“It is becoming increasingly acceptable and recognized that infections are probably an underappreciated cause of chronic disease.” – Siobhan O’Connor, M.D. Associate director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, CDC
Part One: Infections and Autoimmunity
The relationship between infections and autoimmunity has been heavily researched and today there is no doubt that infectious inflammation is a “splinter” in many inflammatory and autoimmune conditions. Scientists have now observed several mechanisms through which viruses, bacteria and fungi can initiate or exacerbate an autoimmune condition.
There are several theories that make sense, here are just a few:
Molecular mimicry is the theory that infectious pathogens share structural, functional or immunological similarities to host tissues.1,2 In other words, bad bugs and viruses can sometimes “look” the same as our healthy tissue. When we have an infection, our immune system can mistake healthy tissue (self-antigens) for the bad bugs and destroy our own cells by mistake.
Bystander activation is the theory that infections can non-specifically stimulate the immune system in a manner that misfires in autoimmunity.3 Bystander activation doesn’t require a similarity of self and pathogen as in molecular mimicry. Additionally, during an infection, healthy cells that are in the area of the infection can be caught in the crossfire and killed as a result.
Protein changes, cryptic antigens, is the theory that infections cause an inflammatory environment that can lead to cellular death, oxidative stress and free radical production, which can transform “self” proteins into “non-self.”4 In other words, inflammation can cause your healthy cells to mutate into non-self cells. In addition, proteins in the cells that are ordinarily shielded from the immune system become exposed to, and subsequently attacked by, the immune system.
Infections deplete glutathione: Researchers have found that certain bacteria such as Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease, can deplete glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant.5 As you have already learned, low levels of glutathione are linked with all autoimmune conditions as well as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). New research links glutathione depletion within the cells to the activation of latent viruses and chlamydia and it may also be responsible for reactivation of other latent bacteria within the cells.6,7,8,9,10 According to independent chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) researcher Richard A. Van Konynenburg Ph.D., glutathione depletion triggers the reactivation of latent Epstein-Barr virus, cytomegalovirus and HHV-6 in CFS patients.11 This hypothesis makes a lot sense and likely applies to autoimmunity as well. Dr. Van Konynenburg also takes note of Taylor’s paper that suggests that Coxsackie B3 viruses thrive by weakening the host’s immune system through depleting the selenium needed for the body to make glutathione.12 In other words, viruses can battle your immune system by depleting the resources your body needs to make the glutathione it needs to fight back.
Throughout the literature, researchers agree that while infections play a role in many autoimmune conditions, the “host environment” or “the state of your body” is where the real story is told. As Dr. Amy Yasko says in her groundbreaking book, Defeat Autism Now, “It may not be enough to hunt down and kill an individual microbe. We may instead need to consider all of the factors that undermine health and balance in order to create an environment less hospitable to microbial overrun.”
The inconvenient truth is that numerous factors can contribute to an autoimmune condition. There is no single cause. While infections play a role, not everyone exposed to a virus or bacteria will become infected. Not everyone who becomes infected will be unable to fight it off, allowing a chronic or stealth infection to take hold. Finally, not everyone with a chronic infection will get an autoimmune condition.
Years of chronic stress, negative emotions, malnutrition, GI imbalances, impaired detoxification and disrupted methylation can trigger a cascade of events – a “perfect storm” so to speak – and an infection may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Almost every article on autoimmunity and infections affirms that hypomethylation of host DNA plays a major role in the process.13 In other words, scientists have found that the disruption of your body’s natural healing and detoxification processes creates the conditions for immune system misfire.
The underlying mechanisms linking infections to autoimmunity is a fascinating topic and researchers are learning more everyday.
What You Need to Know: Scientists have made amazing discoveries that connect the dots between infections and autoimmunity. If you have an autoimmune condition and an infection anywhere in your body, it’s critical to strengthen your immune system by balancing your body’s core systems. It’s common sense really; infections = inflammation, and inflammation keeps your immune system on high alert!
Common Infections Associated with Autoimmunity
These infections may or may not be symptomatic, and include:
- GI infections: bacteria, fungus, parasites
- Gingivitis and periodontal disease
- Infected root canals or dental implants
- Chronic sinusitis
- Chronic and systemic fungal infections
- Bacterial infections: Mycoplasma, chlamydia, Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB), Klebsiella, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Brucella
- Viruses: herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), Epstein Barr, hepatitis B, coxsackie B, carvovirus B
- Tick Borne Disease: Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme)
Successful treatment of infections can be complex due to many factors. Your unique physiology (Mind-Body type), life circumstances and nutrition must be taken into consideration.
If you scored high on the Infectious Stress Assessment in my Mind-Body Assessments, I suggest you work with an integrative or functional medical practitioner to get the right tests and treatment. Integrative and functional medical doctors can prescribe both natural and pharmaceutical agents to treat infections. They can also design a treatment plan to help boost your immunity and bring your body’s core systems into balance.
Six Way’s to Fight Infections!
There are steps you can take today to begin to clear up infections and reduce the bacterial and viral burden on your immune system.
- Clean up Your Mouth! If you have gingivitis or periodontal disease (gum disease), it’s critical that you get treated immediately. If you’re not on a first name basis with a dental hygienist, I suggest you get to know one right away. Many people don’t realize they have infections in their mouth. You might not think twice if your gums bleed when you brush your teeth, but if your hands bled when you washed them, or your scalp bled when you brushed your hair, you’d be alarmed! Your gums are no different. If they bleed, you’ve got a problem. I used to work in dental offices that utilized dental microscopes; you would not believe the bad bugs that can wind up in your mouth! You can take huge load off of your immune system by keeping your mouth as clean as possible. Home dental care is easy and affordable; you need to brush and floss your teeth every day. You might be surprised to learn that flossing is more important than brushing. If you have deep pockets or gingivitis, a dental water irrigator like a WaterPik® can be a big help; only use irrigation solutions that don’t contain alcohol. Alcohol damages the mucosal tissue and can even help certain bad bugs populate. A solution of six or seven drops of grapefruit seed extract (GSE) by Nutribiotic® in water can be used in your WaterPik, or you can rinse your mouth with it. GSE makes a great toothbrush disinfectant as well – soak your toothbrush in it overnight. Make sure to change your toothbrush every 3 months or when the bristles begin to fray. I recommend using a Sonicare toothbrush if you can afford one. Don’t ever use anyone else’s toothbrush and store yours separately from the rest of the household! Additionally, buy mouthwashes and toothpaste that do not contain sodium laurel sulfate or fluoride. I like the Dental Herb Company. www.dentalherb.com. The Ayurvedic practice of tongue scraping is quick and easy, and contributes to a clean mouth. One study showed that tongue scraping significantly reduced bacteria known to cause tooth decay (Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacillus) and also reduced bad breath.14 Specialized stainless steel U-shaped tongue scrapers are inexpensive and available in health food stores and online. You simply start with the back of your tongue and slowly scrape to the tip five to ten times. The whole procedure takes less than 30 seconds. Another study confirmed that an added benefit of tongue scraping is an improved sense of taste.15
- Clean up Your Nose! If you suffer from chronic sinusitis, it’s is a good idea to find out if it’s due to fungus. Recent research indicates that chronic sinusitis is an immune disorder that arises when the immune system attacks fungi in the sinuses, causing damage to sinus membrane in the process. 75% of the patients improved when the fungus was treated.16,17 If your doctor determines that your symptoms are due to a fungal infection, it can be treated with a topical antifungal agent. You may need a prescription for this. My clients (and I) have had success combining a saline solution such as NeilMed Sinus Rinse with one or two drops of grapefruit seed extract (GSE). You can make your own saline solution and use a neti pot as well. Caution: Never use more than one or two drops of GSE and always combine it with the saline solution – otherwise it can really burn! Another effective sinus remedy is to inhale the essential oils of concentrated organic thyme, clove and cinnamon leaf extracts. You simply add a few drops of each to a bowl of steaming hot water, cover your head with a towel, and breathe in deeply for a few minutes. Believe me, this very effective! Make sure you use only high quality organic concentrates. I have used Sinus Doctor, available at www.sinusinfectiondiscovery.com. Almost all traditional medical systems connect the sinuses with the GI tract. Interestingly, many people notice that their chronic sinusitis disappears when they remove aggravating foods and heal their gut! Finally, studies have shown that yoga and pranayama breathing can help heal chronic sinusitis.18 The positive health benefits of yogic breathing are scientifically documented and too numerous to list.19
- Reclaim the Healthy Erotic: Sex and making love can be some of our most pleasurable and transformative experiences. Great sex is our birthright! Whether you’re in a monogamous partnership, have “friends with benefits” or are just “hooking up,” having sex with another person means sharing that person’s bodily fluids and their bugs. Many of us regardless of our sexual orientation or religious beliefs, have a lot of emotional hang-ups around sex. Personally, I feel that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are one of the symptoms of our collective wound of shame. That a whole separate issue. My point is; sex is still an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people (for every reason under the sun). Many of us don’t talk about it enough, even with our partners. Unfortunately what happens in the dark stays in the dark – not just in Vegas – and the results can be harmful to the mind, body and soul. Many of the women who have come to me for help with autoimmune conditions had a history of some sexually transmitted disease. While many were aware of their past infections, some didn’t know if they had ever been infected and others were too afraid to find out. One client told me, “If it’s going on below my waist, I don’t even want to know about it!” My simple advice is this: Find a doctor or nurse practitioner that you feel comfortable with and get tested. Don’t judge yourself. Instead, use this as an opportunity to take your power back. Part of reclaiming the healthy erotic is to become aware of your body and illuminate any darkness or confusion surrounding your sexuality. Establish healthy boundaries with your sexual partners. Don’t assume anything! This might sound simplistic but make a point to talk about sex with your sexual partner. You have a right to know about their sexual history and whether they are, or have ever been, infected with an STD. They also have right to know your sexual history and status. Practice safe sex (use barriers). Change condoms when switching from oral or anal sex to vaginal sex, to prevent the introduction of harmful bacteria into the vagina. If your partner has an infection (of any kind) don’t have sex, even oral sex, until the infection is cleared up. If your sexual partner has periodontal disease, gingivitis or any infectious disease (such as fungus or candida) they are contagious. You can’t afford to kiss them until they cleanup their mouth. The same goes for oral sex! Practice good hygiene; always wash before and after sex. If you are a woman prone to bladder infections or cystitis, always pee after sex and make sure you wipe from front to back when you use the restroom.
- Eat for Your Good Genes, Reduce Stress, Heal Your Gut and Restore Your Liver! Honestly, if you follow the steps outlined in The Thyroid Cure you will naturally improve your capacity to fight infections. Eating for your good genes will starve out yeast and fungus (candida); following the GI healing protocol will control yeast and bad bugs. Restoring your liver function will improve methylation and boost glutathione, which are both proven infection fighters. Reducing stress and getting enough rest are classic no-brainers to boost immunity. I have seen amazing recoveries from all types of infections when people eat right, reduce stress and heal their gut!
- Get Vitamin D3! Vitamin D3 plays a major role in our immune response, defending against infections and bacteria by activating and arming killer T-cells. It reduces inflammation throughout the system and modulates the expression of important genes. Most people with autoimmune conditions are grossly deficient. It’s impossible to get enough vitamin D3 through your diet. The body makes vitamin D3 mostly from our exposure to sunlight. Research indicates that 3 out of 4 teens and adults and practically all blacks and Hispanics don’t get enough vitamin D3.20 Getting more sun can improve your health and improve your mood at the same time. Try to get 15-30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure two to four times a week. Vitamin D3 supplementation is inexpensive and well worth it for significant health benefits. I recommend getting tested so you know how much you need. It’s safe to start with at 2000 IU per day but research and my experience shows most people need twice that amount to raise their levels. Don’t take more than 10,000 IU a day in order to avoid vitamin D3 toxicity.
- Sweat! Raising body temperature helps fight infections and fungus; our body develops a fever for that same purpose. Hypothyroid patients commonly have below-average body temperatures, which in turn creates an environment where infections (especially fungal) can thrive. Try a far-infra-red sauna or a detoxifying bath.
In my experience, many infections clear up on their own when you restore your body’s core systems to balance. In fact, many times improving your GI and liver function will start to clear infections and drive viruses into remission, due to boosting glutathione and improving methylation.
- Cusick MF1, Libbey JE, Fujinami RS. Molecular mimicry as a mechanism of autoimmune disease. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2012 Feb;42(1):102-11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22095454
- Oldstone MB. Molecular mimicry and immune-mediated diseases. FASEB J. 1998 Oct;12(13):1255-65. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9761770
- Fujinami RS, von Herrath MG, Christen U, Whitton JL. Molecular mimicry, bystander activation, or viral persistence: infections and autoimmune disease. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006;19:80–94. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1360274/
- Sfriso P, Ghirardello A, Botsios C, et al. Infections and autoimmunity: the multifaceted relationship. J Leukoc Biol. 2010 Mar;87(3):385-95. http://www.jleukbio.org/content/87/3/385.full.pdf
- Pancewicz SA, Skrzydlewska E, Hermanowska-Szpakowicz T, Zajkowska JM, Kondrusik M. Role of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in patients with erythema migrans, an early manifestation of Lyme borreliosis. Med Sci Monit. 2001;7:1230–1235. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11687735
- Roederer M.; Raju P.A.; Staal F.J.T.; Herzenberg L.A.; Herzenberg L.A., 1991: N acetylcysteine inhibits latent hiv expression in chronically infected cells. Aids Research & Human Retroviruses. 7(6): 563-567. http://eurekamag.com/research/007/581/n-acetylcysteine-inhibits-latent-hiv-expression-chronically-infested-cells.php
- Staal FJ, Roederer M, Israelski DM, Bubp J, Mole LA, et al. (1992) Intracellular glutathione levels in T cell subsets decrease in HIV-infected individuals. AIDS Res Hum Retroviruses 8: 305–311. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1540417
- Ciriolo MR, Palamara AT, Incerpi S, et al. Loss of GSH, oxidative stress, and decrease of intracellular pH as sequential steps in viral infection. J. Biol. Chem. (1997); 272 (5): 2700-2708. http://www.jbc.org/content/272/5/2700.full
- Cai J, Chen Y, Seth S, Furukawa S, Compans RW, Jones DP. Inhibition of influenza infection by glutathione. Free Radical Biology & Medicine (2003); 34 (7): 928-936. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12654482
- Palamara AT, Perno CF, Ciriolo MR, Dini L, Balestra E, et al. (1995) Evidence for antiviral activity of glutathione: in vitro inhibition of herpes simplex virus type 1 replication. Antiviral Res 27: 237–253. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8540746
- Van Konynenburg, R.A. Glutathione Depletion—Methylation Cycle Block, A Hypothesis for the Pathogenesis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Poster paper, 8th Intl. IACFS Conf. on CFS, Fibromyalgia, and Other Related Illnesses, Fort Lauderdale, FL, January 10-14, 2007. http://goo.gl/OflJeA
- Taylor, E.W., Selenium and viral diseases: facts and hypotheses, J. Orthomolec. Med. (1997); 12 (4): 227-239. http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/1997/pdf/1997-v12n04-p227.pdf
- Sfriso P, Ghirardello A, Botsios C, et al. Infections and autoimmunity: the multifaceted relationship. J Leukoc Biol. 2010 Mar;87(3):385-95. http://www.jleukbio.org/content/87/3/385.full.pdf
- Almas K, Al-Sanawi E, Al-Shahrani B. The effect of tongue scraper on mutans streptococci and lactobacilli in patients with caries and periodontal disease. Odontostomatol Trop. 2005;28:5–10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16032940
- Quirynen M, Avontroodt P, Soers C, Zhao H, Pauwels M, van Steenberghe D. Impact of tongue cleansers on microbial load and taste. J Clin Periodontol. 2004;3:506–10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15191584
- University At Buffalo. Researchers Show Chronic Sinusitis Is Immune Disorder; Antifungal Medicine Effective Treatment. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/03/040324072619.htm (accessed March 2, 2014).
- Kern E, Sherris D, Ponikau J, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of chronic rhinosinusitis: focus on intranasal Amphotericin B. Ther Clin Risk Manag. Jun 2007; 3(2): 319–325. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1936313/
- Choudhary TS, Mishra R, Choudhary A. Effect of yoga intervention in chronic rhinosinusitis. International Journal of Bioassays, [S.l.], v. 1, n. 12, p. 214-216, nov. 2012. ISSN 2278-778X. http://www.academia.edu/2515039/EFFECT_OF_YOGA_INTERVENTION_IN_CHRONIC_RHINOSINUSITIS
- Sengupta P. Health impacts of yoga and pranayama: A state-of-the-art review. Int J Prev Med. 2012;3:444–58. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415184/
- Ginde AA, Liu MC, Camargo CA., Jr. Demographic differences and trends of vitamin D insufficiency in the US population, 1988-2004. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169:626–32. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3447083/
Michelle Corey, C.N.W.C., F.M.C., is a Functional Medical Consultant, Wellness Recovery Expert and author.
Michelle cured herself of Hashimoto’s and lupus and has been free of symptoms and antibodies since 2009. For over eight years, she has helped hundreds of people reverse chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions. Her Functional Mind-Body programs are designed to guide people to recover wellness by balancing the core systems of the body through nutrition practices to release stress, letting go of the past, and connecting more fully to a life of spirit.
Michelle studied holistic nutrition at Clayton College of Natural Health and completed a comprehensive 2-year practical program at Academy of Functional Medicine and Genomics. She is Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant and Functional Medical Consultant. She is currently an advisor to the Academy of Functional Medicine and Genomics and the Functional Medical University, and a member of the Institute of Functional Medicine and the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants.
The functional mind-body approach she introduces in her first book, The Thyroid Cure, is a practical, results-based holistic healing program that blends the sciences of functional medicine, psychology, epigenetics and nutrigenomics with the classic principles of detoxification and mind/body awareness.
Michelle works one-on-one with people who suffer from complex autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, and offers Functional Mind-Body healing retreats in beautiful Taos New Mexico.
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