As we step into the second half of 2020, COVID-19 remains a topic of daily conversation. And chances are, anyone you ask can tell you that COVID-19 affects the respiratory system – causing significant, and sometimes life-threatening damage to the lungs.
But research is finding that this virus may be a lot more complicated than that – and may have some longer-lasting effects. As it turns out, COVID-19 might just be capable of triggering your body to wage war against itself. Today we’re going to dive into exactly how viral infections like COVID-19 can potentially trigger autoimmunity and what you can do to protect yourself.
What Exactly Is Autoimmunity?
Your immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, organs, and chemical messengers that all collaborate to protect you. Your immune system defends you against potentially harmful substances like viruses, bacteria, parasites, and toxins. When your body detects a threat, it triggers your immune system to launch an attack in an attempt to target and neutralize the invader. This is also known as the inflammatory response and is your body’s natural defense mechanism.
Normally, your body has no problem differentiating between your own cells and invading germs or irritants. But in autoimmune conditions, your immune system begins to misfire – causing your body to no longer accurately differentiate between “self” and “non-self”. And instead of only launching an attack against foreign invaders, your immune system mistakenly begins attacking your own healthy cells.
There can be multiple factors that contribute to this misfiring of your immune system and this can look different for each individual. But interestingly, research has discovered an underlying trigger that can sometimes lead to autoimmunity – a viral infection.
How a Virus Can Trigger Autoimmune Disease
Viral infections have been linked to triggering autoimmunity through several mechanisms including:1,2,3
- Molecular Mimicry: Certain viruses can “mimic” the structural and chemical features of your own cells. This can confuse your immune system and cause your body to begin creating “self-antigens” – essentially tagging your own cells as foreign invaders. Once tagged, these cells are labeled as a threat and your immune system attempts to neutralize them.
- Epitope Spreading: Antigens are structures on invading pathogens that mark it as an invader. Epitopes are specific protein sequences found on the invading pathogen’s antigens. Your T cells and B cells are designed to seek out, recognize, and bind to the invading pathogen’s epitopes. In epitope spreading, your immune response essentially broadens and your immune cells begin directing their responses to additional proteins, in addition to epitopes – including those on your own cells.
- Bystander Activation: Your T cells and B cells are designed to be specific – meaning they’re programmed to attack only when exposed to a specific antigen(s). But in bystander activation, these immune cells become “activated” without encountering their specific antigens.
A viral infection disrupts immune homeostasis and can send your immune system into a tailspin. Which is one of the reasons researchers are concerned about the long term effects of our current COVID-19 pandemic.
What Is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus, also known more officially as SARC-COV-2.4 When contracted, this virus attaches itself to receptors found in the cells lining your lungs, spleen, and lymphatic system and begins replicating. Once your body is alerted to this viral invasion, it begins deploying immune cells and a cascade of chemical messengers to ramp up your inflammatory response.
In mild cases, your body ramps up your immune system, neutralizes the virus, and then balance is restored – returning your immune system to homeostasis. But in severe and critical cases, the body has an exaggerated response – releasing too many pro-inflammatory chemicals and immune cells too quickly. This overwhelms the tissues (primarily in your lungs) and causes:5
- Massive uncontrolled inflammation
- Oxidative damage on a cellular level
- Injury to the tissues in your lungs – damaging the alveolar-capillary barrier where gas is exchanged in your lungs
This out of control inflammation is what causes severe COVID-19 cases to spiral into respiratory failure. And while respiratory failure is the most immediate potential threat when it comes to COVID-19 cases, research is finding that this virus may have some longer-lasting effects as well.
Autoimmune Disease and COVID-19
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, researchers across the globe have been working tirelessly to understand the virus’s mechanism of action and how we can fight it. And as we learn more about exactly how this virus works, a pattern is beginning to emerge. Researchers are finding that:
- Infection with coronavirus causes an elevation in biomarkers that directly correlate with autoimmunity6
- COVID-19 infection precedes the appearance of several autoinflammatory disorders and immune diseases7
- Following the contraction of COVID-19, there’s been a spike in cases of autoimmune disorders such as:7
- Multisystem inflammatory syndrome (similar to what happens in CIRS after mold exposure)
- Macrophage activation syndrome (a severe complication of rheumatoid arthritis in children)
- Kawasaki disease shock syndrome (intense immune directed inflammation that can cause heart failure)
- Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle)
These findings clearly show that the damage caused by COVID-19 extends far beyond the lungs. And while more research and time is needed to truly identify exactly how COVID-19 and other viral infections may trigger autoimmunity, many researchers speculate that we may be facing a wave of new autoimmune cases in the wake of this pandemic.
Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself from COVID-19 and bolster your immune system against developing autoimmunity.
How Can I Protect Myself From COVID-19?
The best way to protect yourself from potential exposure to coronavirus is to take some simple precautions such as:
- Washing your hands frequently: Use soap and warm water – making sure to scrub all surfaces of your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds. And don’t forget to get under your fingernails!
- Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer: If soap and water aren’t available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can kill any germs that you may have come into contact with. Just remember hand sanitizer isn’t effective if your hands are visibly soiled.
- Regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces: Frequently touched objects or surfaces should be regularly disinfected with cleaning sprays or wipes.
- Staying home and avoiding close contact: If you’re sick or feeling under the weather, stay home to protect yourself and others, and avoid coming into contact with people who are sick.
I’m also a firm believer that knowledge is power – so staying educated and informed is one of the best ways to protect yourself and your loved ones. Here are some of my best resources to keep you up to date amidst this pandemic:
- Worried About Coronavirus? What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself
- Is there a Cure for Coronavirus? The scoop on Chloroquine and other emerging treatments
- Do You Have Lyme Disease? What You Need to Know About COVID-19
- Powerful Ways to Boost Your Immune System as Coronavirus Spreads
While staying informed and taking precautions are important, they are only part of the equation. Protecting yourself from potentially developing autoimmunity requires a multifaceted approach.
How Can I Protect Myself From Autoimmune Disease?
While some people assume that autoimmunity is entirely caused by your genetics, that’s just plain not true. While genetics may make certain individuals more susceptible, the truth is, your lifestyle has a much bigger impact on your likelihood of developing autoimmunity.
When it comes to minimizing your chances of developing an autoimmune disorder, minimizing inflammation and promoting immune homeostasis is the name of the game.
Let’s take a look at some of the most powerful ways you can support your immune system and bolster your defenses against acquiring autoimmunity.
Focus on Gut Health
The beneficial microorganisms that reside in your gut influence your immune system by regulating the cells and chemicals released during the immune response and maintaining the integrity of the lining of your gut – a crucial barrier designed to keep invaders from reaching your bloodstream.8,9
The health of your gut and the health of your immune system are intricately linked. So, focusing on keeping your gut healthy and happy is one of the most potent ways to keep your immune system balanced. If you want to show your gut some love, I recommend:
- Taking a daily probiotic: Regularly introducing beneficial bacteria helps keep your gut balanced and crowds out any “bad” bacteria.
- Taking a collagen supplement: Collagen is chock-full of amino acids that are essential to keeping the lining of your gut healthy and intact.
- Eating an anti-inflammatory diet: Minimize foods (like sugar, refined oils, and processed foods) that increase inflammation. Focus on basing most of your meals around wholesome real food to give your gut the nutrients it needs to stay balanced and healthy.
While your gut health and your diet are pivotal to immune health, there are also a few more factors to take into consideration.
Reduce Your Toxic Burden
We’re all bombarded with environmental toxins on a daily basis. Our bodies are naturally designed to process out potentially harmful compounds through our natural detoxification pathways. The problem arises when your body can no longer keep up with these exposures and toxins begin to accumulate in your body – increasing your overall toxic burden.
An increased toxic burden can stimulate your immune system and disrupt hormonal feedback. This low-level chronic inflammation overworks your immune system – depleting its energy and leaving it with fewer resources to direct at potential threats.
To learn more about how your toxic burden impacts your immune system, head over to my article How to Boost Your Immune System by Reducing Your Toxic Burden.
Take Immune Boosting Supplements
In an ideal world, we would get plenty of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from our diets. But the truth is, thanks to modern farming practices, less than ideal diets and lifestyles, and increasing levels of environmental toxins – most of us simply can’t get all of the necessary nutrients through diet alone. That’s where supplements come in.
Supplements are some of the most powerful tools we have when it comes to keeping your immune system in tip-top shape. Some of my favorite immune-boosting supplements are:
- Glutathione: This powerful antioxidant keeps inflammation levels in check, regulates your immune response, and neutralizes harmful free radicals.
- Vitamin D: This hormone plays a critical role in keeping your immune system running smoothly. In fact, a deficiency in Vitamin D is directly linked to an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disorder.
- N-Acetyl Cysteine: N-Acetyl Cysteine is an amino acid that’s needed to make important antioxidants and has been shown to significantly boost immune function.
To learn more about exactly what supplements will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to supporting your immune system, check out my article Concerned About Your Health? Here Are the Best Immune-Boosting Supplements.
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So, How Concerned Should You Really Be?
Both COVID-19 and autoimmunity are no laughing matter and can have serious implications for your health and life. And more time and research is needed to truly know to what extent COVID-19 is linked to developing autoimmune disorders.
But the good news is, you’re not simply at the mercy of your genes, or the environment, or a virus. When it comes to advocating for your health, you are in the driver’s seat. The choices you make on a daily basis gives you immense power over the state of your health.
That’s why I’m dedicated to bringing you the best resources available – to take some of the confusion and overwhelm out of exactly how you can prioritize your health and well-being. If you want my very best resources and recommendations delivered straight to your inbox, I encourage you to sign up for my free newsletter– all you have to do is type in your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to hear that there may be a link between COVID-19 and autoimmune disorders? What steps are you taking to keep your immune system balanced and running on all cylinders? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.