Can Infections Cause Autoimmune Diseases?

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In recent years, a great deal of research has been done on autoimmune disease. Our improved understanding has dispelled many previously held beliefs, specifically regarding the cause of autoimmune disorders. It has been recognized for many years that genetic factors influence some autoimmune diseases. However, we now know that underlying or chronic infections may also play a significant role in the development of autoimmune diseases. To better treat autoimmune illness, we must implement new and reliable information regarding the connection between autoimmune disease and infections.

Delayed Implementation of Important Data

If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, your doctor may have told you something like “all autoimmune diseases are genetic,” “autoimmune conditions have no known cause,” or “there is no treatment for autoimmune disease other than managing symptoms.” These statements are untrue.

While medical professionals are knowledgeable and well-meaning, they often cannot keep up with current research on specific topics such as autoimmune disease. Often, new valid information becomes available only to be overlooked or forgotten before it becomes common knowledge or integrated into practice. In fact, some studies suggest that many doctors are an average of 17 years behind current research! This is a major reason the treatment of autoimmune disease appears so stunted. Fortunately, it may be possible to significantly improve treatment by incorporating current data into our treatment practices. 

The Autoimmune-Infection Connection

Over the course of the past few decades, underlying infections and autoimmune diseases have appeared together in a great deal of medical literature. One of the most thoroughly discussed and widely recognized connections between autoimmune illness and infection is the relationship between multiple sclerosis (MS) and various viruses.

MS is a neurodegenerative autoimmune disease affecting the central nervous system. Research has found a link between MS and several viruses that affect the central nervous system, specifically human herpesvirus 6 (HHV6).

Multiple studies show a direct connection between MS and HHV6. One study found HHV6 in the nervous system tissue of 73% of their test population, with 54% having HHV6 in their blood. This contrasted the healthy control group with no semblance of HHV6 in their blood or nervous system.

HHV6 is not the only infection that may be associated with MS. Studies show that Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease, is also found in a high percentage of MS patients. Data from one study found that 38% of their participants with MS had Lyme, while another study found that 20% of their MS test population had Lyme. These numbers show a connection between the occurrence of MS and Lyme. Interestingly, researchers believe that because of the testing limitations of these two studies, the rates of Lyme infection in MS patients may be even higher. 

Besides HHV6 and Lyme, studies suggest that other viral and bacterial infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), mycoplasma, and Chlamydia pneumonia may be associated with MS. These relationships strongly suggest that infection may play an important role in the development and continuation of autoimmune disease. Interestingly, intestinal infections may also be highly influential. 

Intestinal Infections and the Occurrence of Autoimmune Disease

The gut contains most of our immune system. Intestinal health, specifically digestive disorders and gut infections, are important topics to consider when discussing autoimmune disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition wherein an immune response is triggered by the consumption of dietary proteins gluten and gliadin. Studies dating back as far as the early 40s show that enteropathogens, or gut infections, may be connected to and encourage the development of celiac disease. However, many practitioners overlook or disregard this connection.

A private medical practice in Los Angeles, California conducted a study between the years 2000 and 2013 to investigate the relationship between celiac disease and gastrointestinal wellness. The researchers took stool and saliva samples from 1336 patients complaining of nonspecific gastrointestinal symptoms. They tested these samples for various types of gut pathogens and blood markers for celiac disease. Almost half of the subjects tested positive for at least one infection, while 13% tested positive for four or more. The most common infections were parasites T. gondii and E. histolytica/dispar and gram-negative bacteria in the form of H. pylori. A high percentage of participants who tested positive to gliadin, one of the diagnostic markers for celiac disease, also tested positive for other enteropathogens.

The LA study also assessed function of the participant’s hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. This was done by measuring values of cortisol, DHEA, and melatonin over a 24-hour period. Patients with gut pathogens inevitably showed dysfunction of the HPA axis in addition to digestive distress. This makes sense since HPA axis dysfunction causes dysregulation of sex and stress hormones and has been linked to autoimmune disease. Some experts posit that the HPA dysregulation associated with autoimmune disease may be resolved if gut infections are properly diagnosed and treated as part of the standard of care.

What the Data Says About Treatment

Research shows that resolving or treating infections may help address autoimmune disease. One study found that patients with both a parasitic infection, in this case Cryptosporidium parvum, and elevated gliadin antibodies experienced resolution of digestive problems and normalization of celiac autoimmune markers after two weeks of antiparasitic treatment. Studies also show that anti-viral medications are very effective in the management of MS. These findings suggest that attending to underlying infections may benefit treatment and support the resolution of many forms of autoimmune malfunction.

Using Current Data to Treat to Autoimmune Disease

We don’t have all the answers to autoimmune diseases just yet. However, science has improved our understanding of the relationship between autoimmune disease and infection. Sadly, it will probably be some time before this information is widely implemented. Fortunately, there are practitioners who already address chronic disease with the recognition that infection may play a significant role. If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, find a healthcare practitioner who will address all underlying factors of autoimmune disease, including infections and HPA axis dysregulation. 

At Holtorf Medical Group, we train our physicians to provide you with cutting-edge testing and innovative treatments to find the answers you deserve and a treatment plan that is personalized to your specific condition. If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease but aren’t receiving the care and treatment you need, call us at 877-508-1177 to see how we can help you!

Resources

1. Andrew W. Campbell. “Autoimmunity and the gut.” Autoimmune Dis. 2014;2014:152428.

2. Stuppy, W. “The Role of Infections in Celiac Disease. Townsend Letter: The Examiner of Alternative Medicine.” Aug/Sept. 2014.

3. Leibovitch, Emily C, and Steven Jacobson. “Evidence linking HHV-6 with multiple sclerosis: an update.” Current opinion in virology vol. 9 (2014): 127-33.

4. HHV-6 Foundation. “HHV-6 & Multiple Sclerosis.” https://hhv-6foundation.org/associated-conditions/hhv-6-multiple-sclerosis

5. Getts, Daniel R et al. “Virus infection, antiviral immunity, and autoimmunity.” Immunological reviews vol. 255,1 (2013): 197-209.

6. Kent Holtorf. “Innovative Treatments of Multiple Sclerosis and other Neurodegenerative Diseases.” Holtorf Medical Group.

About Holtorf Medical Group

The Holtorf Medical Group specializes in optimizing quality of life and being medical detectives to uncover the underlying cause of symptoms, rather than just prescribing medications to cover-up the symptoms. We are experts in natural, prescription bioidentical hormone replacement and optimization, complex endocrine dysfunction, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme disease.

We’ve dedicated our practice to providing you the best in evidenced-based, integrative medicine that’s not only safe and effective, but provides measurable results.