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Multiple Sclerosis affects more than 130,000 people in the UK. It belongs to a class of chronic illnesses known as autoimmune diseases. These are caused by your immune system mistakenly attacking parts of your body, believing them to be an invader.
Scientists have long wondered what makes the immune system to behave like this. Recent research into a common virus may shed some light on this question in relation to MS. Read on to find out more.
The symptoms of MS are caused by the body’s immune system attacking and damaging the fatty protective covering around the nerves of the brain and the spinal cord. Called the myelin sheath, this helps messages to pass efficiently along nerves. If it’s damaged, communications are delayed or don’t reach their destination.
Depending on which nerves are affected, symptoms of MS vary from person to person. They often include numbness and tingling, especially in the face and extremities, muscle stiffness and spasm, dizziness and balance problems, vision problems, memory issues and fatigue.
Many affected people have episodes of symptoms, subsiding between attacks.
It’s likely an errant immune system is down to a combination of factors. Scientists have long suspected the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), known as herpesvirus 4 as a possible culprit. Other members of this family of viruses are responsible for cold sores, genital herpes and chicken pox.
EBV is one of the most common human viruses. It causes symptoms like fever, fatigue, inflamed throat and swollen lymph nodes. In some cases it can lead to a disease called infectious mononucleosis. Also known as glandular fever or the kissing disease, it’s spread through saliva and is common in teenagers.
After the initial infection, the virus remains in your body in a latent or inactive form. It hijacks white blood cells called B lymphocytes and hides away inside them. Usually, every so often the virus is reactivated.
Scientists had previously discovered people affected by MS had higher levels of antibodies against EBV in their blood 1. But this didn’t prove the virus actually caused MS.
In a recent study 2, researchers examined blood samples from more than ten million young adults in the US military over a 20-year period. They identified those who were diagnosed with MS while they were serving and found the risk of developing MS was 32 times more likely after infection by EBV. This statistic can’t be explained by chance alone. MS risk wasn’t increased after infections with other types of herpes viruses.
MS takes a long time to develop after EBV infection, typically around ten years. Scientists think this may be due to the immune system being stimulated each time the latent virus is reactivated. Eventually, the immune system will be weakened.
Researchers have identified a type of protein in the blood indicating nerve cell damage has occurred. It can be detected several years before the symptoms of MS develop. This substance increased after EBV infection, with no evidence of it beforehand.
It’s estimated as many as 95% of all adults are infected by EBV at some point in their lives. But only a small proportion of these will go on to develop MS, meaning other factors must interact with the virus to affect the immune system.
Some combinations of genes are associated with an increased risk of MS. In the research study mentioned earlier, the scientists found genetics and EBV seemed to work together to increase the susceptibility to MS. However, those with EBV infection and a genetic predisposition didn’t always go on to develop MS. This means the environment must have a huge role to play in causing the genetic tendency to be switched on.
Many factors can cause the latent virus to trigger your immune system to damage your nerves. These include bacterial infections, stress, obesity, and nutrient deficiencies, particularly vitamin D – immune cells need good nutrition. The health of your gut microbiome is important, too, as it teaches your immune cells to distinguish between friend and foe.
Functional medicine treats you as the unique individual you are because no two people’s health journeys are the same. First, it’s important to discover the causes of your symptoms. A simple blood test can detect latent viruses such as EBV. Other tests can assess any nutrient deficiencies, and the health of your digestive system, because the majority of your immune system sits in your gut.
Nutritional, supplement and lifestyle strategies will then be recommended to discourage latent viruses and restore the selectivity of your immune system, preventing it from attacking your nerves.
Are you concerned about the health of your bowel? Why not book a free 15 minute discovery call to see if Functional Medicine is for you.
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