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How SARS-CoV-2 May Contribute to Autoimmunity

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on August 10, 2023

In recent times, there has been increasing interest in the connection between viral infections and autoimmunity, with SARS-CoV-2 – the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – coming under the spotlight. Autoimmune diseases occur when our immune system mistakenly attacks our body's own cells, mistaking them for foreign invaders. The exact mechanisms linking SARS-CoV-2 to autoimmunity are still under investigation, but early research suggests several possible pathways. Let's dive in. (1)

Molecular Mimicry

One of the most discussed theories in virus-induced autoimmunity is molecular mimicry. In this phenomenon, certain viral proteins are so structurally similar to our body's own proteins that the immune system's attack on the virus can inadvertently damage our own tissues. If SARS-CoV-2 proteins are sufficiently similar to human proteins, the body might mistakenly mount an immune response against itself, even after the virus has been cleared. (2)

Bystander Activation

This mechanism involves the unintentional activation of immune cells in the vicinity of infected cells. When a virus infects our cells, the immune system gets into action, destroying both the virus and the infected cells. However, during this aggressive response, adjacent uninfected cells might also be damaged, leading to the release of self-antigens. These antigens can then potentially trigger an autoimmune reaction. (3)

Viral Persistence

If fragments of the virus remain in the body long after the acute phase of infection, they can act as a continuous trigger for the immune system. The prolonged presence of these viral fragments could then lead to chronic inflammation and potentially drive the development of autoimmune conditions. (4)

Immune System Dysregulation

SARS-CoV-2 is known to cause a hyperinflammatory response in some patients, famously known as the “cytokine storm.” Such a massive, uncontrolled immune response can disrupt the delicate balance of the immune system, possibly leading to a loss of tolerance to self-antigens. (5)

Clinical Observations:

Several reports have emerged linking SARS-CoV-2 infection with new-onset autoimmune diseases. Conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, autoimmune hemolytic anemia, and lupus have been reported in some COVID-19 patients. While these cases are still relatively rare, they highlight the potential link between the virus and autoimmunity. (6, 7)

While the exact relationship between SARS-CoV-2 and autoimmunity is still under scrutiny, preliminary evidence suggests that the virus could play a role in triggering or exacerbating autoimmune conditions in susceptible individuals. As research progresses, it's essential to recognize these links early, allowing for timely intervention and management.

The Importance of Holistic Healthcare in Identifying and Treating Autoimmunity

As the connection between SARS-CoV-2 and potential autoimmune triggers becomes clearer, the role of holistic healthcare becomes even more vital. Working with a licensed or qualified holistic healthcare provider, such as a naturopathic doctor, provides a comprehensive approach to health, integrating both conventional and alternative treatments. These practitioners can offer individualized care, focusing on the whole person rather than just the disease.

By recognizing the early signs and symptoms of autoimmune diseases, holistic healthcare providers can employ a combination of dietary, lifestyle, and herbal interventions, among other treatments, to potentially prevent full-blown onset. This proactive approach not only addresses the physical manifestations of the disease but also considers the emotional, mental, and environmental factors that may contribute to its development. Collaboration with these experts ensures that patients receive well-rounded care, emphasizing prevention and overall well-being.

Resources:

  1. Liu Y, Sawalha AH, Lu Q. COVID-19 and autoimmune diseases. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2021 Mar 1;33(2):155-162. doi: 10.1097/BOR.0000000000000776. PMID: 33332890; PMCID: PMC7880581.
  2. Vahabi M, Ghazanfari T, Sepehrnia S. Molecular mimicry, hyperactive immune system, and SARS-COV-2 are three prerequisites of the autoimmune disease triangle following COVID-19 infection. Int Immunopharmacol. 2022 Nov;112:109183. doi: 10.1016/j.intimp.2022.109183. Epub 2022 Aug 22. PMID: 36182877; PMCID: PMC9393178.
  3. Mobasheri L, Nasirpour MH, Masoumi E, Azarnaminy AF, Jafari M, Esmaeili SA. SARS-CoV-2 triggering autoimmune diseases. Cytokine. 2022 Jun;154:155873. doi: 10.1016/j.cyto.2022.155873. Epub 2022 Apr 5. PMID: 35461172; PMCID: PMC8979824.
  4. Chang R, Yen-Ting Chen T, Wang SI, Hung YM, Chen HY, Wei CJ. Risk of autoimmune diseases in patients with COVID-19: A retrospective cohort study. EClinicalMedicine. 2023 Feb;56:101783. doi: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2022.101783. Epub 2023 Jan 10. PMID: 36643619; PMCID: PMC9830133.
  5. Jamal M, Bangash HI, Habiba M, Lei Y, Xie T, Sun J, Wei Z, Hong Z, Shao L, Zhang Q. Immune dysregulation and system pathology in COVID-19. Virulence. 2021 Dec;12(1):918-936. doi: 10.1080/21505594.2021.1898790. PMID: 33757410; PMCID: PMC7993139.
  6. FERNANDES M, NWACHUKWU I. GUILLAIN-BARRÉ SYNDROME AND HEMOLYSIS IN COVID-19. Chest. 2021 Oct;160(4):A443. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2021.07.436. Epub 2021 Oct 11. PMCID: PMC8503462.
  7. Ramachandran L, Dontaraju VS, Troyer J, Sahota J. New onset systemic lupus erythematosus after COVID-19 infection: a case report. AME Case Rep. 2022 Apr 25;6:14. doi: 10.21037/acr-21-55. PMID: 35475008; PMCID: PMC9010314.

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