“You can’t control the virus, but you can control the host (that’s you!).”
— Rob Silverman, DC, CNC, author, Inside-Out Health
With massive action underway to vaccinate the population comes new hope of some end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic. I am hopeful that vaccines will be protective with minimal harm; and that in a reasonable amount of time, more semblance of life as we knew it will reemerge.
Personally, as someone who used to have multiple sclerosis (MS), I am being as cautious as ever, and doing what I can to proactively support my immune system and safeguard my health and wellbeing. I’m keeping my eyes on the research and have been noticing an increasing number of studies that are making the connection between COVID-19 and autoimmune disorders.
Scientists have known for more than a century that infections of all types including viruses like the Herpesvirus family (e.g., Epstein Barr (EBV) and HHV6), fungal infections like Candida albicans, and bacterial infections like Lyme disease and its numerous co-infections are known to trigger autoimmune conditions. Experts also observe that infections are more likely to take root in a host with a weakened immune system.
In my book, Beat Autoimmune, I delve deeply into the infection-autoimmune connection and how by targeting infections and supporting the “terrain” of the host naturally, we can potentially reverse autoimmune processes.
Infection-Autoimmune Mechanism of Action: Cross-Reactivity
It helps to have a high level understanding of how infections can trigger autoimmunity. At a cellular level, our bodies’ tissues are made up of proteins; and those proteins, at a microscopic level, are made up of amino acid sequences. Here’s where it gets crazy. At a molecular level, the infection (antigen) looks identical to the human tissue. Scientists call this molecular mimicry. As an example, it is known that the gluten, an inflammatory protein, when broken down to its smallest amino acid sequence, resembles human tissues including the thyroid, liver, pancreas, muscle, and brain. This is why it is imperative if you have an autoimmune condition or want to prevent one that you avoid gluten.
As with gluten, it turns out that some infectious pathogens, like COVID-19, when broken down to a molecular amino acid sequence level, resemble human tissue. You can imagine what happens next. The immune system, just doing it’s job to protect and defend you against the COVID-19 pathogen, tags the invader (antigen) for destruction and then produces antibodies (missiles) to destroy the tagged invader. Cross-reactivity occurs when the body’s own tissues inadvertently become the target of attack (autoantibodies). As autoantibody levels increase, the autoimmune process is initiated. If the person (the host) is inflammed, meaning the immune system is weakened from fighting other invaders like Candida, parasites, Lyme co-infections, glyphosate, and even chronic stress, it is likely that the individual has a leaky gut and what is referred to as “loss of tolerance,” too.
Mounting research reveals that COVID-19 is not just a one-time nasty virus, but that it can trigger autoimmunity and worsen existing autoimmune conditions.
Studies Link COVID With Autoimmunity:
- Leading autoimmunologist, Aristo Vojdani, PhD, recently published a paper in Frontiers Immunology on the implications between COVID-19 and autoimmunity in which he, his son, Elroy Vojdani, MD, and leading Functional Medicine health expert, Datis Kharrazian, PhD, present research showing that SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) antibodies cross react with numerous human tissues, influencing disease severity, precipitating the onset of autoimmunity in susceptible people, and potentially exacerbating pre-existing autoimmune conditions.1 Reaction of Human Monoclonal Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 Proteins With Tissue Antigens: Implications for Autoimmune Diseases; Vojdani, A. et. al., Front. Immunol., 19 January 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2020.617089
- A large study of 1,700 COVID survivors shows that six months post-COVID hospitalization, 76% still had one of more symptoms, including fatigue, muscle weakness, sleep difficulties, anxiety, and depression. People with autoimmune disorders will be very familiar with this common constellation of symptoms. A note on age: in case you think long-COVID mostly affects the elderly, the average age in this study was 57. 26-month consequences of COVID-19 in patients discharged from hospital: a cohort study; Huang, C. et. al., pub Jan 8, 2021, The Lancet, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32656-8/fulltext
- In a smaller study of 31 people with a recent history of severe COVID and no preexisting autoimmune condition, 44% had a positive ANA (antinuclear antibody) test, a general autoimmune marker commonly observed in lupus and Sjogren’s Syndrome; and 19% had a positive RF (rheumatoid factor) commonly observed in rheumatoid arthritis (RA).3Broadly-targeted autoreactivity is common in severe SARS-CoV-2 Infection, Woodruff, M., et. al., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7739702/
- A recent article called “Autoinflammatory and autoimmune conditions at the crossroad of COVID-19” published in the Journal of Autoimmunity shows a link between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), Kawasaki disease (KD), and Autoimmune hemolytic anemia.4“Autoinflammatory and autoimmune conditions at the crossroad of COVID-19”; Rodriguez, Y., et. al., Journal of Autoimmunity; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896841120301281
There is a chicken-egg situation with autoimmunity and COVID-19. Having an autoimmune disorder increases vulnerability to greater long-term complications from COVID-19; and COVID-19 may trigger autoimmunity in susceptible people.
People with Chronic Health Issues at Far Greater Risk
Most people will survive COVID-19, and the majority of those who get it will experience only mild symptoms. On the other hand, those with chronic health conditions like any of the 150 autoimmune conditions including MS, lupus, RA, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Sjogren’s, and IBD may be ten times more vulnerable to a severe form of COVID-19 illness and a worsening of autoimmune symptoms.
Why I’m Extra Concerned
I’m personally extra concerned about COVID-19. Why? Because I’ve been in the higher risk group and continue to deal with underlying immune system challenges. In 2010, I beat a two-decade course of MS by finding and removing my triggers and healing my gut. Yet, health is not static. You don’t beat an autoimmune condition and that’s the end of the story. No.
Health takes daily work, proactive maintenance, and a courageous commitment to oneself to stay on the healing and prevention path.
I may be more vulnerable to infection than most, because I have the genes — the latent potential — for MS, along with persistent immune system burdens like mycotoxins from recent mold exposure, persistent Lyme disease, and ongoing food sensitivities. This means I need to step up my game and do what I can to safeguard my health and protect my loved ones right now.
How F.I.G.H.T.S.™ Can Help Safeguard Your Health
Immune system experts agree this is a time to help our immune systems function optimally. We can do this by embracing simple, healthy daily lifestyle habits. To help you remember the major root cause categories you can control, I created the mnemonic, F.I.G.H.T.S,™ which stands for Food, Infections, Gut health, Hormone balance, Toxins and Stress.
You can prevent COVID-19 and worse outcomes much in the same way you reverse or prevent autoimmune conditions with F.I.G.H.T.S.™
My clients, readers, and students who are following the F.I.G.H.T.S. framework to beat autoimmune are in a much better position to deal with the COVID-19 threat. There is no secret sauce, no mystery to their success. They are following a proven framework that works time and time again.
The strategies below focus on COVID-19 prevention, not what to do if you get COVID-19. This is not intended as medical advice. My own MS prevention strategies are specific to my healing journey. You may find many of the same strategies apply to you, but remember that healing is individual.
Start with Food
Food is the number one root cause category of autoimmune conditions. On the flip side, people with autoimmune issues often heal 60% to 100% just by changing what they eat. When you eat inflammatory foods, or foods you have developed sensitivities to, your immune system goes on high alert, creating antibodies (missiles) to attack foods (protein molecules) that have breached the gut barrier. When your immune system is distracted by fighting foods, it is not optimized to fight real infections like COVID-19. These are my top 3 immune-strengthening food strategies:
Heal Your Gut
The gut is ground zero for health and disease. It turns out about 75% of the immune system is housed right there in the lining of the gut. A leaky gut and imbalanced microbiome are central to the development of autoimmune conditions; and if our immune systems are impaired, they are less able to fight nasty infections like COVID-19. I tend to my gut with these daily strategies:
Any number of infections can trigger autoimmune conditions; and having an autoimmune condition makes you more susceptible to further infections, especially if you’re taking immunosuppressive medication. Excess inflammation from hidden infections puts your immune system in overdrive, weakening immunity. This is what I’m doing to bolster my defenses against COVID-19 and deal with existing stealthy infections:
Each of us carries a “toxin bucket” into which go all the potential inflammatory factors — think bad F.I.G.H.T.S.™ — that enter or are created as byproducts within our bodies. When the bucket overflows, our bodies buckle under the burden, inflammation increases, our guts become leaky, and we become vulnerable to infections like COVID-19 and autoimmunity. We must proactively minimize what comes into our toxin buckets and reduce what’s already in there. Here are the top things I’m doing to keep my bucket as empty as possible:
There are three types of stress: tame, tolerable and toxic. Tame is the mild form you quickly get over, like taking a cold shower or doing something a little out of your comfort zone. Tolerable is the kind you may feel after a job loss, break up, or death of a loved one. You eventually get over it if you have the resources and support. Toxic stress is unrelenting, chronic, and includes buried emotional trauma from childhood. Ongoing stress is toxic and causes mega inflammation throughout the body, keeping your immune system weak. These are the top ways I address stress today:
Balance Your Hormones
Thankfully, hormone balance usually follows addressing the other F.I.G.H.T.S. factors. As you optimize your diet, heal your gut, clear infections, minimize toxins, and address stress, your hormones should naturally fall into line. As I revealed in my book, Beat Autoimmune, I suffered from the 6 biggest hormonal imbalances in America: low vitamin D, low (hypo) thyroid, low DHEA, high estrogen, high insulin, and high cortisol, so continue to take a more assertive approach. These are my top hormone balancing strategies:
Prevent COVID-19 and Beat Autoimmune with F.I.G.H.T.S.™
For those of us with underlying health conditions, the risk for worse outcomes with COVID-19 is real. The time to take proactive action to safeguard your health is right now.
While this information and the situation itself may be overwhelming, the F.I.G.H.T.S. framework can help you get organized. And whether you address each category one at a time or all at once, doesn’t matter, as long as you get going. As you feel empowered by taking one step forward, you’ll find the motivation to take another, and then another, until the momentum of healthy habits carries you toward a life of vibrant health and wellbeing.
As you get your immune system in good fighting shape, you’ll also be protecting your loved ones and the broader community, and that will help us all get back to normal faster.
Stay safe, stay connected, and take very good care!
p.s. Want my help beating an autoimmune condition and optimizing your immunity? If you live the U.S. and are ready, willing, and able to invest in your best health, I offer Functional Medicine Total Health Transformation Programs over Zoom. I collaborate with a naturopath who is an expert in resolving chronic infections and toxic burdens which are almost always part of the autoimmune puzzle. Together we provide comprehensive, customized treatment plans, and collaborative, caring support. Sign up for a complimentary 15 min discovery call to discuss how we might work together. If you’re truly ready to invest in your best health and life, I’d love to talk with you.
Photo credit: Allef Vinicius