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COVID-19 and Autoimmunity: What You Need to Know

covid-19 and autoimmunity

We know that people over the age of 60 and those with “compromised” immune systems have an increased risk of complications if exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. 

While everyone should remain vigilant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, new information has come to light that’s of particular interest to those of us with autoimmunity. I want to bring you up-to-date to ensure you have all the information available on COVID-19 and autoimmunity to help you take control of your health.

Contracting COVID-19 if You Have an Autoimmune Disease

If you suspect you have COVID-19, take the standard precautions I outline here. Remember, as I mentioned in this article, those with autoimmunity are not necessarily more prone to contracting the virus. 

However, anyone who takes immunosuppressant drugs and/or corticosteroids, including people with autoimmunity, can be at greater risk for infection from COVID-19.

COVID-19 Symptoms in Those with Autoimmune Disease

It is likely that individuals on immunosuppressive therapy — including those with autoimmune disease — who develop COVID-19 may not exhibit a fever. This is because corticosteroids and immunosuppressive therapies lessen the activation of the immune cells which are responsible for a fever. 

If you are on one of these therapies to control your autoimmune condition, I recommend you stay aware of the other symptoms of COVID-19 in addition to fever including:

  • Body aches
  • Cough 
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Headache 
  • Lack of taste or smell
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Red lesions on toes or feet
  • Runny nose or congestion

Does COVID-19 Cause Autoimmune Disease?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 illness, is primarily composed of proteins that are similar to those in your own body. In fact, there is only one — nucleocapsid phosphoprotein — that is NOT similar. One-third of the similar proteins are ones that are actively engaged in your immune system.

All but one of the viral proteins are similar to ones in your body, and one- third are like those in your immune system.

Regardless of your autoimmune status, to fight a virus, your immune system breaks it down into smaller parts. Those parts are the individual proteins. Your body develops an immune response to those individual proteins so that it can fight them if it encounters them again.

Unfortunately, because nearly all of this virus’s proteins are like the ones already in our bodies — and in particular, to ones that are important in immune function — our immune system can be easily fooled into attacking our existing proteins, leading to autoimmune disease.1 

Scientists are finding evidence of autoimmune responses in those who died of COVID-19.  Autopsies of Chinese patients who died from COVID-19 showed evidence of pulmonary fibrosis,2 or lung scarring.

This may be due to an immune system malfunction such as that which occurs in autoimmune disease. As scientists “map” the SARS-CoV-2 gene list to get a better understanding of this virus, their findings are revealing that many functions of the immune system could be affected by this virus.

What Are Cytokines and Cytokine Storms?

Most of the cells in your body can secrete something called cytokines. Cytokines are proteins, peptides (short chains of amino acids), or glycoproteins (another class of protein) that serve as chemical messengers between cells. 

More specifically, there are pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines which are classified as chemokines, interferons, interleukins, lymphokines, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Each of these different cytokines perform different functions including regulating immunity (and autoimmune disease), inflammation, homeostasis (stability), and blood cell production.3  

Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) are examples of pro-inflammatory cytokines. People with autoimmune conditions often have abnormally high levels of these particular cytokines. They don’t have enough of the anti-inflammatory cytokines to call off the pro-inflammatory cytokines. These people are likely already subjected to unusually high levels of inflammation due to an existing autoimmune condition.

Normally, cytokines are like a tactical unit deployed for a specific mission that withdraws when the battle is won. A “cytokine storm” is an uncontrolled surge of a very large amount of cytokines in the body at once.4 Instead of an army under strict orders, a cytokine storm is like an angry mob that wreaks havoc on anything in its path.

What is a Cytokine Storm and what does it have to do with Covid-19 and Autoimmunity? - Infographic - Amy Myers MD®

What Is the Relationship Between Cytokines, Cytokine Storms, Autoimmunity, and COVID-19?

Cytokine storms can occur with autoimmune diseases and during certain kinds of cancer treatments. They also may be the result of an infection, especially a virus like the one that causes COVID-19. Some researchers suspect a possible genetic defect may be a contributing factor in cytokine storms. This may explain why the virus presents with mild symptoms in about 80% of people, yet others with COVID-19 may quickly become very ill.

The most damage from COVID-19 may be the result of a rogue, or autoimmune, response to the infection rather than from the actual disease itself.

One of the hallmarks of COVID-19 is that the virus that causes it replicates very quickly in the cells of infected individuals. When infected with a foreign entity it can’t fight, a cell kills itself to prevent the spread to other cells. Certain cytokines trigger this cell death.

When this happens in mass quantity, a significant amount of tissue can die. With COVID-19 this often takes place in the lungs causing severe pneumonia. It also occurs in blood vessels. This can result in multi-organ failure and death.

Many of the patients with more severe cases of COVID-19 are presenting with high levels of cytokines — as much as 50 times higher than people who had Zika and West Nile viruses.5 A study of 191 COVID-19 patients found that higher levels of the cytokine IL-6 were linked to the risk of death from the disease.6 

Which Autoimmune Conditions Are at a Higher Risk of a COVID-19 Related Cytokine Storm?

This cytokine storm brought on by COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for those with any lung disease or autoimmune lung disease such as:

  • Diabetes
    Those with diabetes —type 1 which is formally recognized as an autoimmune disease and type 2 which researchers are suggesting as reclassing from an autoimmune disease to a metabolic disease, are at an increased risk of serious complications and death with COVID-19, in part because of the link between glucose metabolism and cytokine storms. 7
  • Lupus
    Unlike many autoimmune diseases that attack a particular system, lupus affects several systems simultaneously. The respiratory system is often involved and because COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory illness those with lupus are in a high-risk group.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
    Although primarily an autoimmune disease of the joints, it can also impact lung function by causing inflammation there. Because COVID-19 affects the lungs, those with RA, one of the most common autoimmune diseases, could be at greater risk of complications.
  • Scleroderma
    In addition to causing hardening of the skin, this autoimmune disease can also affect internal organs including lung tissue where COVID-19 symptoms are often concentrated.

What’s the Relationship between a COVID-19 Vaccine and Autoimmunity?

Researchers are hard at work on the difficult task of creating a successful vaccine. When a vaccine works as it should, it helps you create antibodies to a virus. It doesn’t keep you from contracting a virus, it keeps you from getting sick if you do encounter it. This is because your body already knows what to do if the virus enters your body. This is called “immune priming.”8

Remember when I said earlier that many of the virus’s proteins are similar to the proteins used in our own immune systems? That’s a critical factor in developing a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Because of the similarities between the proteins of SARS-CoV-2 and your body’s own immune proteins, subsequent exposure to proteins from the virus after vaccination may cause an autoimmune reaction.

This happens through something called “pathogenic priming.” This occurs through an autoimmune reaction due to prolonged, unresolved exposure of the immune system to SARS-CoV-2 proteins. This sets people up for more severe illness either from virus exposure to viral proteins via infection or from a vaccine, 

And we know that people with one autoimmune disease have at least a 25% chance of developing another autoimmune disorder. You can learn more about autoimmune disease in my best-selling book, The Autoimmune Solution.

So the danger that researchers must avoid is that the insertion of the virus’s proteins into your body could cause your body to attack the similar cells in your body, not the virus.

That’s what has happened with vaccines developed for SARS and MERS, two coronaviruses very closely related to SARS-CoV-2. So far, all the vaccines for these viruses failed in animal trials because of this autoimmune response. The trials resulted in high amounts of antibodies. Yet when the animals were exposed to the virus, they developed serious autoimmune reactions — some lethal. 

No vaccine for either of these coronaviruses has made it out of clinical trials because of autoimmunity. In fact, no vaccine has ever been developed for any coronavirus.

RNA Viruses, Vaccines, and Autoimmunity

Another reason that developing a vaccine is so challenging is that SARS-CoV-2, like MERS and SARS, is an RNA virus. One thing ALL viruses have in common is that they must enter a host cell to replicate. DNA viruses first transcribe their DNA into RNA to form viral proteins. RNA viruses do not need that transcription process.9 

RNA viruses, however, can become something called a retrovirus. They can actually convert their RNA genome into DNA. This DNA is then integrated into the host cell during infection.The host cell considers this new piece of DNA as its own genome, making an actual chromosome change.10 Again, in the case of an autoimmune reaction to a virus, any cell with this new DNA could be at risk.

An RNA retrovirus can actually cause a chromosomal change.

If this happens to a sperm or an egg cell, this change will be passed down. Possibly this could result in illness, however some researchers think there could be a silver lining. These endogenous retroviruses, or EVRs (ones that are passed down), can’t produce new viruses. Instead, what they may be able to do is become a part of our innate immune system, which is “preprogrammed” to protect us against all kinds of invaders.

What Can You Do about COVID-19 if You Have Autoimmune Disease?

During this COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to have a healthy, fully functioning immune system. If you have an autoimmune disease, the good news is that you can reverse your symptoms! By following The Myers Way®, you can take back your health, and significantly decrease your susceptibility to this coronavirus. Whether you have a full-blown autoimmune disease or not, now is the time to enhance your nutrient-dense diet with immune-boosting supplements. 

I recommend my Immune Support Kit, which contains three powerful supplements to boost your immune function.

Liposomal Vitamin C

My Liposomal Vitamin C comes in a breakthrough oral liquid micelle form, containing Vitamin C bound to beneficial fatty acids for maximum absorption and bioavailability. A powerful antioxidant, Vitamin C prevents oxidative damage to cells and tissues, while actively supporting the cellular immune response.

Probiotic Capsules 100 Billion

I also included my best selling Probiotic Capsules 100 Billion to support your gut health, which is so important because 80% of your immune system is located there. I chose 14 of the most important strains, and made absolutely sure that there were enough viable CFUs (Colony Forming Units) in each capsule to support maximum digestive health and immune function.

Vitamin D3/K2

I round out this powerful triad with Vitamin D3/K2 Liquid. Your body needs adequate Vitamin D to produce immune-supportive proteins that allow your immune system to function optimally. Yet it’s very possible that your Vitamin D levels are suboptimal if you (like so many of us!) have been spending a lot of time indoors. 

For those of us with autoimmune conditions, especially those who take immunosuppressive medications or have a chronic disease such as lupus, it’s even more important to remain vigilant against COVID-19. Continue practicing social distancing, wear a mask, and wash your hands thoroughly and often. Keep a close eye on any symptoms that might indicate you have COVID-19 because those of us with autoimmune conditions may not present with typical, more severe symptoms like a high fever.

Remember, you can take control of your health regardless of whether you have an autoimmune condition! Optimizing your immune response with my convenient Immune Support Kit is a great way to help ensure your immune system is in the best possible condition.

Immune Support Kit - Promo Image - Amy Myers MD®

Article Sources

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2589909020300186
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7142689/
  3. https://facty.com/anatomy/immune-system-anatomy/what-are-cytokines/3/
  4. https://www.sinobiological.com/resource/cytokines/cytokine-function
  5. https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20200417/cytokine-storms-may-be-fueling-some-covid-deaths
  6. https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2930566-3
  7. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/discovered-metabolic-mechanism-of-cytokine-storms–67424
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3479815/
  9. https://study.com/academy/answer/what-is-the-difference-between-rna-viruses-dna-viruses-and-retroviruses.html
  10. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=5344

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