Should I lay off from salt?

There has been a marked increase in the incidence of autoimmune diseases in the last half-century. While the underlying genetic basis of this class of diseases has recently been elucidated implicating predominantly immune response genes, 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) plays a pivotal role in autoimmune diseases. 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 (MS), and genetic risk factors associated with MS are related to the IL23/Th17 pathway. However, little is known regarding 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 dramatically boost the induction of murine and human Th17 cells. High-salt conditions activate the p38/MAPK pathway involving the tonicity-responsive enhancer binding protein (TonEBP/NFAT5) and the 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 display a highly pathogenic and stable phenotype characterized by the up-regulation of the pro-inflammatory cytokines GM-CSF, TNFα 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.

T helper 17 cells (Th17) are a subset of pro-inflammatory T helper cells defined by their production of interleukin 17 (IL-17). They are related to T regulatory cells and the signals that cause Th17s to differentiate actually inhibit Treg differentiation. However, Th17s are developmentally distinct from Th1 and Th2 lineages. Th17 cells play an important role in maintaining mucosal barriers and contributing to pathogen clearance at mucosal surfaces, but they have also been implicated in autoimmune and inflammatory disorders. The loss of Th17 cell populations at mucosal surfaces has been linked to chronic inflammation and microbial translocation.

Th17 cells, particularly auto-specific Th17 cells, are associated with autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis.

The active form of vitamin D has been found to ‘severely impair’ production of the IL-17 and IL-17F cytokines by Th17 cells.

On another study the functions of T helper 17 (Th17) and regulatory T (Treg) cells were found to be tightly orchestrated through independent differentiation pathways that are involved in the secretion of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines induced by high-salt diet. Such diets diet result in in decreased Th17 cells and reciprocally increased Treg cells, leading to a decreased Th17/Treg ratio

Blood oxygen level-dependent magnetic resonance imaging (BOLD-MRI) observed hypoxia in the renal medulla (increased R2* signal) during high-salt loading, which was regressed to its baseline level in a step-down fashion during low-salt feeding.

Underlying cellular mechanism of high-salt dietary induced end organ inflammation and potential atherosclerotic risk.


Kleinewietfeld M, Manzel A, Titze J, et al. Sodium Chloride Drives Autoimmune Disease by the Induction of Pathogenic Th17 Cells. Nature. 2013;496(7446):518-522. doi:10.1038/nature11868.

Luo T, Ji W, Yuan F, et al. Th17/Treg Imbalance Induced by Dietary Salt Variation Indicates Inflammation of Target Organs in Humans. Scientific Reports. 2016;6:26767. doi:10.1038/srep26767.

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