New Findings with Epstein Barr Virus: The Sleeping Giant

Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

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New Findings with Epstein Barr Virus: The Sleeping Giant
The Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), a HHV-4 herpes virus, is one of the most common viruses found in humans. In most individuals, it has no serious consequences other than a brief, minor, cold-like illness. Normally the virus stays in the body and remains dormant throughout life. For some, this is not the case and may result in serious illness related to EBV later in life. Keeping the immune system energized is integral to prevention.

Infection with the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) is very common. About 50% of children have had an EBV infection by the age of five. By adulthood, 95% of the population has been infected with EBV. Symptoms look like the common cold, i.e. sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, severe fatigue, and fever. A more severe infection can become mononucleosis. After the initial infection, the virus remains in the body for life. In a healthy individual, it does not cause future infections and presents no symptoms. The virus may shed periodically in the saliva, which when transferred to another individual, may cause them to become infected; hence mononucleosis is known as the “kissing disease."

Known Disorders Linked with EBV

Researchers have studied the Epstein Barr Virus for decades. They have been looking at its role in the development of future disease besides its initial presentation of “cold symptoms." They have established a link with many disorders including certain types of cancers such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a wide variety of B-cell lymphomas, some T-cell lymphomas, nose-throat cancer, and some gastric cancers. Researchers have also been looking at lymphoma development in those with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis). They agreed that most lymphomas of the intestinal tract in patients with inflammatory bowel disease were clearly associated with EBV.

The link between multiple sclerosis (MS) and EBV has been under intense research since 1979. There is compelling evidence and several hypotheses showing a connection, but there are conflicting results. Recent research seems to have identified the missing link between EBV and MS. It showed that individuals who had infectious mononucleosis and elevated anti-EBNA-1-IgG titers may have been acted upon by an endogenous retrovirus that activates nerve tissue damage. This means that there may be a hidden virus in the body triggering EBV to attack nerve tissue and leading to the development of MS.

Besides its relation to certain cancers, inflammatory bowel disease pathology, and multiple sclerosis, researchers have identified a number of other diseases correlating with EBV activity. One of the disorders is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Researchers are unsure if EBV is the cause or result of the immune dysfunction associated with CFS/ME. Their findings indicate that some patients who have CFS/ME clearly have chronic, active elevations of EBV. In this case, researchers recommended that patients be tested for reactivity to the serum antibody EBV VCA IgM as a specific diagnostic test to confirm the issue. It is especially important for CFS/ME patients to manage EBV. Research published in Cancer showed an increased risk and prevalence of B cell lymphomas and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

In addition, researchers are studying EBV's relationship to neurodegeneration. This is a developing area of research with very few studies outside the neurological disorder of MS. Recent research shows that elevated EBV antigens may be a risk factor for the cognitive deterioration and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Most likely this finding will provoke a stream of studies for years before coming to a final conclusion, but it certainly catches the eye. It is also known that in certain circumstances of severe, life threatening illness where there has been serious loss of myelin, patients with the highest amount of EBV immune activity developed the highest amount of whole brain, gray matter atrophy and central (thalamic) atrophy.

Risk Factors

There are at least two risk factors associated with how EBV works in the body. There may be more. In the case of MS, low vitamin D status is a risk factor for how the immune system responds to the EBV. Younger individuals (mid-20’s and younger) with low vitamin D status and high antibody reactivity to the EBV showed a much higher likelihood of MS risk and development.

The second risk factor known is the use of glucocorticoids in immune compromised individuals. Using steroids for the management of the illness, actually promoted proliferation of the EBV related illnesses. Due to the immune suppression and resultant increase in EBV activity, the steroids caused a much higher risk of lymphoma development and promoted the increase of certain types of cancers including leukemias and multiple myeloma.

The Good News

Researchers have identified centenarians who have a staunch defense against EBV have optimal zinc levels. The better the zinc status, the more the immune system was able to withstand the effects of oxidative “heat stress” caused by the EBV. Remember that after the initial infection, EBV stays in your body throughout life. It has to be kept dormant, or it can reactivate. The optimal zinc status in the centenarians protected the proteins from EBV heat oxidative stress similar to young subjects. Perhaps this is one way of saying that zinc can help provide the fountain of youth – at least in protecting the body of EBV oxidative related consequences. It is interesting to note that individuals who lack zinc often have a very poor sense of smell. Lack of zinc is a known risk factor for poor brain health and neurodegeneration. In fact, zinc deficiency, causing lack of smell, precedes the development of neurodegeneration by years. It is also noted that many individuals who have a zinc imbalance are at a high risk for the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Hmmm – do we “smell” a connection here between zinc, EBV, and Alzheimer’s. You put the pieces together.

Research published just weeks ago showed amazing results with a simple vitamin that stopped EBV infection and viral replication. This study was done with patients who had active elevated EBV antibodies with a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, mononucleosis, or EBV infection. Very high dose vitamin C and and supportive Vitamin D in the blood stream, was associated with lower levels of viral activity.

Several other nutrients also have been shown to play a remarkable role for immune system fortification against EBV activity and risk for immune stressed patients. Curcumin the spice from turmeric, lactoferrin, a special immune protein extracted from “mother’s first milk" and the sleep hormone/brain antioxidant melatonin are helpful for immune system fortification and support. Astaxanthin, lutein, lauricidin, quercetin, and the selenium protein associated with glutathione (selenoprotein glutathione peroxidase) also show support for the immune system and fighting EBV activity.

EBV activity may be downplayed in mainstream medicine and in infectious disease offices declaring it a benign illness for the general public. Clearly though, something is going on with EBV being a trigger for bigger problems in those who are susceptible. Without a doubt, researchers will continue to debate the chicken and egg response with EBV and other illnesses. Common sense tells us that it is vital to ensure adequate intake of the nutrients discussed in this article to help keep the immune system fortified against this sleeping giant.

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