Likelihood of MS, Other Autoimmune Disorders in Women Increased By Mercury in Seafood According to Study

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shutterstock_111888158A new study entitled “Mercury Exposure and Antinuclear Antibodies among Females of Reproductive Age in the United States” suggests mercury exposure by seafood may increase the risk of developing autoimmune diseases in women. The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Autoimmune disorders occur when the body’s immune system attacks and damages its own healthy tissues. Females are at a significantly higher risk to suffer from autoimmune disorders when compared to men, as nine females are affected for every one male. Autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis are one of the 10 leading causes of death in women.

Autoimmunity is characterized by the lack of tolerance towards the body’s self-antigens. However, it can exist without clinical symptoms as well, accounting for a pre-clinical immune dysregulation. One of the factors associated with immune dysregulation is exposure to mercury, with mice studies supporting immunotoxic effects caused by mercury exposure (organic and inorganic forms).

A research team from the University of Michigan determined the association between mercury exposure and the presence of antinuclear antibodies (ANA), i.e., antibodies that are produced by the immune system when immune dysregulation occurs. Mercury biomarkers included hair mercury, (indicates predominantly organic [methyl] mercury); total blood mercury (biomarker for both organic and inorganic mercury); and urinary mercury, a marker for inorganic/elemental mercury.

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Researchers analyzed a total of 1,352 women aged between 16 to 49 years old from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey performed from 1999 to 2004. They found that a greater exposure to mercury was associated with higher levels of autoantibodies in females during reproductive ages, with organic (methyl) mercury accounting for the most predominant factor. Importantly, seafood is one of the richest sources for this type of mercury.

The authors highlight that while fish consumption is recommended for pregnant women, they should pay particular attention to the type of fish they consume, as noted by Emily Somers, Ph.D., Sc.M, study leading author, in a press release: “In our study, exposure to mercury stood out as the main risk factor for autoimmunity. The presence of autoantibodies doesn’t necessarily mean they will lead to an autoimmune disease. 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.”

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Patricia holds her Ph.D. in Cell Biology from University Nova de Lisboa, and has served as an author on several research projects and fellowships, as well as major grant applications for European Agencies. She also served as a PhD student research assistant in the Laboratory of Doctor David A. Fidock, Department of Microbiology & Immunology, Columbia University, New York.
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  1. Michael Szostak says:

    In the last graph of this piece you write that “pregnant women should pay particular attention to the type of fish they consume” , and then you add a press-release quote from Emily Somers that doesn’t mention anything about what type of seafood pregnant women should consume. Amazing! Did you miss or did Somers neglect to mention the higher mercury content in fish at the top of the food chain, e.g. swordfish, tuna, shark, seafood that pregnant women and/or women with autoimmune disease should limit or avoid? This issue demands concrete examples. Where were they? From this piece I could conclude, erroneously, that sardines and smelts are significant sources of mercury, which, of course, they are not.

  2. Emily says:

    MS is in the 10 leading causes of death in women?? Where is the research on this? I’ve never heard this said of MS before or now after my diagnosis.

    • Erin says:

      It has to be a generalization of autoimmune diseases. I’ve never read anything related to MS specifically that would cause death.

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