“Of all environmental factors with a potential to trigger autoimmunity, the most important seems to be viruses, bacteria, and other infectious pathogens.”
– Paolo Sfriso, MD, Ph.D., Rheumatologist & Author, Infections and Autoimmunity: The Multifaceted Relationship
One of the first steps in preventing or healing from an autoimmune disorder is to identify your body’s unique environmental triggers so you can eliminate them or minimize your exposure. To recap, the 5 major autoimmune trigger categories are:
- Food & Dietary Components
- Leaky Gut & Dysbiosis (imbalance of gut bacteria)
Autoimmune Trigger: Infections
Growing scientific evidence indicates that chronic infections from bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi may be the primary environmental trigger for autoimmune disease.1 According to many healthcare practitioners who treat autoimmune conditions, there is almost always a hidden infection that either precedes the initial autoimmune attack, or that appears opportunistically when the immune system is weakened.
Three Stories Illustrate the Infection-Autoimmune Connection
1. Oral Bacterial Infection Triggers Rheumatoid Arthritis
In this story, renowned immunologist Aristo Vojdani, PhD, describes the likely trigger of his mother’s rheumatoid arthritis. Mrs. Vojdani went to the dentist with an infection in several teeth. Dr. Vojdani relates what probably followed:
“Let’s say she had a Porphyromonas gingivalis or Streptococcus sanguis infection. These are two [kinds of] oral bacteria [that can cause] infection. Each of these bacteria strains releases a toxin. [The dentist] removed the teeth, the barriers were broken, and these toxins got into her blood immediately. She started making antibodies [immune system defense] against the toxins and, because of the [molecular] similarity between the toxin and her joints, her [immune] cells started attacking her joints. After 5 or 10 years, she started having symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. After another 5 or 10 years, this resulted in complete osteoarthritis, which required total knee replacement.”
This personal experience motivated Dr. Vojdani to study environmental factors in autoimmunity.
2. Lyme Disease Mimics and Exacerbates RA, MS, Hashimoto’s
After many years of conventional treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Martha, at 64, became a patient of Richard Horowitz, M.D., author of Why Can’t I Get Better? Solving the Mystery of Lyme and Chronic Disease. Dr. Horowitz ordered tests for Lyme disease, and they came back positive. “Lyme disease co-infections were mimicking and exacerbating Martha’s [autoimmune] disorders and were responsible for some of her resistant symptoms (i.e., numbness, tingling, joint pain, fatigue and balance issues, etc.).” Once she was treated for the bacterial infections underlying Lyme, she felt much better and her resistant symptoms improved.
3. Bacterial And Fungal Infections at the Root of Lupus
After a 15-year history of lupus, Maria consulted with Michelle Corey, author of The Thyroid Cure and an experienced functional health practitioner. Maria’s health history included a herpes infection, chronic sinusitis, recurrent fungal infections and a bout of walking pneumonia.
Michelle is acutely aware of the potential of infections to induce autoimmune disorders and symptoms, so she sent Maria to specialists who could order the right tests. A rheumatologist found and treated her for an active mycoplasma infection. An ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist determined that Maria’s sinus infection was caused by a fungus.
Because autoimmune conditions can have multiple roots, Michelle also recommended that Maria do a comprehensive elimination diet to identify potential additional triggers of her symptoms, and suggested adding in nourishing foods and supplements. Within 9 months, Maria’s lab results improved, her rash vanished, her painful joints healed, and her digestion was “great.”
Common Infections Can Lead to Autoimmune Disorders
Infections are common throughout our lifetime, but it is actually fairly rare that they lead to an autoimmune disorder. By the time you are 20 years old, it’s likely that you’ve been exposed to or had:
- Infectious mononucleosis caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a.k.a. Herpesvirus 4
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV), a.k.a. Herpesvirus 5
- Human Herpesvirus 6 (HHV6), and
- Herpes zoster, a.k.a., chicken pox (which can later lead to shingles).
Scientists believe that a variety of factors must usually be present for an infection to result in an autoimmune condition, including a genetic predisposition and other lifestyle factors, including stress, poor diet, poor sleep, leaky gut, etc.).2
“No specific infectious agent directly causes autoimmunity. Rather, we see EBV (Epstein Barr Virus) as a co-factor, a common virus that promotes us to be in the condition where the disease can develop.”
– Marc Horwitz, Ph.D., Microbiology & Immunology
According to many healthcare practitioners who treat autoimmune conditions, if patients don’t get better after addressing food triggers and correcting nutrient deficiencies, it’s time to dig deeper and test for hidden infections. These are common infections linked to specific autoimmune disorders (note that this list is not comprehensive):
|Autoimmune Disorder||Commonly Linked Infection|
|Multiple sclerosis (MS)||Human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV aka herpesvirus 4), Rubella, influenza virus, and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), Chlamydia, Borrelia burgdorferi, and measles virus|
|Type 1 diabetes||Coxsackievirus B4, cytomegalovirus (CMV), mumps virus, and rubella virus|
|Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)||EBV, hepatitis C virus, E-coli bacteria, Citrobacter, Klebsiella, Proteus, Parvovirus, Mycoplasma infection|
|Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)||EBV|
|Myocarditis||CB3, CMV, Chlamydia|
|Hashimoto’s thyroiditis & Graves||Porphyromonas Yersinia, EBV|
|Myasthenia gravis||Hepatitis C virus (HCV), herpes simplex virus|
|Guillain-Barré syndrome||EBV, CMV, Campylobacter bacteria|
|Autoimmune urticaria, psoriasis, alopecia areata and Schoenlein-Henoch purpura||Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)|
|Celiac Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Crohn’s Disease||Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)|
These infections usually occur well before – sometimes years before — any symptoms associated with autoimmunity develop, so it can be difficult to make a definitive link between a particular infection and a specific autoimmune disorder.
Infections and Autoimmunity: A Complex Relationship
The relationship between infections and autoimmune diseases is often described as “multifaceted and multidirectional,” involving a multitude of complex actions and reactions in the body. Although infections may be a trigger for the illness, many infections likely occur and persist due to the illness itself, setting up a vicious cycle of infection and illness.7 Infections are opportunistic and often travel together – many autoimmune patients eventually discover that they have multiple bacterial, viral, parasitic and/or fungal infections.
The Science Is In…
Here is a snapshot of research focused on the relationship between infections and autoimmune disorders:
“A lot of us have these infections in us. It’s the consequence of our modern-day lifestyles, high stress, poor diets, and environmental toxins. Our immune systems just can’t keep up with it.”
– Nikolas Hedberg, Functional Medicine DC & health educator
5 Steps to Treat & Heal Infections
According to Lee Cowden, MD, board certified cardiologist, teacher of integrative health, and founder of the Cowden Protocol to treat Lyme, the key to recovery is to strengthen the resistance of the host. Strengthening resistance means getting your immune system in good fighting shape. That entails getting toxins out of the body which may be impairing your body’s resistance, and adding in nourishing lifestyle practices to optimize your immune system.
Once you address infections and adopt healthy lifestyle habits, your body can often eliminate many persistent infections on its own. By eliminating the infection trigger(s), autoimmune symptoms will subside, antibody production will lower, and the antibody attack on the organ/system will lessen.
Dig Into the Other Autoimmune Root Causes
Check out the other roots that must be addressed here:
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