Autoimmune disease is a modern epidemic in which your body’s immune system, which normally helps defend you from pathogens, mistakenly attacks your own organs and tissues. Current research tells us multiple factors can play a role in causing autoimmunity, including viruses. More recently, a virus has been linked with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which symptoms are triggered by eating gluten.
Celiac disease linked with normally harmless virus in humans
Celiac disease affects one in 133 people in the United States, however only 17 percent have been diagnosed.
While former research has focused on genetic factors underlying celiac disease, a recent study found a link between celiac disease and reovirus, a normally harmless virus in humans.
The study found that mouse subjects with celiac-like disease have higher levels of reovirus antibodies than those without the disease. Those with reovirus antibodies also had high levels of a gene regulator that plays a role in loss of oral tolerance to gluten protein.
In the study, researchers took two different reovirus strains that infect humans (T1L and T3D), and tested them on mice. Both types triggered a protective immune response, but only the T1L caused the mice’s immune systems to act against gluten. This triggered a celiac-like condition in the mice.
The immune response triggered by the T1L virus was dependent on a molecule called interferon regulatory factor 1 (IRF1), which has been found in higher than normal levels in the small intestine of human children with celiac disease.
This suggests that early reovirus infection might raise the risk for developing gluten-related autoimmunity.
According to lead researcher author Bana Jabri, MD, PhD, director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, "During the first year of life, the immune system is still maturing, so for a child with a particular genetic background, getting a particular virus at that time can leave a kind of scar that then has long term consequences.”
Along with other researchers, Jabri is investigating the possibility that other viruses can play a similar role in autoimmunity.
Chronic viral infection makes the short list for autoimmune factors
Research increasingly indicates viruses and bacteria may play a role in the development of autoimmunity.
Viruses and bacteria trigger an immune response in the body. Some researchers suggest that the antibodies we produce in response may also attack our body’s cells. This may be because they resemble the virus or bacteria, confusing the immune system into the attack.
If you already experience lifestyle-induced chronic inflammation, this makes the immune system hyper zealous and thus more likely to erroneously attack self-tissue.
The viruses suspected in connection with autoimmunity are varied, and some are linked to multiple conditions:
Hashimoto’s autoimmune thyroiditis is associated with Epstein Barr virus (EBV), herpes simplex 1 and 2, hepatitis C, and cytomegalovirus (CMV).
Multiple Sclerosis is associated with EBV and measles virus.
Rheumatoid arthritis is associated with EBV, hepatitis C, E-coli bacteria, and mycobacteria.
Lupus is associated with EBV.
Type 1 diabetes is associated with coxsackievirus B4, cytomegalovirus, mumps virus, and rubella virus.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is associated with EBV, CMV, and campylobacter bacteria.
Know your viral exposure
Having a viral or bacterial infection is not a guarantee of developing autoimmunity, because other factors must come together for it to occur. However, it’s a good idea to take viral exposure into account when looking for the root causes and treatment of your autoimmune condition.
Some practitioners say regardless of other medical protocols, patients with autoimmunity do not go into remission unless they also address their chronic viral and bacterial infections.
Because viral infections usually occur well before any autoimmune symptoms develop, it can be difficult to make a definitive link between a specific infection and a your autoimmune disorder.
Therefore, if you are seeing your doctor about your autoimmune condition, remember to mention any infections you know you’ve had, even back in your childhood; some viruses such as Epstein Barr can persist in the body for decades without obvious symptoms. Lastly, if you don’t seem to be able to heal, ask about testing for hidden chronic viral infections as well as bacterial gut infections.
Other autoimmunity risk factors
Although there is a genetic component to autoimmunity, the following factors are linked to an increased risk of developing an autoimmune condition:
Women represent about 75 percent of autoimmune cases. Researchers speculate women’s hormones or their active immune systems make them more vulnerable to developing autoimmunity.
Young to middle-aged. While the elderly can develop autoimmunity such as rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune conditions more frequently show up in youth or middle age.
African American, Native American, or Latinx heritage. These ethic groups represent higher rates of autoimmunity than others.
Family history of autoimmunity. If your family members have had autoimmunity, you are at higher risk.
Environmental exposure to toxins or heavy metals. There is evidence relating toxic exposure to higher rates of autoimmunity.
Intestinal hyper-permeability (leaky gut). Leaky gut is present not only in all autoimmune diseases, but in other chronic illnesses such as heart disease, depression, and more.
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