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We're a little crazy, about science!

Seafood associated with autoimmune disease

fish

Autoimmunity is one of those great mysteries of the human body. We still aren’t sure what causes it and treating it can be painfully ineffective. Unfortunately my sister knows that one first hand, so here at the labs autoimmunity is a problem close to our heart. While we may not know what causes autoimmunity, a new study suggests one of the greatest risk factors for autoimmunity among women of childbearing age may be associated with exposure to mercury such as through seafood.

The study found that mercury — even at low levels generally considered safe — was associated with autoimmunity. Autoimmune disorders, which cause the body’s immune system to attack healthy cells by mistake, affects nearly 50 million Americans and predominantly women.

“We don’t have a very good sense of why people develop autoimmune disorders,” says lead author Emily Somers, Ph.D., Sc.M.

“A large number of cases are not explained by genetics, so we believe studying environmental factors will help us understand why autoimmunity happens and how we may be able to intervene to improve health outcomes. In our study, exposure to mercury stood out as the main risk factor for autoimmunity.”

Autoimmune disease — which can include such conditions as inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis — is among the 10 leading causes of death among women.

Researchers analyzed data among women ages 16-49 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999-2004. Greater exposure to mercury was associated with a higher rate of autoantibodies, a precursor to autoimmune disease. Most autoimmune diseases are characterized by autoantibodies, proteins made by a person’s immune system when it fails to distinguish between its own tissues and potentially harmful cells.

Many fish consumption recommendations are aimed at pregnant women, those who may become pregnant, nursing moms and young children. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say pregnant women can safely eat up to 12 ounces (340 grams) of seafood a week. Fish such as swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish contain the highest levels of mercury while shrimp, canned light tuna and salmon have lower levels.

Authors note there are many health benefits to seafood, a lean protein packed with vital nutrients. However, the findings provide further evidence that women of reproductive age should be mindful of the type of fish they’re eating.

“The presence of autoantibodies doesn’t necessarily mean they will lead to an autoimmune disease,” Somers said.

“However, we know that autoantibodies are significant predictors of future autoimmune disease, and may predate the symptoms and diagnosis of an autoimmune disease by years.”

“For women of childbearing age, who are at particular risk of developing this type of disease, it may be especially important to keep track of seafood consumption.”

It’s important to note two things:

  1. Correlation is not causation, just because we can correlate two things does not mean it is the cause. However, that said, if you are following autoimmunity for whatever reason — be it pure interest or because it affects your family too — it is good to see where new research is headed. So while it may only be a causal link, it opens up the door for more research.
  2. This is methylmercury, not ethylmercury. They sound the same, but a good comparison is ethyl-alcohol and methyl-alcohol, one will get you drunk the other will kill you. Methylmercury is found in fish and other seafood, it is very toxic because the body cannot process it quickly meaning it has plenty of time to build up your system.

Ethylmercury WAS found in most vaccines, it was used as a preservative and is much safer than its seafood counterpart, the body has a much easier time processing and excreting it. They are NOT comparable just like you would not compare rubbing alcohol to the stuff you drink. Furthermore the concentration of methylmercury in fish is 100’s of times higher than the amount of ethylmercury you would get from all vaccines.

In other words, do not conflate the two since they are two very different things and this research says absolutely nothing about vaccines, autism, or autoimmunity from vaccines. Vaccines are safe and it’s sad that I need to add the qualifier to this research, I know as parents you need to do what is best for your kids, but despite what a select few think, vaccines have been proven safe over and over again.

Sources:
Somers, E., Ganser, M., Warren, J., Basu, N., Wang, L., Zick, S., & Park, S. (2015). Mercury Exposure and Antinuclear Antibodies among Females of Reproductive Age in the United States Environmental Health Perspectives DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1408751

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2 responses

  1. That’s very interesting. However my mother hates seafood and has never eaten seafood in her life and she has an autoimmune disease for which she has to take medication for the rest or her life. So that’s something women can think about concerning whether to eat seafood or not.

    February 10, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    • Definitely, like with most things involving the body there is probably many roads that all lead to the same problem. I’m sorry to hear about your mother, autoimmune diseases are awful all around, my uncle had lupus before he passed and my sister hasn’t quite had hers diagnosed since its probably an orphan disease. In any case thank you for sharing your story.

      February 10, 2015 at 12:40 pm

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