News / Health

Dietary Salt Implicated in Autoimmune Disorders

Jessica Berman
Scientists have implicated dietary salt in the development of autoimmune diseases, which are caused when the body’s naturally protective immune system attacks and destroys healthy tissues and organs.  Some researchers believe the modern diet, including consumption of fast foods, may play a role in the mysterious evolution of these conditions.  

Scientists have identified about 100 genetic variants - mutations that shuffle the genetic material of a living cell - that appear to play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases, including the crippling condition known as multiple sclerosis, or MS.  Evidence shows that these mutations are not inherited, but instead are triggered by an environmental factor.

A previous infection, vitamin D deficiency, smoking and obesity have been identified as potential triggers.  Now, researchers believe dietary salt may also act as a gene-altering trip wire, causing the body’s immune system to begin misdirecting protective T-cells against healthy tissue.

In two papers published this week, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute in Massachusetts describe potential molecular pathways by which salt might induce an autoimmune response.

And in a third paper, researchers at Yale University describe dramatic results when they fed one group of mice a low-salt diet and another group of rodents a diet high in sodium.  All of the mice were bred to develop a disease that mimics MS.

David Hafler is head of the Department of Neurology at Yale. Hafler says the rodents that consumed less salt walked normally but with a limp tail.

“Animals on the high salt were basically paralyzed and couldn’t move around the cage," said Hafler. "So, [it was] a very dramatic difference in the extent of the disease.”

Hafler says researchers stumbled upon the possible salt link while studying the variety of bacteria living in the guts of 100 human subjects, noticing that those who ate at fast food restaurants had high levels of inflammatory T cells in their blood.  Inflammation is a sign of immune system activation, and autoimmune diseases - including MS, type 1 diabetes, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis - have all been on the rise in recent years. Even rates of heart disease, caused by an inflammatory process, have skyrocketed.

Hafler says the genetic variants that contribute to MS and the other autoimmune disorders are not necessarily bad genes.

"But it's a bad interaction between genes and the environment," he said. "And what the study really has demonstrated is that salt is likely or may be one of the environmental factors that was previously unknown."

All three studies on sodium as a potential trigger of autoimmune disorders are published in the journal Nature.

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Music Brings Generations Together

When musicians over the age of 50 headline a rock concert, you expect to see baby boomer fans in the audience. Boomer rock stars have boomer fans. Millennial rock stars have millennial fans. But this isn’t always the case. Take the Lockn’ Music festival which took place in mid-September in rural Arrington, Virginia. Here, Jacquelyn de Phillips discovered two generations of people who are considered quite different in the outside world, spending 4 days together in music-loving harmony.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs