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Jul 19, 2011

Green Tea in Autoimmune Disease

Drinking green tea has recently become widely popularized due the many health benefits it has to offer, including its ability to reduce inflammation, support the immune system, and prevent cancer.  Its effect on regulatory T cell production may be one of the underlying mechanisms for these types of health benefits. According to new research published in Immunology Letters (from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University), at least one of the known beneficial compounds in green tea can increase regulatory T cells that play a vital role in immune function and prevention of autoimmune disease.  This compound is a polyphenol known as EGCG. 

Although pharmaceutical drugs that act similarly are a subject of interest, they tend to have problems with toxicity.  A product in its natural form may provide long-term and sustainable benefits without the corresponding toxicity.  "When fully understood, this could provide an easy and safe way to help control autoimmune problems and address various diseases," said Emily Ho, an LPI principal investigator and associate professor in the OSU Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

The immune system has a tough mission to accomplish.  It must attack foreign invaders and keep them at bay while simultaneously preventing damage to normal healthy cells.  When this balance is disrupted, autoimmune diseases ranging from allergies to Type I diabetes to Multiple Sclerosis can develop.  The body incorrectly interprets itself as enemy and begins attacking healthy tissues.  The job of some immune cells, including regulatory T cells, is to regulate or dampen the immune response in order to prevent autoimmune processes.  Certain biological processes, including those that influence DNA transcription and expression, are responsible for controlling regulatory T cell function.

Researchers found that mice treated with EGCG had significantly elevated numbers and frequencies of T cells located in spleen and lymph nodes.  This imparted a more controlled immune response.  EGCG may be influencing T cells through an epigenetic mechanism, whereby the DNA itself is not being changed but there is a change in the expression of DNA.

Green tea in its whole form may prove to be another excellent tool to help treat and prevent autoimmune disease.  Interesting as this is, it is also tremendously exciting to hear more about the effects of gene expression in disease processes.  How empowering it is to realize that many of the diseases once thought to be solely determined by unique gene make-up may be prevented if we encourage certain genes to be expressed and others to be turned off! Cheers to your next cup of green tea!

Dr. Shana McQueen