Research Says Salt is Connected to Autoimmune Disorders

A team of New England researchers say sodium is linked to diseases like multiple sclerosis and psoriasis.


Salt photo via Shutterstock.

You probably already knew that the excess salt in that bag of potato chips you’re munching on is a major contributor to health problems like high blood pressure, kidney disease, and weight gain. Unfortunately, research from a slew of New England scientists says there’s yet another reason to watch your sodium intake: the risk of autoimmune disorders.

Research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard, MIT, Yale, and the Broad Institute’s Klarman Cell Observatory says that consuming excess salt puts individuals at a greater risk for autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

The researchers, whose work was published in three related papers in the journal Nature, were originally trying to better understand how T cells, the cells that develop immune responses when infections and foreign pathogens enter the body, function. What they found in the process, though, is that salt is tied to the faulty immune response characteristic of autoimmune disorders, that which makes the body attack itself. A Boston Globe article about the discovery describes the researcher’s findings:

The scientists found an enzyme that, when exposed to salt, causes a regular immune cell to transform into a pathogenic one, spewing out inflammatory proteins that have been linked to autoimmune illnesses. Mice genetically prone to develop a form of multiple sclerosis had more severe disease when fed a high-salt diet, the researchers reported.

Though the research does suggest that cutting back on salt intake could help prevent autoimmune disorders, the Globe article was quick to point out that the research is very new and must be expanded upon, and that autoimmune disorders are an exceedingly complex subset of disease. The report quotes Aviv Regev, a computational biologist at the Broad Institute:

“It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine — a zillion different places where things are controlled, and if any one of those breaks down, it can increase your risk of autoimmune disease,” Regev said. “In order to know what goes wrong, you have to know how it normally functions.”

Though this is a nuanced issue and these findings are only preliminary, we know we’ll think twice before reaching for the table salt.