doctor with patient

Autoimmune Diseases & the Infection Connection

Autoimmune disease
July 25, 2018

Viral Infections and Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system malfunctions. That is, instead of helping protect you against infections; it attacks your own tissues and organs. Scientists are not clear on what exactly causes an autoimmune disorder; however, multiple factors like genetics, environment and triggers play a significant role.

One of the most under investigated triggers in western medicine is that certain infections such as viral infections coupled with high amount of stress. According to researcher’s, individuals who have suffered from certain infections are more prone to develop several kinds of autoimmune diseases. In fact, the strongest link to date has been found between infections and autoimmune disorders in scientific studies.

Understanding the Connection between Autoimmune Disease and Infection

A person suffering from an autoimmune condition has a malfunctioning immune system. It does not recognize the healthy tissues of the body as self-tissues and start attacking them by producing an antibody referred to as an auto-antibody. This can vary from person to person and cause different tissues to be affected. One person may develop autoimmune thyroid while another person develops autoimmune Rheumatoid Arthritis. The ultimate challenge our immune system has is keeping our tissues identified and infectious triggers cordoned off and dealt with.

Since a similar kind of immune response is triggered by viral infections, it is suggested by some researchers that antibodies that are produced as a response to some infections may attack some of the normal cells of the body as they resemble the virus, which resulted in the infection (Mullerian mimicry). According to other researcher’s, viral infections may actually destroy or damage the immune system of a person resulting in autoimmune disease (Bystander effect).

What Research Says?

The idea that a connection exists between viral infection and autoimmune disease is supported by research. It has been shows that the encephalomyocarditis virus can trigger autoimmune myositis (smooth muscle disease) and Coxsackie B4 virus can trigger type 1 Diabetes Mellitus (Dairy protein are also closely correlated here).
It has been found in studies that EBV (Epstein Barr virus) is strongly associated with the development of multiple autoimmune disorders such as SLE (systemic lupus erythematosus), rheumatoid arthritis, antiphospholipid syndrome, Hashimoto’s, multiple sclerosis, giant cell arthritis, pemphigus vulgaris, polyarteritis nodosa and Wegener’s granulomatosis (glomerulonephritis). Similarly, cytomegalovirus or CMV is also associated with autoimmune diseases such as lupus and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Similarly, it has been demonstrated in a study that patients who had active rheumatic arthritis (an autoimmune disorder) were found to be positive for Epstein-Barr virus infection. In fact, patients suffering from RA have higher anti-EBV antibodies levels in comparison to healthy controls. A history of EBV virus is significant if you know or think you may have an autoimmune disorder (did your doctor test all four antibody markers for EBV?).

How to Prevent Autoimmune Disorders?

Since a link has been established between viral infections and autoimmune disorders, it is important to prevent viral infections by using good hygiene and taking care of your immune system through sleep, exercise and supplementation. You can also take certain general measures to help protect yourself from infections. These measures include:

  • Washing your hands thoroughly and frequently using soap (not Triclosan!).
  • Consuming eatables that are handled in a hygienic manner.
  • Not getting in contact with contaminated surfaces and infected people.
  • Using practices of safe sex.
  • Coughing and sneezing into tissues that should be thrown afterwards.
  • Preventing mosquito and tick bites.

If you have developed a viral infection, then it is important to get a proper diagnosis, which involves evaluation by a doctor and for certain infections, getting appropriate blood tests. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) techniques are used to make multiple copies of the genetic material of the virus (and are standard in research but not necessarily medicine). The virus can be accurately and rapidly identified by the doctors using PCR techniques. Blood may be tested for antigens (viral proteins) or for antibodies to the virus.

So what natural products do we recommend for fighting viral infections?

  • Whole Beta Glucan – This is the cell wall fragments that come off probiotics and upregulates our immune system to fight more efficiently (https://www.xymogen.com/formulas/products/90)
  • N-Acetyl-Cysteine – This is an amino acid that has been shown to reduce the replication rate of viruses and also boosts glutathione, our master anti-oxidant (/130)
  • Vitamin C/Bioflavinoid Complex – Not just ascorbic acid here, get something that has flavonoids added or get VERY fresh fruit as the vitamin C is rapidly depleted with shelf life (/186)!
  • Astragalus – An amazing herb which has great adrenal benefits and can increase our natural ability to Lyse, or kill off viral particles (https://www.xymogen.com/assets/imageDisplay.ashx?productID=298&attachmentTypeID=1)
  • Echinacea – Wonderful immune modulating properties for autoimmune disease but rapidly upregulates our caspases, enzyme molecules which blow up viruses (Echinamed or wild harvested is best)
  • Selenium – Selenium is used by multiple enzymes that degrade infections and is critical for formation of glutathione (/124)
  • Olive Leaf Extract – One of the best for acute viral infections but this amazing extract contains high polyphenol concentrations to activate macrophages which gobble up viruses and present them to our antibody cells (/91).

It is equally important to reduce your stress levels and allow the immune system to fight the infection (I know this statement may stress you out ;-)!

Role of Stress in the Development of Autoimmune Disease

Apart from viral infections, stress is a major factor that plays a role in triggering and exacerbation of autoimmune disorders. Studies show that psychological stress can play a role in the exacerbation and maintenance of chronic inflammatory disorders including RA and psoriasis. Have you noticed the pattern of going through school, breaking up or moving and you get sick? Of course, this happens because we upregulate inflammatory molecules and hormones like cortisol which can overwhelm the immune system in the short term.

Stress causes up regulation of NF-Kb, predisposing patients to have greater severity and progression of disease. NF-Kb is a complex protein which controls DNA transcription (process of making copies of DNA), production of cytokines (molecules that help in communication of cells during immune responses) and survival of cells. It has been found in a study that repeated short term stress can increase the toxic response of UVB radiation and trichloroethylene (TCE) by up regulation of NF-kB expression.

What are ways to drop stress?

  • Stop pushing yourself constantly! Prioritizing and pulling back from some of life’s “TO DO’s”, can dramatically reduce your stress – Does it really have to get done?
  • Get 8 hours of sound sleep and shoot for a regular bed time and waking time.
  • Stop the caffeine! This vicious circle robs you of energy and can also promote lack of sleep and an abnormal circadian rhythm of cortisol; both linked to infections!
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise. I know this is not fun to think about since you may be fatigued, but there are few interventions like exercise that can have as dramatic an impact. Try this exercise; put your shoes in front of the door and leave them there. Every time you walk by and see those puppies they will call your name and I promise you that you won’t regret a short walk when you go outside!
  • Vacation – Seriously, when was the last time?
  • Supplementation can vary but a few of my favorites are:
    1. Phosphatidylserine – use topical as it is more cost effective
    2. Cortisolv (/510)
    3. Adrenal Manager (/397)
    4. Adrenaliv (/948)
    5. Optimag Neuro (Mag-Threonate) (/447)

To Conclude

Autoimmune disease are complex – from the symptoms you feel to achieving a proper diagnosis. Understanding your triggers such as possible infections and how you handle stress can be integral in your healing. Functional Medicine is an excellent way to address the underlying causes, nutritional needs, and support your body to help you control the disease rather than letting the disease control you. With the right care, you can let your health soar!

Yours in health,
Ian Hollaman DC, MSc, IFMCP

  1. Jean-Francois Bach. Infections and autoimmune diseases. Journal of Autoimmunity. 2005; 25:74-80.
  2. Barzilai, Y. Sherer, M. Ram, D. Izhaky, J.M. Anaya, Y. Shoenfeld. Epstein-Barr Virus and Cytomegalovirus in Autoimmune Diseases. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. August 2007; 1108(1):567-577.
  3. Kuusela E, Kouri VP, Olkkonen J, Koivuniemi R, Ayravainen L, Rajamaki K, Valleala H, Nordstrom D, Leirisalo-Repo M, Ainola M, Eklund KK. Serum Epstein-Barr virus DNA, detected by droplet digital PCR, correlates with disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Clinical and experimental rheumatology. March 2018.
  4. Balandraud N, Roudier J, Roudier C. Epstein-Barr virus and rheumatoid arthritis. Autoimmunity reviews. July 2004; 3(5):362-7.
  5. https://www.msdmanuals.com/home/infections/overview-of-viral-infections/overview-of-viral-infections
  6. de Brouwer SJ, van Middendorp H, Stormink C, Kraaimaat FW, Sweep FC, de Jong EM, Schalkwijk J, Eijsbouts A, Donders AR, van de Kerkhof PC, van Riel PL, Evers AW. The psychophysiological stress response in psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. The British journal of dermatology. April 2014; 170(4):824-31.
  7. Ali F, Sultana S. Repeated short-term stress synergizes the ROS signaling through up regulation of NFkB and iNOS expression induced due to combined exposure of trichloroethylene and UVB rays. Molecular and cellular biochemistry. January 2012; 360(1-2):133-45.
  8. https://www.everydayhealth.com/autoimmune-disorders/understanding/are-autoimmune-diseases-caused-by-infections.aspx

Related Blog Posts

June 15, 2023
Necessary Nutrients for Thyroid Disease: Zinc, Selenium & Vitamin D
June 22, 2022
A Ticking Lyme Bomb
February 9, 2021
A Case Study in Autoimmune Disease – Part 3 – Implementing Support