Studies Say Salt Can Trigger Autoimune Diseases

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Multiple groups of scientists have concluded that dietary salt can trigger autoimmune diseases. Their findings follow years of steady increases in the incidence of these kinds of disorders.

The first group, from Yale Medical School, reported that in mice that consume it, salt can both induce and worsen pathogenic immune responses, according to YaleNEWS. Their findings in the journal Nature also suggested that genes previously linked to a number of autoimmune diseases regulate the response.

In the same issue, a team from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School reported on the essential molecular pathway connected to the response to ingesting salt. Researchers from the Broad Institute described the regulatory gene network that controls the response.

Yale researchers and their German colleagues noted that fast food triggered a rise in inflammatory cells. They wondered if a high dietary salt content could cause the destructive cellular response associated with autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis (MS).

Adding salt to the diet of mice caused the manufacture of a kind of T cell already linked to autoimmune disorders. The mice fed salt diets developed an animal model of MS more severe than the standard illness.

The research overall helped experts understand one kind of immune cell, called T helper 17 or Th17, and how it influences the manufacture of other cells associated with the immune system. Now that scientists have identified the role of salt, they need to understand in more detail the development of Th17 cells, considered very pathogenic and pro-inflammatory, to eventually regulate them.

Discovery of salt's role didn't occur earlier, the researchers say, because they examine cells on the basis of salt levels in blood, not in the body tissue where immune cells arrive to battle infections. Human trials to study salt's effect on autoimmune diseases are already in a planning stage.

I have suffered from Crohn's disease since my youth. There is no cure for this inflammatory bowel disease, and an exact Crohn's cause remains elusive, the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America reports. Most experts believe the illness is the result of a combination of a faulty immune response, a genetic predisposition, and unknown environmental factors. Like many Crohn's patients, I take medication to suppress an overactive immune system.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Th17 cells have already been associated with Crohn's disease and many other autoimmune disorders, though scientists have a poor understanding of their role in disease pathology. Researchers believe they lurk in patients' intestines and that it takes little to set them off.

During rushed times when I've eaten a few fast-food meals, my symptoms always worsened. I assumed this was due to the food's relatively high fat content. Maybe not. The premise that salt might trigger autoimmune diseases is enough to more closely watch how much of the mineral I ingest.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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