Do you have an autoimmune condition? Do you know what caused it? Genetic factors play a role, but there is too much of an emphasis on genes. They do increase your chances of developing an autoimmune disease, but there are other factors at play. A number of different infections have proven links to autoimmunity. We can’t always prevent catching an infection, but there are things you can do to strengthen your immune system. A weak immune system can allow an infection to linger for too long, and that places you at risk of developing a new autoimmune disease, or suffering with a flare up of an existing condition.

Autoimmune disease has become increasingly prevalent, particularly in women. The most common autoimmune diseases are Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis, iritis, arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and Graves’ disease. Most autoimmune diseases are not fatal, but they can significantly impair quality of life, and medication typically prescribed can have frightening side effects.

What causes a person to develop an autoimmune condition? Several things, including genetic predisposition, poor intestinal health (leaky gut, dysbiosis and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and environmental triggers. An example of an environmental trigger is an infection.

Infection with certain bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites doesn’t cause an autoimmune disease directly, like a virus causes the flu. Instead, these infections are more like the straw that broke the camel’s back. They trigger the development of an autoimmune disease in a person who was at high risk of developing one already.

An infection is far more likely to trigger an autoimmune disease in a person who is nutrient deficient. Vitamin D deficiency, vitamin C deficiency, zinc and selenium deficiency are the most common culprits. Taking these nutrients in supplement form can reduce the risk of an infection and an autoimmune disease.

Certain infections have been linked with specific autoimmune diseases. This is probably because certain viruses or bacteria closely resemble specific parts of the human body. Therefore after making antibodies against a specific bug, your immune system gets confused and starts making antibodies against your own body. This phenomenon is known as molecular mimicry and is a leading theory as to why autoimmune disease happens in the first place.

As we travel through life we are exposed to more and more infections; this, coupled with nutrient deficiencies and stress can make autoimmune disease more likely to develop as we get older.

You can’t always prevent yourself from catching an infection. The types of infections linked with autoimmune disease are common infections that nearly everyone gets exposed to. It is far more important to strengthen your immune system with a healthy diet and the right nutrients in order to overcome these infections.

Chronic infections that linger in your body and continually irritate your immune system are the worst at triggering autoimmune disease.

Examples of common infections that can trigger autoimmune disease

  • Epstein Barr virus (Glandular fever/mononucleosis)
    This virus is in the herpes family of viruses and is an extremely common infection that just about everyone has suffered from at some point in their life. It’s quite a sinister virus though; it is capable of triggering 33 different autoimmune diseases. Obviously not everyone who has had glandular fever goes on to develop an autoimmune disease, let alone 33. This virus is simply one of the known triggers.
    The Epstein Barr virus is most closely linked with the development of multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjogren’s syndrome. Research has shown that some people with systemic lupus erythematosus have an elevated Epstein Barr viral load in their bloodstream. It may be more than 15 times greater than in healthy individuals. This means that some people are unable to clear the virus from their bloodstream because they have a weak immune system. The chronic stimulation of the immune system by the virus may go on for many years, and eventually lead to the development of an autoimmune disease.
  • Helicobacter pylori
    This is the bacterium that increases the risk of stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. It is thought that more than half the world’s population has this bacteria in their stomach, but most people do not develop symptoms or disease. If very high levels of Helicobacter pylori are present in the stomach, it can cause an inflamed stomach lining (gastritis) and symptoms of indigestion such as burping, bloating, nausea, stomach pain, reflux, or heartburn.
    There is a breath test, stool test and blood test for this bacteria. People who are treated for a stomach ulcer are typically given two different antibiotics, which are designed to kill this bug. This treatment is often not very effective; it either doesn’t kill Helicobacter pylori adequately, or it does but the bacteria returns soon afterwards. Diet changes and antimicrobials like BactoClear are usually more effective than antibiotics over the long term. It is important to improve the health of the digestive system, so it is no longer a hospitable environment for Helicobacter pylori to thrive.
    Infection with this bacteria raises the risk of developing thrombocytopenia (low blood platelets), sarcoidosis, atherosclerosis, systemic sclerosis, antiphospholipid syndrome (can result in infertility), rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis. Some research has shown that eradication of Helicobacter pylori can result in amelioration of autoimmune disease.
  • Streptococcal infections (Strep)
    Streptococcal infections are very common. Strep throat is sometimes responsible for a sore throat, fever and enlarged lymph glands in the neck. Although the most common cause of a sore throat is a viral infection, this bacteria is thought to be responsible for approximately 37 percent of cases of sore throat in children and 5 to 15 percent in adults.
    A small percentage of people who have had a strep infection go on to develop rheumatic fever, which is an autoimmune disease caused by antibody cross reactivity. The white blood cells had been producing antibodies against the strep bacteria, but for some reason the immune cells become confused and start making antibodies against the heart, skin, joints, or brain. The surface molecules on the strep bacteria are so similar to some molecules of the human body, that a small percentage of people who get a strep infection go on to develop an autoimmune disease. Rheumatic fever can cause arthritis, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), a skin rash, and Sydenham chorea (a brain disease that causes involuntary movements of the face and arms).
    Strep infections are also capable of triggering autoimmune kidney disease (glomerulonephritis), PANDAS (Paediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections) and Tourette syndrome.
  • Norovirus
    Noroviruses are the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu). The most common symptoms of infection are vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain. Some people also experience a low grade fever, muscle aches, and headaches. There is a strong relationship between infection with norovirus and subsequent development of Crohn’s disease.
    It is also not uncommon for a bad cold or flu to trigger a flare up of an autoimmune disease in a person currently in remission.

Fortunately there is so much that can be done to improve the health of a person with autoimmune disease, and many people are able to recover fully. For more information see our book Healing Autoimmune Disease: A plan to help your immune system and reduce inflammation.

Moon UY, et al. Arthritis Res Ther. 2004;6:R295-302
Antonio Gasbarrini, et al. Disappearance of APS after helicobacter pylori eradication. The American Journal of Medicine 2001, 111:163

The above statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease.