Seasonality and autoimmune diseases: The contribution of the four seasons to the mosaic of autoimmunity

J Autoimmun. 2017 Aug:82:13-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jaut.2017.06.001. Epub 2017 Jun 16.


Autoimmune diseases (ADs) are a heterogeneous groups of diseases that occur as a results of loss of tolerance to self antigens. While the etiopathogeneis remain obscure, different environmental factors were suggested to have a role in the development of autoimmunity, including infections, low vitamin D levels, UV radiation, and melatonin. Interestingly, such factors possess seasonal variation patterns that could influence disease development, severity and progression. Vitamin D levels which reach a nadir during late winter and early spring is correlated with increased disease activity, clinical severity as well as relapse rates in several disease entities including multiple sclerosis (MS), non-cutaneous flares of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Additionally, immunomodulatory actions of melatonin secretion ameliorate the severity of several ADs including MS and SLE. Melatonin levels are lowest during spring, a finding that correlates with the highest exacerbation rates of MS. Further, melatonin is postulated to be involved in the etiopathogenesis of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) through it influence on adhesion molecule and therefore transcription factor expression. Moreover, infections can mount to ADs through pro-inflammatory cytokine release and human antigen mimicry. Seasonal patterns of infectious diseases are correlated with the onset and exacerbation of ADs. During the winter, increased incidence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infectious are associated with MS and SLE flares/onset respectively. In addition, higher Rotavirus infections during the winter precedes type 1 diabetes mellitus onset (T1DM). Moreover, Escherichia coli (E. coli) infection prior to primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) and T1DM disease onset subsequent to Coxachievirus infections are seen to occur during late summer, a finding that correlate with infectious agents' pattern of seasonality. In this review, the effects of seasonality on the onset, relapses and activity of various ADs were discussed. Consideration of seasonal variation patterns of ADs can possibly provide clues to diseases pathogenesis and lead to development of new approaches in treatment and preventative care.

Keywords: Autoimmunity; Infection; Melatonin; Month of birth; Seasonality; Vaccine; Vitamin D.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmune Diseases / diagnosis
  • Autoimmune Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / etiology*
  • Autoimmunity*
  • Environment
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors
  • Seasons*