COVID-19 Increases Autoimmune Disease Risk

A January 2023 study by German researchers suggests that your risk of developing an autoimmune disease is increased after catching COVID-19.

The study included over 38 million participants, approximately 640,000 of whom had contracted the COVID-19 virus, and the remainder being the control group. The study examined the likelihood that an individual would develop one of 30 autoimmune diseases after being infected with COVID-19.

The results of the study found that after being diagnosed with COVID, patients were 43% more likely to go on to develop an autoimmune disease. The most common autoimmune diseases that developed post-infection were: Rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, Graves’ disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Study participants who had contracted COVID-19 were also more likely to develop, but to a lesser extent, one of: psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, alopecia, and vitiligo.

Study participants who already had an autoimmune disease faced a 23% increased risk of developing an additional autoimmune condition after COVID-19 infection, as compared to those who didn’t get the virus.

This German study adds to the body of research being conducted about COVID-19’s lasting impact on health outcomes. ‘Long COVID’, as it’s been called, can result in neurological problems, breathing difficulty, cardiovascular issues, digestive problems, and more. Now, autoimmune disease may be another outcome to add to the ever-growing list of long COVID health issues.

The results from this German research study on the connection between autoimmune disease and COVID-19 infection shouldn’t be a surprise. The risk of developing autoimmunity after a viral infection has been well documented in the past, such as the connection between the Epstein-Barr virus and autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis. It’s believed that through a process called molecular mimicry, viruses are able to deflect attacks from the host’s immune system, by confusing immune cells, and causing them to target healthy tissues instead.

COVID-19 patients have anecdotally shared their experiences battling autoimmune conditions after an initial coronavirus infection. Famed singer and musician Christopher Cross, for example, spoke out about his battle with Guillain-Barre syndrome after being infected. Children were also shown to be developing a condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MICS) after getting COVID, which often proved to be worse than the virus itself.

For more information on COVID-19 and autoimmune disease, check out this blog post on COVID-19 vaccination and products that may help in your battle against COVID if you’ve already caught the virus.

Celine Dion Reveals Stiff Person Syndrome Diagnosis

Celine Dion performing in Las Vegas

Celine Dion performing during her Las Vegas residency. Image courtesy of CNN.

Decorated Canadian singer-songwriter Celine Dion reveals she was recently diagnosed with a rare neurological autoimmune disorder called Stiff Person Syndrome. The diagnosis has lead her to cancel her summer 2023 shows, as well as re-schedule others to 2024.

According to Yale Medicine, Stiff Person Syndrome is believed to be an autoimmune reaction that occurs when the body’s own immune system attacks and destroys a vital protein called Glutamic Acid Decarboxylase (GAD). This protein is responsible for making a substance called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps to regulate motor neuron cells, and ensure they’re not over-active.

People with low levels of GABA have neurons that continuously fire, even when they’re not supposed to. This results in debilitating symptoms like violent muscle spasms, muscle stiffening in the torso and limbs, and difficulty with walking and movement. GABA also helps to regulate symptoms of depression and anxiety, so those with Stiff Person Syndrome are at a higher risk for developing these mental health conditions.

The 54-year-old Grammy award-winning artist has said that the condition has had a profound impact on her life, commenting: “Unfortunately, these spasms affect every aspect of my daily life, sometimes causing difficulties when I walk and not allowing me to use my vocal cords to sing the way I’m used to.”

Getting diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome can be a challenge, since the symptoms can mimic many other neurological health conditions, like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, and more. Patients typically undergo a thorough examination, such as blood tests and spinal fluid tests, to find elevated levels of anti-GAD antibodies, in order to get diagnosed.

Being diagnosed was not a straightforward process for Dion herself. “While we’re still learning about this rare condition, we now know this is what’s been causing all of the spasms that I’ve been having,” she said.

Although anyone can develop Stiff Person Syndrome, the National Organization for Rare Disorders reports that adults ages 30 to 60 are most commonly diagnosed with the condition. The condition is considered rare, with only one in a million individuals being diagnosed with SPS among the general population.

There is no cure for Stiff Person Syndrome, but treatments like steroids to control inflammation, plus the use of sedatives and muscle relaxants to control muscle spasms, can help. Sometimes Stiff Person Syndrome patients are also prescribed immunotherapies to help calm an over-active immune system that’s destroying their GAD proteins.

In an emotional video on her Instagram, Dion said, “I’m working hard with my sports medicine therapist every day to build back my strength and my ability to perform again. But I have to admit it’s been a struggle.”

To learn more about Stiff Person Syndrome, visit the SPS Research Foundation’s website.

Study Finds Link Between Dairy Consumption and Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Is there a link between cow's milk and autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis (MS)?
Could there be a link between the consumption of dairy products and multiple sclerosis (MS)? A new study from the University of Bonn sheds light on that question. Image courtesy of Health Europa.

A new study from the University of Bonn in Germany has revealed a link between the consumption of dairy products and multiple sclerosis (MS), reports Science Daily.

The researcher who led the study, Stefanie Kürten, a professor or neuroanatomy at the University Hospital Bonn, is considered to be an expert on MS, an autoimmune disease that often has debilitating and disabling symptoms. Kürten says it was her patients themselves that prompted her theory that there could be a link between the consumption of dairy products and MS symptoms.

“We hear again and again from sufferers that they feel worse when they consume milk, cottage cheese, or yogurt,” Kürten explained. “[So] we injected mice with different proteins from cow’s milk. We wanted to find out if there was a protein that they were responding to with symptoms of disease,” she said.

The myelin sheath of healthy mice who do not have demyelinating disease, as shown under a microscope.
In healthy mice, the myelin sheath (black) fits snugly as a compact layer around nerve fibers. Image courtesy of Prof. Kürten/the University of Bonn.

Her team’s research had some interesting results: when they administered the cow’s milk protein casein to mice, together with an effect enhancer, the mice went on to develop neurological disorders. A microscopic look at the mice’s nerve fibers showed damage to the myelin sheath, which is the insulating layer that gets damaged by the body’s immune response in patients with MS.

Rittika Chunder, a postdoctoral fellow in Professor Kürten’s research team, explains: “We suspected that the reason [for the damage] was a misdirected immune response, similar to that seen in MS patients.” “The body’s defenses actually attack the casein, but in the process they also destroy proteins involved in the formation of myelin.”

The myelin sheath of mice injected with casein is looser, as shown under a microscope.
In mice injected with casein, the structure of the myelin sheath loosens, and sometimes is missing altogether. Image courtesy of Prof. Kürten/the University of Bonn.

So why would one’s body attack the casein, the protein found in milk, to begin with? The researchers theorize that presumably, the multiple sclerosis patients studied developed an allergy to casein at some point in their lives as a result of consuming milk. Then, the immune system mistook a protein called MAG, which is important for myelin production, with casein.

“We compared casein to different molecules that are important for myelin production,” Chunder explained. “In the process, we came across a protein called MAG. It looks markedly similar to casein in some respects – so much so that antibodies to casein were also active against MAG in the lab animals.”

So, if you have MS, should you avoid milk and other dairy products altogether? Not necessarily, say the researchers, as this only affects MS patients who are allergic to cow’s milk casein.

“We are currently developing a self-test with which affected individuals can check whether they carry corresponding antibodies,” said Kürten. “At least this subgroup should refrain from consuming milk, yogurt, or cottage cheese.”

Another multiple sclerosis study out of Harvard University has pointed to the Epstein-Barr virus being the trigger for the demyelinating autoimmune disease. And, the MS Society of Canada has published vitamin D recommendations, due to the link between vitamin D deficiency and MS, demonstrating that there isn’t necessarily one catch-all cause of MS.

Still, Kürten’s research has opened an interesting conversation for further studies related to the link between diet and autoimmune disease – and many leading physicians and scientists believe that there is, in fact, a link. Dr. Terry Wahls, a physician who has MS herself, published a book called The Wahls Protocol about how she used Paleo eating principals to put her MS symptoms into remission.

For all of our readers with multiple sclerosis: what do you think about the new research about the link between dairy and MS? Do you follow a certain diet to control your MS symptoms? Let us know in the comments below!