While in medical school, Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, was at the center of a family drama that created the kind of stress that led his immune system to falter. Jacob developed what he calls "the drop-dead flu," which he thinks may have been infectious mononucleosis, caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
The flu or EBV in turn triggered a host of debilitating and long-lasting inflammatory disorders including fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
Toréa Rodriguez's Hashimoto's thyroiditis may have been triggered by a succession of stressful events, including the unexpected death of her mother and a serious bicycle accident. Toréa didn't completely heal until she cleared a host of gut infections, including Helicobacter pylori, clostridium and giardia.
Renowned autoimmunologist Aristo Vojdani, PhD, believes his mother's devastating rheumatoid arthritis was triggered decades earlier after oral surgery caused her severe case of gingivitis, the common gum infection, to enter her bloodstream.
Dr Vojdani is confident his mother would have avoided the arthritis had the gingivitis been treated with antibiotics prior to surgery.
Not all infections lead to an autoimmune disorder, but these examples highlight the synergistic nature of infections and autoimmune conditions. An increasing number of studies reveal that chronic infections from bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi may be the primary environmental trigger for autoimmune disorders.
Likewise, many healthcare practitioners who treat autoimmune conditions have observed that a hidden infection frequently precedes the initial autoimmune attack or appears opportunistically once the immune system is weakened. An autoimmune healing program that lacks a plan to clear infections may be incomplete.
Consider the following compelling evidence of the close relationship between infections and autoimmune disorders:
• One study found that 70 percent of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome had an active human herpesvirus (HHV-6) infection, in contrast to 20 percent of healthy controls.1
• In a test of 114 people, a bacterium called Prevotella copri was present in the gut of 75 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis, compared to only 21 percent of healthy control subjects.2
• One study found a 40-fold increase in the viral load of EBV—commonly experienced as mononucleosis or 'mono' —in people with lupus in comparison to healthy controls.3
• A study looking at the prevalence of antibodies (evidence of exposure) to Yersinia enterocolitica, a food-borne infection, found it was 14 times higher in people with Hashimoto's thyroiditis than in control groups.4
• A longitudinal study determined that the strongest known risk factor for multiple sclerosis is infection with EBV. Compared with healthy controls, the hazard of developing MS is approximately 15 times higher among individuals infected with EBV in childhood, and about 30 timeshigher among those infected with EBV in adolescence or later in life.5
More than 90 percent of adults have some form of herpesvirus, but only 20 percent develop an autoimmune condition. So, if infections are common but autoimmune conditions less so, why are some people grievously affected while others remain unscathed? It all comes down to the health of the immune system.
The pathway to problems: a malfunctioning immune system
Our immune system is our armed force, responsible for protecting us from harmful invaders. When it functions properly, we are resilient against infections like the common cold and even Lyme disease.
But with inflammatory lifestyle factors like a diet of simple carbohydrates and sugars, refined grains, poor sleep, minimal movement, excess stress and environmental toxins, our immune system gets run down and doesn't operate optimally.
Our modern lifestyles often overburden the immune system, making us more prone to immune dysfunction, infections and autoimmune conditions.
A malfunctioning immune system is fertile ground for infections. And once your immune system mounts a reaction to an infection, it produces a huge amount of inflammation, which creates a prime environment for autoimmune conditions to emerge or worsen.
Women are more vulnerable to the consequences of infections than men. Women's bodies mount a faster and stronger immune attack to clear infections—and the resulting inflammation that floods their systems increases their risk of autoimmune issues.6
Beyond gender, the following factors weaken immunity, and in combination, they increase the risk of infections and autoimmune conditions:
Inflammation: Sources of inflammation include processed, refined and fried foods, nutritional deficiencies, poor sleep, lack of exercise, toxicants, chronic stress and, of course, infections.
Insulin resistance: People who are insulin resistant, prediabetic and diabetic are more prone to infections.
Imbalanced hormones: Hormonal surges like those that occur during puberty, pregnancy, perimenopause, menopause, thyroid dysfunction, insulin resistance and estrogen dominance (an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone levels) create a fertile environment for infections.
Hypometabolism: Aging, an underactive thyroid and/or a heavy toxic load can cause a slow (hypo-) metabolism, which weakens your immune response, lowers your core body temperature and makes you more vulnerable to all types of infection.
How infections lead to an autoimmune attack
Molecular mimicry is one of the most common ways an infection triggers an autoimmune response. As the name suggests, molecular mimicry occurs whenever foreign proteins from infectious agents, toxins or even foods share a similar or identical structure to human tissue.
For example, the common foodborne bacterial infection Yersinia enterocolitica has the same molecular protein sequence as thyroid tissue, so when the immune system goes after the Yersinia, it also inadvertently attacks the thyroid.
The molecular structure of Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes the fairly common strep infection, looks like the heart tissue myosin and can lead to autoimmune heart disease, and many viruses including coxsackie B, rubella and herpesvirus mimic pancreatic islet cells and can result in type 1 diabetes.
The good news is that there are many simple ways to help your immune system recover its strength. As you improve your metabolism and adopt healthy lifestyle habits, you'll shift your terrain for the better, and your immune system can often eliminate—or at least reduce the magnitude of—persistent infections on its own. When you proactively work to clear infections, you take a critical step in reversing and preventing autoimmune conditions.
What can you do to clear or prevent infections?
It may be tempting to think that eliminating an infection will resolve your autoimmune condition, but attacking the infection alone does not address the underlying reasons your immune system was unable to fend off the infection in the first place.
The key to recovery from infections is to strengthen the resistance of the host.
To strengthen resistance, you must get your immune system in good fighting shape. That entails addressing all root causes associated with the autoimmune condition, which I call F.I.G.H.T.S.™ This acronym stands for food, infections, gut health, hormone balance, toxins and stress.
This comprehensive mind-body-spirit strategy reduces inflammation, revs your metabolism and optimizes your immune system—making your body an inhospitable place for infections and a welcome environment for optimal health.
The healthy lifestyle practices below, all part of a strong F.I.G.H.T.S. offensive, make it easier and more efficient for your body to defend against infections.
Raise your metabolism
People with autoimmune conditions typically suffer from a sluggish metabolism—a depleted energy state called hypometabolism, with symptoms that include fatigue, feeling cold all the time and an inability to lose weight despite their best efforts.
To assess whether or not you are hypometabolic, take your temperature over the next five days. If your temperature is lower than 98.0°F (37°C) five mornings in a row, you may be hypometabolic.
A hypometabolic state not only decreases your vitality, it decreases the robustness of your immune system and leaves you more vulnerable to infections.
To clear infections, you can assist your body in cranking up your natural energy production with the following techniques. Your goal is to raise your temperature closer to 98.0°F (37°C) upon waking.
Breathe deeply, slowly and intentionally several times per day. Conscious breathing is one of the easiest and simplest ways to raise your metabolism and relax at the same time.
Give it a try: Take 10 conscious breaths with a 1-4-2 ratio: inhale for four seconds, hold for 16 seconds and exhale for eight seconds. Find cues to remember to breathe, like when you wake up, while you're walking or before you go to sleep. Do three rounds of 10 breaths a few times daily.
Use red lights from sundown to sunrise. Standard artificial lights emit a blue wave spectrum, which, if you are exposed in the evening and early morning, suppresses melatonin, harming your circadian rhythm and keeping you in a hypometabolic state.7
Give it a try: Replace your bedside lamp with a red LED bulb and get a red nightlight for bathroom use; install the free light-dimming software F.lux on your electronic devices (www.justgetflux.com), wear "blue blocker," amber-colored glasses like those made by Uvex or Solar Shield at home in the evening, and make it a ritual to get some morning sun soon after waking.
Practice intermittent fasting. Studies confirm that going without food periodically has numerous health benefits like improving insulin sensitivity, boosting metabolism and energy levels, and reducing the risk of and even helping to reverse diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune conditions and Alzheimer's.8
Give it a try: To ease into fasting, allow 15 hours between dinner and breakfast (that means zero calories) a few times per week. Or try skipping dinner a few times a week and only eat breakfast and lunch. As you get used to it, experiment with longer fasts like 17, 20 or 24 hours, or even periodic five-day water fasts for greater benefits.
Exercise, especially the following three types, can have both short- and long-term effects on your metabolism:
- Resistance training with heavy weights produces active muscle tissue, which is more metabolically active than fat, helping you burn more calories even at rest.
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and high-intensity interval resistance training (HIRT), like fast circuits at the gym, are efficient ways to rev up your metabolism.
- Moderate cardio on an empty stomach, for example first thing in the morning, has been shown to offer superior metabolic effects than exercising after eating.9
Give it a try: Follow Dr Izumi Tabata's 12-minute HIIT protocol, performing 20 seconds of all-out effort (e.g., sprint, high step, jumping jacks) and then resting for 10 seconds. Repeat eight times, and you're done! You can find four- and 10-minute Tabata workouts for beginners on YouTube.
Take cold showers routinely to help boost your metabolism. Like fasting, cold water immersion has a "hermetic" effect—meaning a little bit of stress is beneficial. Not only does cold water force your body to work harder to keep you warm, thereby burning more calories, it also activates healthy brown fat, which helps to eliminate harmful adipose (white) fat.
Give it a try: Alternate 20 seconds of hot and 20 seconds of cold water in the shower for a few minutes. Or, if you have access to a body of cold water like an unheated pool or a chilly stream, ocean or lake, take a cold plunge as often as possible.
Unburden your immune system
Your immune system is your most powerful curative system—when it's working properly. A well-functioning immune system is balanced and resilient, fending off infections as needed, not overreacting to foods and other harmless environmental factors like pollen or attacking your own body in an autoimmune response.
An underactive or poorly functioning immune system increases your susceptibility to disease, like colds, fungal infections and cancer, while an overactive immune system produces too much inflammation in the body and is prone to hyperactive reactions like allergies and autoimmune conditions.
Years of chronic, low-level inflammation from a poor diet, ongoing stress, lack of (or too much) exercise and a heavy load of environmental toxins can cause your immune system to become imbalanced—tipping to under- or overactive.
The good news is that the body has an innate regenerative ability, and your immune system can be nudged toward balance within days or weeks simply by removing sources of inflammation and adopting nourishing lifestyle habits like the ones listed here:
- Remove processed foods, sugar and starchy carbs. Microbes love sugar; your immune system does not. Studies show that sugar in all forms (glucose, fructose and sucrose) suppresses immune function for five hours after eating it.10 A Paleo-based diet is ideal for nourishing you and not infectious microbes.
Add immune-enhancing foods.
- Garlic and ginger offer powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties—even against drug-resistant pathogens.11
- Coconut oil can control the fungal pathogen Candida albicans.12
- Curcumin, the yellow-orange pigment from the turmeric root, has been shown to modulate the immune system and improve autoimmune conditions.13
- Fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi, are antimicrobial and immune-enhancing.14
- Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is supported by evidence from more than 148 studies showing that it may alleviate or prevent infections caused by viruses, bacteria and other pathogens.
Suggested daily dosage: 2,000-5,000 mg vitamin C (ideally corn-free) per day in divided doses, with or without food.
- Vitamin D3 has been shown to modulate the immune system and protect against infections and autoimmune conditions. Get your D levels tested twice a year and aim for levels of 70-100 ng/mL to heal from or prevent autoimmune conditions. D3 is most beneficial when taken the same day as vitamin K2 to help get calcium into the right places, like your bones, and not into the wrong places, like your arteries.
Suggested daily dosage: 5,000-10,000 IU vitamin D3 in the morning, along with 100-200 mcg/day vitamin K2 with dinner.
- Zinc is an essential element that supports immune function and infection resistance, and correcting zinc deficiencies may improve symptoms of autoimmune and other diseases.
Suggested daily dosage: Take 30 mg zinc per day with food—either at one time or in divided doses—along with 2 mg copper to balance the zinc dose.
- Probiotics like Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Saccharomyces species have been found to have a beneficial, modulating effect on the immune system.
Suggested daily dosage: 50 to 100 billion CFU (colony forming units) per day. Many probiotics are best taken on an empty stomach. Follow directions on the bottle.
- Move more. They say, "sitting is the new smoking," and science is backing that up. A review of 18 studies found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease and had a greater risk of death compared to those who sat the least.15
Moderate daily exercise, as in 40 minutes of walking most days, reduces systemic inflammation and the incidence of upper respiratory illness.16 Because sitting for two hours can undo 20 minutes of exercise benefits, make sure you stand and move throughout the day.
- Minimize stress. Chronic stress, like living with chronic illness, unemployment or caring for a sick relative, has negative effects on almost all functional measures of the immune system. Do your best to eliminate unnecessary stressors and find healthy ways to relax, like soaking in a hot Epsom salts bath, laughing and slow, conscious breathing, which has been proven to reduce stress and lower inflammation.
- Get restorative sleep. Fewer than six hours of sleep per night suppresses immune function, turns on inflammatory genes and increases the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Eight or more hours may be ideal for anyone with a chronic health condition.
Common infection groups causing autoimmunity
The infectious families most commonly associated with autoimmune disorders include:
• Any of more than eight types of herpesvirus including Epstein-Barr virus
• Mycoplasma bacteria
• Chlamydophila pneumoniae (also known as chlamydia, a bacterial infection)
• Lyme disease spirochetes and co-infections (bacterial infections)
• Gastrointestinal infections including Helicobacter pylori (bacterial), Candida albicans (yeast) and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth
• Oral infections like gingivitis (bacterial gum inflammation), periodontitis (bacterial gum disease) and cavitations (bacterial infections in the jawbone following tooth extraction or root canals)
Which infections trigger particular diseases?
Below are some of the typical infections associated with the most common autoimmune disorders. If your autoimmune condition is not listed, do your own research by searching online for "[your autoimmune condition] and infections" to learn which specific infections may be linked to your condition.
You may need to share this information with your doctor, or it may be a good opportunity to find and work with a holistic practitioner who is skilled in this arena.
Alzheimer's disease: Lyme-causing Borrelia burgdorferi, Helicobacter pylori, chlamydia, cytomegalovirus (CMV), human herpesvirus (HHV)-1, Porphyromonas gingivalis and other oral infections
Celiac disease: Adenovirus, enterovirus, hepatitis C virus, rotavirus and reovirus
Crohn's disease: Yersinia enterocolitica, Campylobacter jejuni, Escherichia coli
Inflammatory bowel disease: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), Klebsiella pneumoniae, Candida albicans and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
Grave's disease: H. pylori, EBV, Y. enterocolitica, HHV-6 and HHV-7, parvovirus B19, Enterobacter, C. jejuni
Hashimoto's thyroiditis: Y. enterocolitica, EBV, HHV-6, H. pylori, parvovirus B19, SIBO, hepatitis C virus, B. burgdorferi, Blastocystis hominis (protozoal parasite) and C. albicans
Lupus: Ureaplasma urealyticum and Mycoplasma hominis, EBV, CMV, parvovirus B19, hepatitis C virus
Multiple sclerosis: B. burgdorferi, chlamydia, EBV, HHV-6, rubella virus, influenza virus, human papilloma virus and measles virus
Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome/fibromyalgia: B. burgdorferi, Mycoplasma, HHV-6, EBV, CMV
Psoriasis: Streptococcus pyogenes, latent tuberculosis infection
Rheumatoid arthritis: B. burgdorferi, EBV, hepatitis C virus, E. coli, Citrobacter, K. pneumoniae, Proteus, parvovirus B19, Mycoplasma, P. gingivalis and other oral infections
Sjogren's syndrome: EBV
Type 1 diabetes mellitus: CMV, coxsackievirus B4, mumps virus and rubella virus
Infections are a complicated arena, especially if you're dealing with overlapping issues like heavy metals, Lyme disease and mold illness.
While you can order many tests on your own, I urge you to find and work with an experienced holistic practitioner who can help you determine the right tests, design and prioritize a comprehensive treatment plan and support you through the process.
- For gut infections, consider getting a comprehensive stool test like GI-Map™ from Diagnostic Solutions (www.diagnosticsolutionslab.com) or GI Effects® from Genova Diagnostics (www.gdx.net)
- For viral infections, most standard labs like Labcorp (www.labcorp.com) and Quest (www.questdiagnostics.com) offer comprehensive viral panels.
- If you suspect Lyme and related co-infections, find a Lyme-literate physician at LymeDisease.org (www.lymedisease.org) or the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (www.ilads.org).
- To make sure you get the most accurate lab test results, consider more advanced Lyme testing through DNA Connexions (www.dnaconnexions.com), IGeneX (www.igenex.com) or Fry Laboratories (www.frylabs.com).
Consider herbal antimicrobials
Once you've strengthened your defenses and uncovered any underlying infections (see box, left), you're on your way to healing. Natural remedies with broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects such as these are safe and effective for infections of all types and can be used in conjunction with antibiotics.
Unlike antibiotics, herbal remedies do not disrupt the gut microbiome, and microbes rarely develop resistance to them. Work with a trusted holistic healthcare practitioner to determine the best dosages for you.
Monolaurin. A natural compound found in coconut oil, monolaurin has been shown to have antiviral, antibacterial, antiparasitic and antifungal properties. A review of research on monolaurin indicates that it is an effective therapy against lipid (fat)-coated bacteria, including H. pylori, Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus agalactiae; and lipid-coated viruses including herpesviruses, influenza, HIV and measles.17
Oregano extract. Oil of Mediterranean oregano (Origanum vulgare) has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antiparasitic and antifungal effects. It has proven to be more effective against yeast infections than the commonly prescribed antifungal drug fluconazole (Diflucan).18
Olive leaf. Olive leaf (Olea europaea) extract has shown activity against numerous microorganisms, including the common cold and influenza viruses and the bacteria C. jejuni, H. pylori and methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA).19
Wormwood, one of the most bitter of all plants, has antiparasitic properties and is frequently used in conjunction with clove and black walnut extract to eliminate intestinal worms, especially pinworms and roundworms. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium L.) also has antimalarial, antibacterial and antifungal properties. A clinical trial found that an herbal preparation including wormwood may be as good or better than prescription medications for treating small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).20
Berberine, a yellow compound found in several plants including goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium), barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and Chinese goldthread (Coptis chinensis), is antibacterial, antiviral, antiparasitic and antifungal. It is often used to treat all sorts of infections in the gastrointestinal system. Berberine has exhibited antiviral effects on the influenza virus both in test-tube studies and in flu patients.21
Silver. Hippocrates first described its antimicrobial properties for wound healing in 400 BC. Today, silver is used to safely treat infections on its own, or it can enhance the effect of antibiotics against gram-negative (often antibiotic-resistant) bacteria called "super bugs."22
To clear stubborn infections
If you have already dialed in your diet, healed your gut and addressed infections with the help of an experienced practitioner, and you are still not making progress, you may want to consider these adjunctive therapies:
Address oral infections. Many holistic doctors assert that people don't heal unless they clear oral infections, even if the infections are asymptomatic. Find a biological (also called holistic) dentist near you at The International Academy of Biological Dentistry and Medicine (IABDM) website (www.iabdm.org), and inquire about getting a cone beam CT 3D scan of your mouth to identify potential areas of infection.
Consider hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) for chronic Lyme disease.HBOT is a medical treatment that uses 100 percent oxygen at controlled pressure, as in 60 feet below sea level, for 60 to 90 minutes. The Lyme bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, is an anaerobe, meaning it thrives without oxygen, and conversely, it cannot survive in an oxygen-rich environment. Additionally, Lyme spirochetes often hide in biofilms, making the infection particularly resistant to antibiotic and herbal remedies. HBOT can penetrate biofilms, especially in combination with a biofilm-busting drug like Alinia (nitazoxinide), which is often prescribed for protozoal (single-celled organism) infections.
One study demonstrated compelling findings: 85 percent of 66 patients with persistent Lyme either experienced partial or complete elimination of Lyme symptoms after undergoing a series of about 22 hour-long HBOT sessions.1