We tend to take it for granted that our bodies are constantly working to protect us – with our immune system standing guard around the clock to defend us against potentially harmful invaders. But what happens when your immune system turns on you – mistakenly flagging your own cells as a threat? And rather than attacking invaders, your immune system goes off the rails and begins attacking you?
This is the scary reality for a growing number of people struggling with autoimmune diseases such as the devastating condition known as multiple sclerosis. So what on earth could cause your immune system to go haywire and begin erroneously attacking your own cells? As it turns out, the answer may lay in a tiny virus that just about all of us have been exposed to at one point or another – the Epstein-Barr virus.
Today we’re going to explore the fascinating link between the Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis. We’ll dive deep into the science behind how this microscopic invader might just be the key to understanding this devastating autoimmune disease. Let’s dive in.
What is the Epstein-Barr Virus and How Do You Get Epstein-Barr?
The Epstein-Barr virus is part of the herpes virus family and is an incredibly common viral invader – with over 90% of the population worldwide having been infected. This virus is spread through saliva and other bodily fluids, so it’s typically transmitted through things like:1
- Sharing a drinking glass or eating utensil
- Sharing a toothbrush
- Sexual activity
- And rarely through blood transfusions or organ transplants
Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus can have a variety of symptoms – ranging from entirely asymptomatic to an active infection known as infectious mononucleosis, or mono. Symptoms may include:2
- Inflamed throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Enlarged spleen
- Swollen liver
While Epstein-Barr virus is generally considered a self-limiting virus that runs its course and clears up on its own, this microscopic invader can sometimes have a much more sinister impact than just a passing viral infection. Research has found that there may be a direct link between Epstein-Barr and the autoimmune condition known as multiple sclerosis.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is an autoimmune disease that affects your brain and spinal cord which make up your central nervous system. In MS, your immune system goes haywire and begins mistakenly attacking the protective sheath, known as your myelin sheath, that serves as an insulating, protective barrier to shield your nerve fibers.3
As your immune system launches attack after attack, your myelin sheath becomes damaged – exposing your nerves and triggering massive inflammation. This continued attack by your immune system and elevated inflammation can cause permanent damage to your nerves – causing them to steadily degrade and deteriorate. This deterioration of your nerve fibers can lead to a slew of devastating and life-altering symptoms such as:4
- Severe fatigue
- Weakness and decreasing mobility
- Tingling or electric shock sensations
- Vision problems and/or loss of vision
- Unsteady gait, lack of coordination, and/or tremors
- Problems with bladder, bowels, or sexual function
- Depression, irritability, mood swings
- Cognitive changes, difficulty concentrating or remembering new information
So how on earth can a tiny virus possibly cause your immune system to run amok and become confused enough to begin attacking your own healthy cells and tissues?
Epstein-Barr Virus and Autoimmune Disease
As it turns out, multiple sclerosis isn’t the only autoimmune disease that’s been linked to the Epstein-Barr virus. This tiny virus has been linked to a multitude of autoimmune diseases ranging from lupus to rheumatoid arthritis. While we still don’t have all of the answers, we do have an idea of how this tiny virus can trigger autoimmunity in a process that goes something like this:5,6
- Invasion of multiple cells: The Epstein-Barr virus is able to infiltrate several cell types, but has an affinity for your epithelial cells (the cells that line your mouth, blood vessels, skin, and organs) and your B cells (a specialized type of immune cell that creates antibodies).
- Viral latency: Once the virus has infected these cells, it’s able to cycle into what’s known as its latent state, where it can lay dormant and evade capture by your immune system. By disguising itself as one of your own cells and hi-jacking your immune-mediating B cells, the virus is able to skillfully dodge your immune system.
- Immune activation: While the virus may be able to hide out in your cells, it still activates the antiviral response within your cells – triggering low-level inflammation as your immune system searches for the sneaky invader.
- Viral reactivation: The Epstein-Barr virus is able to remain dormant within your cells indefinitely and may go through periods of reactivation in which the virus “turns back on” – triggering your immune system and replicating. This means your immune system is essentially in a constant battle with the virus – with the “victory” of your immune system simply consisting of being able to control and suppress the virus into its latent state.
- Cellular manipulation: Epstein-barr’s ability to evade the immune system is in part due to its ability to manipulate the function of the cells it infects. In order to enhance its survival, the virus can alter how your cells function, mimic immune mediators, and even influence whether or not certain genes are expressed. This cellular manipulation can confuse your immune system and even “switch on” certain genes that may promote autoimmunity.
- Immune system burn-out: The constant battle to suppress the virus along with the low levels of inflammation it triggers can sometimes overwhelm the immune system. As your immune system becomes depleted and burned out, it can essentially “go off the rails” causing a confused and overblown immune response that can spur on the development of autoimmunity.
Now that you have a basic understanding of how the Epstein-Barr virus can trigger autoimmunity in some people, let’s take a little deeper look at how this virus has been linked to multiple sclerosis.
Is Epstein-Barr Linked to Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
More and more research is suggesting that the deterioration of the brain and spinal cord seen in MS may be at least partially linked to an immune-mediated response triggered by an underlying viral infection with Epstein-Barr. One of the key findings ushering Epstein-Barr into the spotlight as a direct underlying cause of MS lies in a tiny protein known as EBNA1.
You see, the Epstein-Barr virus employs an array of tricky tactics to evade being captured and eliminated by your immune system – including disguising itself as one of your own cells. One way it pulls off this masterful disguise is by secreting the protein EBNA1 that mimics a protein produced by your brain and spinal cord known as the glial cell adhesion molecule, or GlialCAM.
That means as your immune system works to neutralize and eradicate Epstein-Barr, it flags the viral protein EBNA1 as a threat that must be eliminated. But because EBNA1 so closely resembles GlialCAM produced by your brain and spinal cord, your immune system accidentally flags all of them as a threat. This subsequently leads to your immune system mistakenly launching attacks against your central nervous system right alongside the Epstein-Barr virus.7,8
Treating the Epstein-Barr Virus
Because the Epstein-Barr virus is so adept at making itself at home within our bodies and evading detection by our immune system, there is currently no cure to completely eliminate the virus. So rather than attempting to eradicate and kill EBV, treatment is focused on lulling the virus back to a dormant or latent state. By intentionally shifting the virus’s environment (your body) you can essentially push EBV into a benign state – preventing it from doing any further damage.
To learn more about effective treatment strategies used to address the Epstein-Barr virus, head over and check out my article The Sleeping Giant – Tips to Treat Reactivation of Epstein-Barr Virus.
Have You Been Diagnosed With Multiple Sclerosis?
Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis can be frightening and overwhelming. But the good news is, you are not at the mercy of your diagnosis and you don’t have to face this journey alone. As we gain a deeper understanding of multiple sclerosis and how underlying factors like the Epstein-Barr virus contribute to this devastating disease, the closer we get to a cure.
While we may not have all of the answers, there is an arsenal of tools, tactics, and strategies that you can employ to support your body in healing while slowing or preventing further damage. If you’ve been diagnosed with MS, I strongly encourage you to seek out the guidance of an experienced Functional and Integrative Medicine Doctor to help you address any underlying imbalances and to partner with you in creating a personalized roadmap to optimize your health.
As a functional medicine doctor myself, I’m passionate about educating and supporting my patients and readers in healing the root cause of their symptoms and creating vibrant health from the inside out. So if you enjoyed this article and are looking for more ways to prioritize your well-being, head over and browse through my blog – it’s full of helpful articles just like this to help simplify healthy living. And if you want to take it even deeper, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter by entering your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn about the link between multiple sclerosis and the Epstein-Barr virus? If you’ve been diagnosed with MS, what strategies or treatment tactics have worked best for you? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- Epstein Barr Virus – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)
- Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV): Symptoms, Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment (webmd.com)
- Multiple sclerosis – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic
- MS Symptoms & Signs of MS | National Multiple Sclerosis Society (nationalmssociety.org)
- Frontiers | Epstein-Barr Virus and Systemic Autoimmune Diseases | Immunology (frontiersin.org)
- Epstein-Barr virus and autoimmune diseases | National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- Longitudinal analysis reveals high prevalence of Epstein-Barr virus associated with multiple sclerosis (science.org)
- Study identifies how Epstein-Barr virus triggers multiple sclerosis | News Center | Stanford Medicine
* 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.