

by | Sep 27, 2023

Apple PodcastsSpotifyPodcast IndexOvercastAmazon MusicPodcast AddictCastroCastBoxPodchaserPocketCastsDeezerListen NotesPlayer.fmGoodpodsPodfriendRSS


In this episode of The Modern Vital Podcast hosted by Dr. Ben Reebs, the discussion with Dr. Heather Zwickey, an esteemed immunologist, centers around the detrimental effects of air pollution, including wildfire smoke, on human health through oxidative stress and inflammation. Dr. Zwickey elucidates the dangerous cascade initiated by reactive oxygen species (ROS), produced in response to various forms of pollution, leading to chronic inflammation and cellular damage, notably to the mitochondria – our cellular energy generators.

During the conversation, Dr. Zwickey explains that an excess of ROS in the body signals danger to the immune system, initiating an inflammatory response analogous to that observed during severe physical damage, such as a house fire. This response activates the production of cytokines, which have behavioral effects, including fatigue, anxiety, and aggression, symptomatic of chronic inflammation prevalent in today’s society. However, she also highlights the crucial balance needed between oxidative stress and antioxidant levels in the body. While oxidative stress is necessary for certain physiological processes and immune functions, excessive antioxidants can also be harmful, inhibiting essential immune responses to infections.

Dr. Zwickey sheds light on the delicate balance required between oxidative stress and antioxidants for maintaining health. With increasing environmental pollution and challenges such as wildfires exacerbated by climate change, understanding and managing the body’s inflammatory responses becomes imperative for public health. For listeners interested in learning more about her work, Dr. Zwickey can be reached through her website and Instagram account.

If you’re looking to dive deeper into understanding the intricacies of chronic disease and its impact on your overall well-being, consider checking out Dr. Reebs’ book, “The Serpent & The Butterfly: The Seven Laws of Healing.” In this book, he discusses the laws of healing essential to resolving chronic disease and much more to help you on your journey to optimal wellness. Click here to purchase your copy:

Additionally, if you’re interested in a supplement designed to directly support your digestion, we recommend trying Digest: Gentian & Skullcap Capsules. These capsules are formulated with natural ingredients that can help improve and support overall digestive health. To learn more and purchase, visit:

Also, we have Modern Vital store where you can purchase our supplements, books, and learn about MVP90™, which serves as your comprehensive roadmap, empowering you to rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit over a transformative 90-day period:

Thank you for joining us on The Modern Vital Podcast. Your support means the world to us, and we hope you continue to find value in the information we provide. Please remember to subscribe, leave a review, and share our podcast with others who might benefit from this content. Until next time, stay informed and proactive in your pursuit of health and wellness!

Complete Transcript of Episode 13672593

Today’s episode of the Modern Vital Podcast, we’re going to talk a little bit about the impact of air pollution on our mitochondrial function. And today’s special guest is Dr.Heather Zwickey, recognized internationally as an expert and educator in the fields of integrative medicine, natural therapies and the immune system. Dr.Zwickey has been leading natural medicine research for 20 years.

She has a Ph.D in immunology and microbiology from the University of Colorado and completed her postdoc at Yale School of Medicine. Heather speaks at conferences worldwide, sharing her enthusiasm for integrative medicine and science and she’s won a lot of awards for teaching and currently teaches at NUNM, my alma mater, or National University of Natural Medicine, an amazing naturopathic school and University of Western States and the Academy of Integrated Health and Medicine. Doctor Zwickey’s research focuses on Parkinson’s neuro inflammation, the microbiome and the gut brain access.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Welcome to the show, Heather. 

Dr.Heather Zwickey: Thanks so much for having me.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Well, it’s amazing and great to have you. So, you know, if there’s fire, there’s smoke and it’s literally in the body as well as outside of us. I mean, inflammation in our body is like the fire, oxidative stress is like the smoke. And then here, you know, in our dear Pacific Northwest, we’ve had a lot of wildfires which are literally flames that can generate particles that can cause, you know, oxidative stress in our bodies and mediate immune and autoimmune reactions downstream. Love to hear a little bit from you about this topic.

Dr.Heather Zwickey: Yeah. So I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. I think that, you know, in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve had more and more wildfires and we had a wildfire a couple of years back that made the air quality in Portland so bad, in the four hundreds, virtually unbreathable air, but it’s not just Oregon, it’s not just the Pacific Northwest. We’ve seen Hawaii burning this year and we’ve seen Australia burning and all over the world.

We’re dealing with more and more fires. It’s one thing when trees burn. And I think I’m one of those people and I think many people are, enjoy the smell of a campfire, enjoy, you know, having a small fire on a cold winter’s night. It’s something else when buildings burn, when buildings burn and all those plastics burn and all of the insulation burns and the roofs burn.

What we see released into the environment are so many toxins, heavy metals, polychlorinated, biphenyls, dioxins. I mean, there’s just all of this toxicity. So the first thing we think about of course, is the air and breathing the air because this stuff is in the air and it is immediately apparent to us. But what we think about less is that when that smoke leaves the air, it hits the ground and it contaminates all of the food supply, it contaminates our groundwater.

We are now observing the effects of fires that have happened over the past 3 to 5 years by what’s coming out in our water supply and our food supply. Now, here’s what is super interesting to me as an immunologist. We know that the microbiome is essential for you to have a healthy, happy functioning immune system. And that microbiome are those microbes that live in your gut, live in your lungs, live on all your mucous membranes.

Those microbes have to be happy to trigger your immune system to have certain types of reactions. What happens when you eat or breathe those pollutants is you kill off some of those microbes and when those microbes die, they produce reactive oxygen species. Now, reactive oxygen species are well known to us. Right. These are the things that used to be called free radicals.

They’re how we age. They are important for us controlling infection. But they are also what damages our cells. They damage our lung tissue, they damage our gut tissue and one of the tissues that they damage that, I don’t think a lot of people think about is the gut and when they damage the gut, they do damage to the mitochondria. Now, I think most people know mitochondria because they learned it back in high school.

Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. That’s where we get all of our energy production. So think about that, if you’re damaging mitochondria, the first thing that happens is you start to feel fatigued, you feel tired, you can’t keep your eyes open. And we saw that when people were experiencing wildfires here in Oregon, but we also see it in Hawaii and California and Australia, et cetera.

Anywhere there’s wildfires, you might ask, why are people so fatigued? Is it stress? Well, stress can also damage the mitochondria. But it turns out that pollutants are a terrible strain on mitochondria. And if your mitochondria are not active, you’re not making ATP, you’re not making energy, which means you’re gonna be fatigued, you’re gonna be tired. Where this really starts to overlap with what’s going on in the world is when we start thinking about COVID and if we do not start out with good mitochondria and we’re going into an infection, then the severity of disease tends to be worse. And so we see more complicated disease in people who have stressed or destroyed mitochondria.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Right. Absolutely. So, can you talk a little bit about this path of physiology? I mean, how does that, how does that work? I mean, I know we’ve got like COQ10, we’ve got vitamin E, we’ve got all of these different antioxidants. We’ve got the NRF 2 pathway. We’ve got the respiratory chain. and there’s so much that has to happen. We’ve also got membrane permeability in the mitochondria actually increases as well as a result of oxidative stress, which can be a good thing temporarily, but then it can lead to problems down the road. Can you tell us a little bit more about how this happens?

Dr.Heather Zwickey: Yeah. So I think what most people don’t realize is that reactive oxygen species are signaling molecules. So when you produce these free radicals, these reactive oxygen species as a result of being exposed to air pollution or ground pollution, water pollution. When you produce those, you’re launching an entire inflammatory pathway and that inflammatory pathway is carried out by your immune system because it senses that there is danger and it can’t tell the risk or the danger difference between being exposed to a fire because there’s smoke in the air and actually physically being in this fire and having your home destroyed, for example. So according to your immune system, the two reactions are the same. Now, the way that it happens is actually pretty interesting. So the reactive oxygen species that are external to the cell can actually signal inside the cell and they’ll signal internal proteins that are called toll-like receptors that turn on the inflammatory complex. Specifically the NLRP 3 inflammasome, which is a lot of letters and numbers to say that we get cytokine production. And the three cytokines that we get are typically interleukin one, interleukin six and TNF alpha. These three cytokines are important because there are behavioral effects associated with them. So, interleukin one makes us feel malaised and tired. Interleukin six makes us feel anxious, right, so that we want to run from that air pollution and TNF alpha makes us hostile. It makes us aggressive. And I don’t know about you, Ben, but I’ve been experiencing a lot of hostile people in our country lately and I can’t blame them because I know they’re suffering from inflammation. So much of what we have done is contaminate our food supply and contaminate our groundwater and it’s almost impossible to live in this country and not experience inflammation these days.

Dr.Ben Reebs: That’s so interesting. You know, kind of going back to just a basic definition of oxidative stress. You know if I look it up. It basically says, oh, there are free radicals, these reactive oxygen species. And then our body has these immune defenses, these antioxidant resources and there’s not enough of them to overcome the damage. I mean, can you expand a little bit on this because I feel like there’s more to it than that.

Dr.Heather Zwickey: Sure. So we do. We have built in endogenous antioxidants and most people have heard of some of them like Glutathione, Uric acid. We have built in antioxidants and all of our vitamins are antioxidants, right? A, B, C, D, E, K, they’re all antioxidants and we know we need a certain level of antioxidants in our diet. The problem is when the system becomes overwhelmed when there are more reactive oxygen species than there are antioxidants to compensate, then you have too much.

You’ve kind of crossed over the hump and you’ve got too much oxidative stress that you’re exposed to. Now, keep in mind, we all need some oxidative stress. At its best, oxidative stress is just that little bit of stress to keep us moving, keep us motivated, keep us going along. It’s when it’s too low or too high that we get into trouble. So you might think, oh okay, well I need more antioxidants. Let’s go super physiologic amounts of vitamin D and vitamin C and I’ll just load up. Get as much as I can. Well, if you get too many antioxidants, then you’re in the same boat, you can’t perform the things that oxidative stress is needed for, for example, fighting infection or keeping your microbes under control.

Because remember you’re covered in microbes. So we need some oxidative stress just to keep our gut microbiome from overgrowing. But when we have too much oxidative stress, we overwhelm our capacity to adjust for it. And then we start doing damage to organs and to tissues. So for example, we were talking earlier about how lung tissue in order to develop needs a little bit of oxidative stress, but you overwhelm it and the tissue doesn’t develop.

Now what happens? What happens to infants who are building new lung tissue? What happens to people who have had COVID and are trying to repair lung tissue? All of those things are problematic. Where we see that even more is actually in the gut because it turns out that the stem cells that are at the crips of our gut to replace the tissue that we sluff off every time we poop. Those stem cells have lots of mitochondria in them because they’re metabolically active and if we damage them, then we lose our ability to absorb nutrients. And that’s a problem because then we develop things like dementia and cardiovascular disease and all of the other diseases that we talk about that are not single gene mutations that are environmentally induced.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Right. Absolutely. Yeah, it’s appropriate we’re talking about this because it was almost three years ago today we had an AQI index of 477 here in Portland, Oregon on September 13th, 2020. Just a few months into the pandemic. And I’m hoping that those days are over, but you never know when another one could come our way. Right?

Dr.Heather Zwickey: We sure don’t. You know, I just did a trip with my husband into the Canadian Rockies this summer. There were 1600 wildfires in British Columbia alone. 1600. And it was interesting because you could drive down the highway and what you would see are different pockets of smoke rising from the hillside. Most of those were coming from lightning strikes. Why are we getting so much more lightning? Well, it’s not necessarily that we’re getting more lightning but the drought, the ground is drier than it has been in the past. So, historically, when we got those lightning strikes, we could put out the fires or they would be quenched immediately by the moisture in the soil and in the trees. But right now the trees are drier than normal due to climate change. And as a result when those fires start, they take off, it’s like igniting a tinder box as opposed to what it was historically where we had more moisture in the ground and in the vegetation surrounding those trees.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Wow. Oh, my gosh. Quick question for you, Heather. You talk a lot about how macrophages and neutrophils actually release little bits of reactive oxygen species. You know, just as they’re protecting us in our immune system. If I take too many antioxidants, then is it possible that I could actually neutralize my own immune system?

Dr.Heather Zwickey: Yeah. Absolutely. So, we know that you don’t want to take too many antioxidants during a bacterial infection, because we know that those parts of your immune system that control bacteria require those reactive oxygen species in order to fight bacteria. Now, viral infections are a little different. It looks like we don’t need the same level of oxidative stress to fight viruses. So taking vitamin C during a viral infection? Totally fine. During a bacterial infection, I usually tell people to wait a couple of days and then start your antioxidants to help clean up the mess as opposed to taking them from the get go where you might actually suppress some of the immune response.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Well, thank you so much Heather for joining us. Where can people find you online?

Dr.Heather Zwickey: I have a website, it’s just and I’m on Instagram at HZwickey.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Great. Well, that concludes today’s episode of the Modern Vital Podcast. We’d love to hear from you. We really value your feedback. If you have any questions or suggestions, please reach out to me at Also, please leave us a review if you enjoyed this episode and we really look forward to having you next time for another exciting episode of the Modern Vital podcast.


About Me

Dr. Ben Reebs, ND, is an award-winning, naturopathic physician with a focus in environmental medicine, which looks at how environmental factors can cause chronic disease. He specializes in chronic infections, autoimmune disease, and digestive health.

In-Office Clinic Hours 

Tuesdays 9am-4pm
Thursdays 9am-4pm
Fridays 9am-4pm
*By appointment only

Recent Posts