Sodium and Autoimmune Disease: Rubbing Salt in the Wound?
There are two ways in which salt may drive autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type I diabetes, Sjögren’s syndrome, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Millions suffer from asthma attacks triggered by exercise. Within five minutes of starting to exercise, people can get short of breath and start coughing and wheezing such that lung function significantly drops, as you can see at 0:19 in my video Sodium and Autoimmune Disease: Rubbing Salt in the Wound?. On a high-salt diet, however, the attack is even worse, whereas on a low-salt diet, there’s hardly a significant drop in function at all. To figure out why, researchers had the subjects cough up sputum from their lungs and found that those on the high-salt diet had triple the inflammatory cells and up to double the concentration of inflammatory mediators, as you can see at 0:43 in my video. But why? What does salt intake have to do with inflammation? We didn’t know…until now.
“The ‘Western diet,’ high in saturated fatty acids and salt, has long been postulated as one potential…cause for the increasing incidence of autoimmune diseases in developed countries...” The rapidly increasing incidence of autoimmune diseases may be due to an overactivation of immune cells called T helper 17 (Th17) cells. “The development of…multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type I diabetes, Sjögren’s syndrome, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis are all shown to involve Th17-driven inflammation,” and one trigger for the activation of those Th17 cells may be elevated levels of salt in our bloodstream. “The sodium content of processed foods and ‘fast foods’…can be more than 100 times higher in comparison to similar homemade meals.”
And, sodium chloride—salt—appears to drive autoimmune disease by the induction of these disease-causing Th17 cells. It turns out there is a salt-sensing enzyme responsible for triggering the formation of these Th17 cells, as you can see at 2:07 in my video.
Organ damage caused by high-salt diets may also activate another type of inflammatory immune cell. A high-salt diet can overwork the kidneys, starving them of oxygen and triggering inflammation, as you can see at 2:17 in my video. The more salt researchers gave people, the more activation of inflammatory monocyte cells, associated with high-salt intake induced kidney oxygen deficiency. But that study only lasted two weeks. What happens over the long term?
One of the difficulties in doing sodium experiments is that it’s hard to get free-living folks to maintain a specific salt intake. You can do so-called metabolic ward studies, where people are essentially locked in a hospital ward for a few days and their food intake is controlled, but you can’t do that long term—unless you can lock people in a space capsule. Mars520 was a 520-day space flight simulation to see how people might do on the way to Mars and back.
As you can see at 3:17 in my video, the researchers found that those on a high-salt diet “displayed a markedly higher number of monocytes,” which are a type of immune cell you often see increased in settings of chronic inflammation and autoimmune disorders. This may “reveal one of the consequences of excess salt consumption in our everyday lives,” since that so-called high-salt intake may actually just be the average-salt intake. Furthermore, there was an increase in the levels of pro-inflammatory mediators and a decrease in the level of anti-inflammatory mediators, suggesting that a “high-salt diet had a potential to bring about an excessive immune response,” which may damage the immune balance, “resulting in either difficulties on getting rid of inflammation or even an increased risk of autoimmune disease.”
What if you already have an autoimmune disease? In the study titled “Sodium intake is associated with increased disease activity in multiple sclerosis,” researchers followed MS patients for a few years and found that those patients eating more salt had three to four times the exacerbation rate, were three times more likely to develop new MS lesions in their brains, and, on average, had 8 more lesions in their brain—14 lesions compared to 6 in the low-salt group. The next step is to try treating patients with salt reduction to see if they get better. But, since reducing our salt intake is a healthy thing to do anyway, I don’t see why we have to wait.
What about childhood asthma unrelated to exercise? Check out my video How to Treat Asthma with a Low-Salt Diet.
What are some of the most powerful dietary interventions we have for autoimmune disease? See, for example:
• Treating Multiple Sclerosis with the Swank MS Diet • Dietary Treatment of Crohn’s Disease • Why Do Plant-Based Diets Help Rheumatoid Arthritis? • Fighting Lupus with Turmeric: Good as Gold
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:
2012: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death
2013: More Than an Apple a Day
2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food
2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet
2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers
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