Chronic Epstein Barr Virus as a Trigger for Autoimmune Disease
An article I recently read by Joseph Cohen (2014) does a great job making the connection between chronic Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and autoimmune disease. I have summarized some of his key points in the bullet points below and added a few of my own thoughts and experiences.
As a traditionally trained Endocrinology expert, I transitioned to a functional medicine based practice about 5 years ago. I can safely say that autoimmune conditions are the top chronic health conditions in my practice, with an estimated 70% of my clients having Hashimotos thyroiditis and many other with multiple autoimmune disorders. Over the past year, I have seen a striking number of individuals with chronic/reactivated Epstein-Barr virus. From my clinical perspective, EBV often co-exists with autoimmune dysfunction.
Our immune system is our body’s natural defense against outside invaders such as bacterial and viruses. The immune system is composed of a complex network of cells that are our “soldiers” on standby to guard us against an external attack. Inflammation, at a lower level, is present at baseline to keep our body in balance. When a foreign invader, such as a virus, breaches our interior environment, our soldiers are deployed and inflammation temporarily increased in an effort to eradicate the offender. Specific white blood cells are released such as; B-cells, which produce antibodies to coordinate the attack, T-cells, which carry out the attack, and signal when the attack should stop. CD8 cells, known as Natural Killer cells, are key cells involved in viral suppression.
In certain circumstances, out immune system can “go rogue” and turn against us, creating a serious threat to our health. The summary below illustrates how EBV impacts our immune system and can be an underlying driver for autoimmune disease.
How EBV Impacts our Immune Response
- CD8 and T-cells are immune cells that inhibit viruses.
- Deficiency of these cells are often associated with many chronic immune disorders, including Hashimotos thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease to name a few.
- Emerging evidence suggest that uncontrolled chronic EBV may be the underlying root cause for CD8 and T-cell dysfunction.
- Chronic EBV infection can trigger B-cells to overreact and produce antibodies to our own tissues such as the thyroid (Hashimotos thyroiditis) and joints (rheumatoid arthritis).
Other Factors Impacting our Immune Response
- CD 8 cells go down as we age, which is part of the reason autoimmunity goes up as we age.
- Estrogen decreases CD8 and T-cells leading to a higher rate of autoimmunity in females.
- Vitamin D/sunlight are critical for CD8 and T-cell production. Multiple studies link low vitamin D and geographic regions with low sunlight to increased autoimmune disease.
- CD8 and T-cells are increased in acute stress states. Chronic stress can reactivate EBV and lead to adrenal stress, which in turn can suppress the TH1 immune system (TH1 system protects us from viral reactivation).
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