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Salt in diet may be sabotaging human immune system, study suggests

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 7th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The common household seasoning of salt may in fact activate a part of the immune system that can target the body. These are the findings of a group of scientists recently published in the journal Nature.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Early laboratory findings suggest that the body's defense against infection can go wrong in a big way, turning on the body and possibly contributing to autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Genetics is thought to increase the risk of such diseases, but lifestyle choices may also play an important part. One of the leading theories behind multiple sclerosis is viral infection. Smoking and a lack of vitamin D may make the condition more likely.

Some scientists think they have found the first evidence that the amount of salt in our diet may also be contributing to the diseases. Researchers at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard were investigating a part of the immune system that has been implicated in autoimmune diseases.

An analysis of the complicated chemistry needed to form a T-helper 17 cell, which involved carefully monitoring cells and reverse engineering the changes identified a critical, if familiar gene.

"Its day job is to increase salt uptake in the gut," Dr. Vijay Kuchroo from Brigham and Women's Hospital says. "When we put extra salt in the culture dish it was one of those 'A-ha' moments, the cells were becoming T-helper 17 cells."

It was found that mice fed a high-salt diet were more likely to develop a disease similar to MS in experiments. Researchers at Yale University in the meantime were also investigating salt and looking at human cells.

"In mouse models of MS, those fed high-salt diets had significantly worse disease," Professor David Hafler of Yale University told the BBC.

"We were all really quite surprised to see how changes in dietary salt could have such a profound effect."

Studies are now taking place in people with high blood pressure, also thought by some to be caused by high salt intake, to see if there is a link between salt and autoimmune diseases in people.

"All we can do is bring the current state of knowledge to the public, we have absolutely no recommendations, there's always a gap between scientific discovery and translation to the clinic," Dr. Aviv Regev, from the Broad Institute, said.

Professor Hafler added that a low salt-diet was, however, unlikely to cause harm.

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