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The COVID-Immune Connection

Woman with mask
March 15, 2021

Numerous credible sources have been discussing the link between current events and the increase in autoimmunity. They claim we are facing a ‘super-epidemic’ of autoimmune disease as a result of both the COVID-19 infections and vaccines. This may sound alarming if you didn’t happen to know that we are already in an autoimmune epidemic in the western world. Over the last 30 years, the instance of autoimmunity has tripled! The number of Americans with autoimmune disease now surpasses the number with heart disease. In fact, the most common autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, accounts for 90% of hypothyroidism cases.

Although there is a genetic component to autoimmune disease, this rapid increase can not be explained by an increase in the frequency of the causal genes. These autoimmune conditions are forming in people who have already been born (and unfortunately research by the Environmental working group shows that mom’s pass on hundreds of toxin residues prior to a child’s birth) and may not have developed the condition until later in life. This means that these genes were always here, but something new is triggering their expression. The study of how environmental factors such as pathogens, chemicals and nutrients affect gene expression is called epigenetics. This category of factors is the culprit for our autoimmune epidemic.

So what has really changed in our environment over the last few decades? More than ever, our society consumes toxins on a regular basis. Pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives and thousands of other chemicals called “persistent organic pollutants” are present in our food, water, medicine and air. In addition to physical toxins, our bodies are also constantly being bombarded with harmful EMF radiation.

Another major factor that has changed in our society is our newfound obsession with sterility and hygiene since the discovery of viruses and other harmful microbes (hand sanitizer anyone?). The hygiene hypothesis refers to the idea that consistently introducing the body to different microbes results in a stronger immune system, whereas keeping the body in a sterile environment weakens the immune system, leading to a higher instance of allergies and autoimmune conditions. Your immune system needs to have the chance to meet different microbes so that it can learn how to launch a defense. If you never give it that chance because you sanitize everything you touch, how will it ever be able to protect you?

While introducing pathogens to your immune system is important for building it, the onset of infection can be a double-edged sword. Professor Yehuda Shoenfield, who is fondly referred to as the ‘father of autoimmunity,’ has identified that the cytokine storm caused by an infection is the first in a pattern of events that consistently lead to autoimmune conditions. Therefore, pathogens can actually provoke autoimmunity in some people while strengthening the immune systems of others. The main determining factor is whether the individual is predisposed for autoimmunity (ie, is the gun loaded and primed?). Other important factors are their gut microbiome health, nutrient status, exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins, stress, hormones and low vitamin D levels.

COVID-19 is not the first time that we as a society have dealt with a coronavirus. This is actually the third of its kind to emerge in the past two decades. In 2003, we saw the SARS epidemic and in 2012, the MERS-CoV epidemic in the Middle East. A correlation between autoimmune diseases and coronaviruses has already been established following these previous outbreaks. Not surprisingly, there is already emerging evidence of autoimmune reactions in the body following a COVID-19 infection and correlations have already been found between severe Covid cases and certain autoimmune diseases including immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), Guillain-Barrė syndrome (GBS), Miller Fisher syndrome (MFS), and, in children, Kawasaki-like disease.

It is common knowledge at this point that COVID-19 cases don’t always end once the initial virus has run its course. The term “Covid long-haulers” refers to those suffering from the first post-viral syndrome to ever be recognized in the medical community. Many COVID-19 patients have found that they are left with such symptoms as these for months following their initial infection: breathing difficulties, chest pain, chills, disorientation, hallucinations, muscle/body aches, insomnia, exhaustion, vomiting, diarrhea, high temperature, hair loss, and even cognitive issues such as memory loss, brain fog and confusion. It seems the most common symptoms are extreme fatigue, lingering cough, shortness of breath and body aches.

So, why do some COVID-19 sufferers end up with this so-called “long COVID” for months, while other people get to kiss their infection goodbye after only a few weeks? A body’s ability to destroy the virus and then repair the bodily damage that it caused is determined by a number of factors. The state of our health prior to the infection, our levels of important immune-supporting vitamins, our genetics and our levels of stress are the most impactful. The problem with these factors is that they can be sneaky. Many people may not be aware that they have one. People don’t know if they have a nutritional deficiency or genetic predisposition. While many so-called ‘long-haulers’ were dealing with another autoimmune condition prior to contracting Covid, sufferers from long-hauler syndrome have also been people who seemed healthy pre-infection.

The solution for long-haulers may be found in functional medicine and natural solutions. The reasons one’s body may not be recovering properly are entirely individual. The functional medicine model focuses on an individualized approach to care, taking into account the patient’s diet and lifestyle. Often, complex health issues such as this can be addressed by resetting the immune system. In fact, Dr. Autoimmune has now seen over a dozen post-covid infection cases with every single patient responding favorably to addressing deeper health issues like insulin resistance, obesity, elevated blood pressure, nutrient deficiencies and hidden infections that continued to sap the body’s ability to heal itself.

The way that functional medicine approaches complex immune issues is to:

  • First, look at the gut health of the individual. The immune system is affected by the gut microbiome and the integrity of the intestinal lining. This gut-immune connection is often at the heart of chronic inflammation. The protocol here is to remove, replace, repair, reinoculate and rebalance. Remove pro-inflammatory foods from the diet, replace them with clean foods, repair the gut using supplementation/lifestyle change, and finally reinoculate the gut with healthy bacteria.
  • Second is understanding if there are signs of blood sugar handling stress; ie, do you have any fatigue after meals or carb cravings following a meal? Or, do you get shaky, lightheaded or irritable in between meals? If either of these are present you will see significant swings in blood sugar and this is highly stressful to your immune system!
  • Third on the list is detoxification, starting with identifying areas in the patient’s life where they could be exposed to toxins, and ending with a full detox using supplementation and diet to support the kidneys and liver.
  • Fourth, inflammation is addressed through nutrition.
  • Fifth is the official ‘immune system reset’. Our bodies evolved to naturally clean out dead cells to stimulate the production of new ones through intermittent fasting. It is important to support the process of cleansing with certain nutrients such as vitamin D and zinc.
  • Lastly, we address mitochondrial fatigue and start resuscitation. Mitochondria are the organelles within our cells that produce usable energy for our bodies. If they aren’t working optimally prior to infection, we likely will have a harder time mounting a defense and then be left severely depleted. Through nutrition and lifestyle change, functional medicine can support mitochondrial resuscitation.

Long-hauler syndrome is an immune system condition at its heart, with likely an autoimmune component to it. The fact that COVID-19 can trigger certain autoimmune diseases is part of why many leading immunologists are warning us of an approaching autoimmune super-epidemic. The main concern for other immunology experts is not the infection itself, but the vaccine designed to protect against it.

The concern regarding vaccines and autoimmunity is not a new one. In fact, the link is known. There is even a term for this class of conditions! Autoimmune syndrome induced by adjuvants (ASIA) is the term coined for autoimmune conditions that are triggered by an ingredient in vaccines called an adjuvant. Vaccines have traditionally included a live virus and required an adjuvant to work effectively. Aluminum is the most common adjuvant. This toxin also happens to be a huge risk factor for developing autoimmune disease (you ask your providers for “metal/preservative free” versions of vaccines).

The new COVID-19 vaccine is the first vaccine to use mRNA technology instead of the live virus itself. Therefore, adjuvants are not needed in Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca’s vaccine. However, even a leading vaccine manufacturer, Novavax, has admitted that, “…it has been hypothesized that immunizations with or without adjuvant may be associated with autoimmunity.”

The reason for this lies in the concept of molecular mimicry, which is exactly what it sounds like. When two molecules look identical or very similar, they can be mistaken for each other. Basically, after the COVID-19 infection, your body is hyped up and ready to destroy all of the proteins associated with COVID using pre-made antibodies. It is in a state of hypervigilance for these specific proteins. It is awfully concerning, then, to know that COVID-19 shares 26 identical proteins with humans (further confirmed through multiple peer reviewed journal articles recently published). That means that your body is now likely to attack those proteins indiscriminately, even if they are part of your body and not part of a virus. So whether or not the virus itself or the mRNA for fighting the virus is used in a vaccine, the concern of molecular mimicry is still there.

One particularly concerning group of proteins that are susceptible to this mimicry are the proteins in our lungs creating a surfactant to cover our alveoli. The alveoli are tiny air sacs in our lungs that allow for gas exchange (A.K.A. breathing). Surface tension on the alveoli has to be kept at an ideal level in order to keep them from collapsing. Alveolar surfactant proteins are responsible for this job. They also share an identical peptide sequence with the glycoprotein on the virus, meaning that they could be collateral victims in your body’s attack on covid. This is why it is so crucial we have a regulated immune system. Basically, the question you should be asking yourself is, “Is my immune system self-regulating or do I have predispositions I’m not aware of increasing my risk of complications?” Although there are many factors that push our immune system one way or another, your provider should be able to sit down with you and come up with a game plan on how to optimize your health!

There are multiple mechanisms by which our super-epidemic may be achieved. It is not possible as of now to predict the exact numbers, but one thing is for sure: in the years to come following this pandemic, we will see an unprecedented spike in autoimmune disease.

Yours truly in optimizing the immune system,

Ian Hollaman, DC, MSc, IFMCP

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