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  • Writer's pictureGavin Guard, Medical Director

How a gut infection can lead to chronic health issues

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

Key Takeaways

· Certain bacteria and viruses can contribute to autoimmunity

· Many infections are necessary but not sufficient for developing autoimmunity

· Treating infections can help alleviate autoimmune processes

· Any chronic inflammation worsens autoimmunity

· Genetics are NOT your destiny!

How an gut infection can lead to autoimmunity

An estimated 53 million people in the United States have autoimmunity. In fact, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have an autoimmune condition such as autoimmune thyroid disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Many times, patients are put on aggressive biologic medication. At times, this is necessary to stop the irreversible destruction caused by the autoimmune process. However, wouldn’t it be great if you could identify and fix the contributing factors that are leading to your body attacking itself? What we are going to cover in this article is how an underlying chronic infection may be one source of your autoimmune condition.

Gut bacteria and autoimmunity

A common type bacteria that infects the lining of the stomach is called H. pylori. It is long been known that H. pylori is a leading cause of stomach ulcers. However, recent research has suggested that symptoms of infection go beyond just the gut. Conditions including many autoimmune disease are linked with this infection.

A recent large study examined the association between H. pylori infections and autoimmune thyroid disease. Of the total 862 patients the study looked at, 55% were infected with H. pylori. The study found that those with H. pylori were almost twice as likely to have an autoimmune thyroid disease than the 45% who did not have the infection. Two other earlier studies confirmed that patients with autoimmune thyroid disease have a higher rate of H. pylori infection. The authors proposed that the infection may mimic tissue in the body which leads to the body’s immune system to attack its own tissue.

This information does not clarify whether or not H. pylori leads to autoimmunity or is just associated with it. A recent study helps us answer this question. It looked at 10 patients with confirmed H. pylori infections. The researchers randomly selected 5 patients to get treated for their infection and 5 patients to not get any treatment. They found that the 5 patients who got treated for H. pylori showed significantly lower autoimmune activity against their thyroid . Those who were not treated did not see this improvement. This is not a very big study but it gives some insight that the infection is not only associated with an autoimmune disease but treating the infection leads to improved outcomes.

Viral infection and autoimmunity

Certain viruses have also been implicated in the development of autoimmunity. Specifically, a virus called Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) has been shown to be highly associated with numerous autoimmune conditions.

Interestingly, the later one acquires this infection, the more symptoms it can cause and the more likely it is to contribute to autoimmune disease. This virus has been shown to contain proteins that activates your immune system to attack your own tissue and cause destruction of those cells.

A large study that examined 13 other studies showed that 99.5% of multiple sclerosis (MS) patients had EBV compared to 94% who did not have EBV. That may not seem like much difference but if the person is genetically susceptible to developing MS, they are much more likely to develop MS if they acquire this infection. In another study, up to 99% of children with MS had this EBV infection compared to only ~70% of kids who did not have MS.

In those with lupus, 99% had EBV whereas only 70% of the general population had it. One study pointed out that all children with autoimmune thyroid disease had EBV (compared to 55% who did not have thyroid autoimmunity).

It is important to note that EBV infection is essential to develop many of these autoimmune conditions, but it is not sufficient. What I mean is that it looks like you probably need to acquire this infection to develop autoimmunity, but it does not automatically mean you will have autoimmunity. This points us to the fact that many other environmental factors play a role in autoimmunity and overall health. Factors such as stress, nutrition, exposure to toxins, and other lifestyle habits play a crucial role in who and who doesn’t develop autoimmunity. Remember, genetics are NOT your destiny!

Other gut infections and autoimmunity

It should be pointed out that any source of inflammation can contribute to autoimmunity. In fact, inflammation and autoimmune processes co-activate each other. This means that when there is more inflammation, there is more autoimmunity and vice versa. Factors that can contribute to inflammation includes food sensitivities, chronic stress, blood sugar imbalance, and hormonal imbalance.

A major source of inflammation stems from the gut. That is why I tend to start treating any gut issues in anyone with chronic inflammation and/or autoimmune disease. By fixing the gut, we often can reduce inflammation and get the patient to experience less autoimmune flares.

The Bottom Line

In this article, we uncovered the little-known link between chronic infections and autoimmunity. Not only are these two things associated with one another but by treating and fixing an infection, we can often see improvements in autoimmune conditions.

I hope this article gave you some useful information to chew on. This research shows us a potential root cause to autoimmune conditions and points us to some worthwhile factors to address.

I hope you found this information useful and helpful in your journey back to a healthier and happier life.

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Resources Cited

· Bertalot G, Montresor G, Tampieri M, et al. Decrease in thyroid autoantibodies after eradication of Helicobacter pylori infection. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2004;61(5):650-652. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2265.2004.02137.x

· Doria A, Dayer JM, Punzi L. Autoinflammatory diseases: how to put the fire inside the body out?. Autoimmun Rev. 2012;12(1):1-4. doi:10.1016/j.autrev.2012.07.013

· Lawrence T, Gilroy DW. Chronic inflammation: a failure of resolution?. Int J Exp Pathol. 2007;88(2):85-94. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2613.2006.00507.x

· Pender MP. CD8+ T-Cell Deficiency, Epstein-Barr Virus Infection, Vitamin D Deficiency, and Steps to Autoimmunity: A Unifying Hypothesis. Autoimmune Dis. 2012;2012:189096. doi:10.1155/2012/189096

· Shi WJ, Liu W, Zhou XY, Ye F, Zhang GX. Associations of Helicobacter pylori infection and cytotoxin-associated gene A status with autoimmune thyroid diseases: a meta-analysis. Thyroid. 2013;23(10):1294-1300. doi:10.1089/thy.2012.0630

· Pender MP. CD8+ T-Cell Deficiency, Epstein-Barr Virus Infection, Vitamin D Deficiency, and Steps to Autoimmunity: A Unifying Hypothesis. Autoimmune Dis. 2012;2012:189096. doi:10.1155/2012/189096

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