Scientists Officially Link Processed Foods To Autoimmune Disease


The modern diet of processed foods, takeaways and microwave meals could be to blame for a sharp increase in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, including alopecia, asthma and eczema.

A team of scientists from Yale University in the U.S and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, in Germany, say junk food diets could be partly to blame.

‘This study is the first to indicate that excess refined and processed salt may be one of the environmental factors driving the increased incidence of autoimmune diseases,’ they said.

Junk foods at fast food restaurants as well as processed foods at grocery retailers represent the largest sources of sodium intake from refined salts.


The Canadian Medical Association Journal sent out an international team of researchers to compare the salt content of 2,124 items from fast food establishments such as Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Subway. They found that the average salt content varied between companies and between the same products sold in different countries.

U.S. fast foods are often more than twice as salt-laden as those of other countries. While government-led public health campaigns and legislation efforts have reduced refined salt levels in many countries, the U.S. government has been reluctant to press the issue. That’s left fast-food companies free to go salt crazy, says Norm Campbell, M.D., one of the study authors and a blood-pressure specialist at the University of Calgary.

Many low-fat foods rely on salt–and lots of it–for their flavor. One packet of KFC’s Marzetti Light Italian Dressing might only have 15 calories and 0.5 grams fat, but it also has 510 mg sodium–about 1.5 times as much as one Original Recipe chicken drumstick. (Feel like you’re having too much of a good thing? You probably are.

Bread is the No. 1 source of refined salt consumption in the American diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just one 6-inch Roasted Garlic loaf from Subway–just the bread, no meat, no cheeses, no nothing–has 1,260 mg sodium, about as much as 14 strips of bacon.

How Refined Salt Causes Autoimmune Disease

The team from Yale University studied the role of T helper cells in the body. These activate and ‘help’ other cells to fight dangerous pathogens such as bacteria or viruses and battle infections. Previous research suggests that a subset of these cells – known as Th17 cells – also play an important role in the development of autoimmune diseases.

In the latest study, scientists discovered that exposing these cells in a lab to a table salt solution made them act more ‘aggressively.’

They found that mice fed a diet high in refined salts saw a dramatic increase in the number of Th17 cells in their nervous systems that promoted inflammation.

They were also more likely to develop a severe form of a disease associated with multiple sclerosis in humans.

The scientists then conducted a closer examination of these effects at a molecular level.

Laboratory tests revealed that salt exposure increased the levels of cytokines released by Th17 cells 10 times more than usual. Cytokines are proteins used to pass messages between cells.

Study co-author Ralf Linker, from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, said: ‘These findings are an important contribution to the understanding of multiple sclerosis and may offer new targets for a better treatment of the disease, for which at present there is no cure.’

It develops when the immune system mistakes the myelin that surrounds the nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord for a foreign body.

It strips the myelin off the nerves fibres, which disrupts messages passed between the brain and body causing problems with speech, vision and balance.

Another of the study’s authors, Professor David Hafler, from Yale University, said that nature had clearly not intended for the immune system to attack its host body, so he expected that an external factor was playing a part.

He said: ‘These are not diseases of bad genes alone or diseases caused by the environment, but diseases of a bad interaction between genes and the environment.

 ‘Humans were genetically selected for conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, where there was no salt. It’s one of the reasons that having a particular gene may make African Americans much more sensitive to salt.

‘Today, Western diets all have high salt content and that has led to increase in hypertension and perhaps autoimmune disease as well.’

The team next plan to study the role that Th17 cells play in autoimmune conditions that affect the skin.

‘It would be interesting to find out if patients with psoriasis can alleviate their symptoms by reducing their salt intake,’ they said.

‘However, the development of autoimmune diseases is a very complex process which depends on many genetic and environmental factors.’

Stick to Good Salts

Refined, processed and bleached salts are the problem. Salt is critical to our health and is the most readily available nonmetallic mineral in the world. Our bodies are not designed to processed refined sodium chloride since it has no nutritional value. However, when a salt is filled with dozens of minerals such as in rose-coloured crystals of Himalayan rock salt or the grey texture of Celtic salt, our bodies benefit tremendously for their incorporation into our diet.

“These mineral salts are identical to the elements of which our bodies have been built and were originally found in the primal ocean from where life originated,” argues Dr Barbara Hendel, researcher and co-author of Water & Salt, The Essence of Life. “We have salty tears and salty perspiration. The chemical and mineral composition of our blood and body fluids are similar to sea water. From the beginning of life, as unborn babies, we are encased in a sack of salty fluid.”

“In water, salt dissolves into mineral ions,” explains Dr Hendel. “These conduct electrical nerve impulses that drive muscle movement and thought processes. Just the simple act of drinking a glass of water requires millions of instructions that come from mineral ions. They’re also needed to balance PH levels in the body.”

Mineral salts, she says, are healthy because they give your body the variety of mineral ions needed to balance its functions, remain healthy and heal. These healing properties have long been recognised in central Europe. At Wieliczka in Poland, a hospital has been carved in a salt mountain. Asthmatics and patients with lung disease and allergies find that breathing air in the saline underground chambers helps improve symptoms in 90 per cent of cases.

Dr Hendel believes too few minerals, rather than too much salt, may be to blame for health problems. It’s a view that is echoed by other academics such as David McCarron, of Oregon Health Sciences University in the US.

He says salt has always been part of the human diet, but what has changed is the mineral content of our food. Instead of eating food high in minerals, such as nuts, fruit and vegetables, people are filling themselves up with “mineral empty” processed food and fizzy drinks.

Study Source: This is the result of a study conducted by Dr. Markus Kleinewietfeld, Prof. David Hafler (both Yale University, New Haven and the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, and Harvard University, USA), PD Dr. Ralf Linker (Dept. of Neurology, University Hospital Erlangen), Professor Jens Titze (Vanderbilt University and Friedrich-Alexander-Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg, FAU, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg) and Professor Dominik N. Muller (Experimental and Clinical Research Center, ECRC, a joint cooperation between the Max-Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine, MDC, Berlin, and the Charite — Universitatsmedizin Berlin and FAU) (Nature, doi:*. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks healthy tissue instead of fighting pathogens.

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.

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  • Kathleen Moltz

    This headline is very misleading!

    The actual article, published in Nature, 2013, says that high salt _solutions_ in the lab cause mouse cells and human cells in lab solution to activate T-helper cells which react incorrectly. “microarray analysis of naïve CD4 T cells differentiated in the presence or absence of high-salt”. In vivo (meaning in the animal) studies of a model of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), an animal model for multiple sclerosis (MS), showed worsening of the mouse model. The actual article concludes:

    Do these data indicate that increased salt intake is the long sought-after environmental factor associated with the epidemic of autoimmune disease? While these data present an attractive HYPOTHESIS, the direct causality of salt intake and incidence of autoimmune disease are yet to be demonstrated.

    Clinical trials would be needed.

    Additionally there is NOTHING about processed versus “natural” celtic or himalayan ‘healthy’ salts. That is a sales pitch!

    Read the actual science people!

    Actual article abstract:
    There has been a marked increase in the incidence of autoimmune diseases in the past half-century. Although the underlying genetic basis of this class of diseases has recently been elucidated, implicating predominantly immune-response genes1, changes in environmental factors must ultimately be driving this increase. The newly identified population of interleukin (IL)-17-producing CD4+ helper T cells (TH17 cells) has a pivotal role in autoimmune diseases2. Pathogenic IL-23-dependent TH17 cells have been shown to be critical for the development of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), an animal model for multiple sclerosis, and genetic risk factors associated with multiple sclerosis are related to the IL-23–TH17 pathway1, 2. However, little is known about the environmental factors that directly influence TH17 cells. Here we show that increased salt (sodium chloride, NaCl) concentrations found locally under physiological conditions in vivo markedly boost the induction of murine and human TH17 cells. High-salt conditions activate the p38/MAPK pathway involving nuclear factor of activated T cells 5 (NFAT5; also called TONEBP) and serum/glucocorticoid-regulated kinase 1 (SGK1) during cytokine-induced TH17 polarization. Gene silencing or chemical inhibition of p38/MAPK, NFAT5 or SGK1 abrogates the high-salt-induced TH17 cell development. The TH17 cells generated under high-salt conditions display a highly pathogenic and stable phenotype characterized by the upregulation of the pro-inflammatory cytokines GM-CSF, TNF-α and IL-2. Moreover, mice fed with a high-salt diet develop a more severe form of EAE, in line with augmented central nervous system infiltrating and peripherally induced antigen-specific TH17 cells. Thus, increased dietary salt intake might represent an environmental risk factor for the development of autoimmune diseases through the induction of pathogenic TH17 cells.

  • Laura ZZ

    I’m thinking that the salt that’s the bigger problem is glyphosate salt. I eat mostly unrefined foods and vegetables with Real salt (similar to pink Himalayan, which is not actually the most recommended salt), and my psoriasis has not decreased so far. I tend to get low blood pressure if I don’t get enough salt.

  • MDBritt

    May I suggest that you stick to what the scientists are actually saying and avoid the temptation to turn it into a profit-making opportunity for your favorite “alternative” food? It hardly seems wise for someone aspiring to practice Dharma to do otherwise.

    This piece, for example, was reasonable until it got to the “sodium chloride has no nutritional value” and began pushing Himalayan rock salt, etc. The problem is that you have it exactly backward: a small amount of sodium chloride is indeed necessary for a variety of bodily functions while the “dozens of minerals” found in Himalayan or Celtic rock salt may or may not be of value given the nutritional status of the user and the actual mineral in question. Also, you *must* be misquoting Dr. Hafler when you say that there is “no salt” in sub-saharan Africa. That is just, quite simply, wrong. Maybe he made a comment about the greater levels of salt sensitivity in African-American populations?

    Anyway, when you then go into talk about salt “dissolving into mineral ions” and “conducting electrical nerve impulses” it is clear that your understanding of biochemistry could use a bit of work and you should avoid the temptation to advice people on nutrition. The primary element used by the nervous system, for example, is calcium, not sodium or chlorine.

  • Wow. All those ‘smart’ scientists finally ‘figured it out’. Gold stars and a pat on the back. Sigh.

  • Anna

    Really? A sales pitch? Buy Himalayan salt people, that way you too can be cured from autoimmune disease… April McCarthy did you even read the study? I can see that we all need to pay the fee to get access to the full article, so all I’m able to read is the abstract. Why don’t you purchase access and share it with us, because I would like to see what particular brand of Himalayan salt they are recommending 😉

  • Chris Lozano

    It’s one of the reasons that having a particular gene may make African Americans much more sensitive to salt.

    hmm…. so thats why I don’t see Black people at McDonalds… riiiight…
    you might want to go back and double check your facts sir.

  • madmusk

    “I tend to get low blood pressure if I don’t get enough salt.”

    Yeah, we all do. The human body needs sodium to maintain a normal BP. All this low-salt diet BS has people passing out because they are avoiding an essential human nutrient.

  • Blablathingy

    Awesome information – thanks for the clarification!

  • swedelady13

    My husband had psoriasis and got it into remission with magnesium and vitamin B6. Just before he died (from a hospital acquired infection) he had been scratching his lower leg again, and he said he had ran out of B6. He took both of these supplements for around 15 yrs and as long as he did it was OK. He also stopped passing kidney stones too. I first heard about this from a newletter we used to get from Dr Julian Whitakaker. I probably would not have believed it, but I saw it with my own two eyes….it was like the psoriasis went dormant, and at one time it was spreading to other parts of his body. BTW I need salt to keep BP up, too.

  • swedelady13

    The big food companies are interested not in your health, but in the bottom line. I try my best to eat the foods that occur naturally in nature and avoid the factory made variety. It’s interesting that other countries use half the salt in foods that we do? I believe that heavy salt is in the food to cover up inferior ingredients.