The inflammation highway: metabolism accelerates inflammatory traffic in obesity

Immunol Rev. 2012 Sep;249(1):218-38. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-065X.2012.01151.x.


As humans evolved, perhaps the two strongest selection determinants of survival were a robust immune response able to clear bacterial, viral, and parasitic infection and an ability to efficiently store nutrients to survive times when food sources were scarce. These traits are not mutually exclusive. It is now apparent that critical proteins necessary for regulating energy metabolism, such as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors, Toll-like receptors, and fatty acid-binding proteins, also act as links between nutrient metabolism and inflammatory pathway activation in immune cells. Obesity in humans is a symptom of energy imbalance: the scale has been tipped such that energy intake exceeds energy output and may be a result, in part, of evolutionary selection toward a phenotype characterized by efficient energy storage. As discussed in this review, obesity is a state of low-grade, chronic inflammation that promotes the development of insulin resistance and diabetes. Ironically, the formation of systemic and/or local, tissue-specific insulin resistance upon inflammatory cell activation may actually be a protective mechanism that co-evolved to repartition energy sources within the body during times of stress during infection. However, the point has been reached where a once beneficial adaptive trait has become detrimental to the health of the individual and an immense public health and economic burden. This article reviews the complex relationship between obesity, insulin resistance/diabetes, and inflammation, and although the liver, brain, pancreas, muscle, and other tissues are relevant, we focus specifically on how the obese adipose microenvironment can promote immune cell influx and sustain damaging inflammation that can lead to the onset of insulin resistance and diabetes. Finally, we address how substrate metabolism may regulate the immune response and discuss how fuel uptake and metabolism may be a targetable approach to limit or abrogate obesity-induced inflammation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism
  • Animals
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus / metabolism
  • Energy Intake
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Fatty Acid-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / immunology*
  • Inflammation / metabolism*
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Obesity / immunology*
  • Obesity / metabolism*
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Toll-Like Receptors / metabolism


  • Fatty Acid-Binding Proteins
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors
  • Toll-Like Receptors