Lupus, also called systemic lupus erythematosus (LSE), is caused when your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. It can damage many parts of your body including your heart, kidneys, lungs, joints, blood vessels, and skin and manifest a range of symptoms, including joint pain and swelling, muscle pain, fever, fatigue, sensitivity to the sun, and rashes. Lupus can often flare up causing you to experience a worsening of symptoms for a few weeks. There’s no cure for lupus but conventionally, medicines that reduce inflammation, balance hormones, help your immune system, and tackle damage to your joints may be prescribed. Since lupus can damage several organs, you may also need to see specialists in addition to your regular doctor for problems caused by it. For example, if it damages your blood vessels or heart, you may need to see a cardiologist.1 2
While lupus is an incurable autoimmune condition that results in the inflammation of the skin, joints, and other organs, there’s plenty you can do to prevent flare-ups, balance hormones, and help your immune system. While you need mainstream medical attention to rule out organ damage and assess the extent of the impact of the disease, lifestyle modifications and natural therapies can also help you tackle the condition. Here’s a look at some things you can do:
1. Avoid Too Much Sun And Use Sunscreen
UV radiation can cause skin rashes and/or a lupus flare-up, so don’t forget to use your sunscreen throughout the year. Apply a sunscreen with an SPF of about 70 all over your body, even the covered parts, since normal clothes can offer protection equivalent to about SPF 5 only. Wear sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats for further protection from the sun, especially if you are photosensitive. Certain medications can make you more photosensitive too. In addition, limit your time out in the sun.3 4
2. Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
While there is no such thing as a special lupus diet, having anti-inflammatory foods and avoiding substances that promote inflammation may be helpful. Identifying and eliminating food-related triggers for LSE can also help reduce flare-ups. You can get yourself tested professionally for food allergies or you could try an elimination diet to find out what irritates your gut and what doesn’t. Keeping a food diary will also help you keep tabs.5 Certain foods also appear to trigger flare-ups more frequently than others – for instance, excess intake of fatty foods, proteins, zinc- and iron-rich foods. On the other hand, having foods rich in vitamins A, D, and E, calcium, and selenium and intake of evening primrose oil, flaxseed, fish oils, etc. have been found to help.6
While planning your meals, it would help to keep in mind a few tips.
Foods To Avoid
While garlic is often recommended to decrease inflammation, it may be counterproductive in lupus. This is because lupus patients already have an overactive immune system, so having foods that stimulate your immune system may backfire. Keep use to a bare minimum.7 So is alfalfa sprouts.8 9
- Salt, sugar, and processed foods: Cut down the amount of salt you add to your food and read processed food labels carefully to make salt-free choices. This is important especially if you have high blood pressure or lupus kidney disease. Sugar is not a helpful food either and too much of it can lead to weight gain and other health issues. Salt, sugar, and processed foods all contribute to increasing the chances of coronary heart disease so they are best consumed in limited amounts.10
- Caffeine: If your lupus medication is bothering your stomach, cut down on caffeine. Caffeine from coffee, tea, and soda can aggravate irritation and hamper your sleep as well.11
- Alcohol: Alcoholic drinks irritate your stomach and can become lethal if combined with drugs. Alcohol suppresses the immune system and has negative effects on your heart, liver, kidneys, and muscles. Drink in moderation and develop a taste for non-alcoholic and non-sugary drinks.12
- Alfalfa and echinacea: If you are a lupus patient, make sure you avoid alfalfa and echinacea. These herbs, while very effective for mild infections, tend to aggravate the symptoms of lupus.13 Echinacea boosts the immune system, and that may cause flare-ups in people with autoimmune diseases such as lupus. Meanwhile, alfalfa contains a compound called L-canavanine that can make lupus symptoms worse and even trigger a flare-up. Other harmful plant products are mushrooms, beans, and soy, all of which can aggravate lupus symptoms.14
Foods To Include
Add flaxseeds, chia seeds, and evening primrose oil in your diet can help reduce lupus symptoms.15
- Fruits, veggies, fish, nuts, and grains: Include fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, about two portions of fish each week, and small amounts of dairy and meat in your diet. This is somewhat in line with the Mediterranean diet and simple enough for everyone in a family to follow.16
- Cranberries. Both the fruit and the juice can help prevent urinary tract infections.
- Tomato paste and other tomato products. They are all rich sources of lycopene, which is believed to lower the risks of certain types of cancer and heart disease.
- Vitamin C. This powerful antioxidant fortifies our immune system and the health of our heart, lungs, and skin. Some rich sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, broccoli, green peppers, fresh tomatoes, and strawberries.
- Good fats. Olive oil, nuts, fish oils, and wheat germ oil are all excellent sources of good fatty acids, and can help reduce inflammation.17
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These heart-healthy fatty acids are available in fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring. They have anti-inflammatory and immunity-fortifying properties, both important for lupus patients. Lupus sufferers who consumed a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids have been observed to have pretty bad lupus symptoms and higher levels of cholesterol and atherosclerosis.18
- Calcium. If you are taking corticosteroids to treat any inflammatory condition triggered by lupus, you are probably at risk for osteoporosis since such drugs interfere with calcium absorption. The truth is, even without taking corticosteroids, fragile bones are an unfortunate reality for lupus patients. Inflamed blood vessels and inability to exercise regularly because of pain are all causes of bone weakness. So, stock up on calcium and vitamin D, the building blocks for bone health. Yogurt, milk, and cheese are all rich sources. Even salmon with bones is a good source of calcium.19 Slightly less rich sources of calcium are broccoli, cabbage, rutabaga, leafy greens, and sauerkraut.
- Vitamin D. Most lupus patients are known to have low amounts of vitamin D. This vitamin supports our immune system beside enhancing calcium absorption and preventing osteoporosis. Eggs, whole grain cereals, and fish oils are all good sources of vitamin D.20 Vitamin D in our bodies is largely produced from sunlight on the skin, but for those with lupus, sunlight creates more problems than benefits since UV radiation can trigger a lupus flare.21
- Vitamin A. Vitamin A intake has shown to reduce the effects of lupus.22 Get your vitamin A from eggs, beef liver, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, and carrots.
- Low-fat proteins. Ditch fatty meat for chicken, fish, and beans as your source of proteins. And even those are better baked or grilled. Tuna and salmon, both rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats, are excellent options too.23
3. Exercise Regularly For More Energy
It might sound counterintuitive but regular exercise may reduce lupus-induced fatigue. Studies show that lupus patients who exercise frequently feel happier, are more hopeful, and feel more energetic.24 Regular exercise is also good for weight control, bone health, cardiovascular health, and mental health. A word of caution though: know your endurance limits and stay within them.25
- Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, stair climbing, and dancing are all effective bone-strengthening exercises.
- Swimming and water aerobics are safe and low-impact activities that are easier for people with muscular aches and pains. If done in warm water, your blood flow increases and there is less stress on the joints too.26
- Yoga, tai chi, or Pilates will improve your flexibility and mobility and leave you feeling peaceful.27
4. Have Probiotics
Lupus brings down the population of microbiota in our digestive tract and this shows up as various types of abdominal discomfort. Use dietary supplements that contain probiotic lactobacilli and retinoic acid to soothe symptoms of lupus.28 Yogurt, without added sugar, and other fermented foods such as kefir are good food sources of probiotics.
5. Go For A Massage
Massage can lessen stress and improve alertness and energy. Massage also results in the release of endorphins, which are pain-relieving hormones. It can reduce soreness and inflammation, ease pain and exhaustion, and help you move more comfortably. However, do keep in mind that deep tissue massage may not be suitable for people with lupus. Also, postpone your massage if you’re experiencing a flare-up with obvious signs like a fever or a rash and inform your massage therapist if you’re on medication to treat lupus.29
6. Try Acupuncture
The ancient medical practice of acupuncture can help deal with symptoms of lupus. This practice is based on the theory that an obstruction in the life force called “Qi” which flows through your body along pathways called meridians lies at the root of disease. The insertion of fine needles at specific body sites is meant to remove blockages and restore the proper flow of Qi. There is some evidence that acupuncture can reduce pain and fatigue in people with lupus. However, do take care to go to a qualified practitioner for treatment.30
7. Manage Stress
Stress can worsen symptoms of lupus. Regular practice of relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, or guided imagery can also help you beat the stress. 31
- Deep breathing is a simple and almost instinctive technique when it comes to mitigating stress. Draw a deep breath through your nostrils into your abdomen and breathe out through your mouth.
- Mindfulness meditation involves focusing your mind on the present moment without worrying about the future or thinking about the past.
- Guided imagery involves visualizing soothing scenes, places, or experiences in your mind which can replace stressful feeling and induce relaxation.
You can also take active steps to reduce stress in your life. Pace yourself, cut back hours at work if needed, and do not feel shy about asking family and friends for help. And make sure you get enough rest when you’re tired, especially if you’re in pain.32 Support groups and counselling can also help you deal with stress.33
8. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep plays an important role in the health of our immune system. Less sleep leaves our body’s defence mechanisms weak. And studies show that chronic sleep deprivation is a common factor in many chronic inflammatory conditions, such as lupus.34 On average, adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a day.35
9. Stop Smoking
Smoking complicates problems caused by lupus. Respiratory infections, kidney disease, and vascular complications like Raynaud’s phenomenon which are all issues associated with lupus are made worse by smoking.36 If you’re struggling to quit, nicotine replacement therapies which ease withdrawal by giving you controlled doses of nicotine can be helpful.
|↑1||Lupus. National Health Service.|
|↑2||Lupus. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑3, ↑25||Dos and don’ts for living well with lupus. National Resource Centre on Lupus.|
|↑4, ↑7, ↑8||Things to Avoid. The John Hopkins Lupus Center.|
|↑5||Patavino, Tom, and David M. Brady. “Natural medicine and nutritional therapy as an alternative treatment in systemic lupus erythematosus.” Alternative Medicine Review 6, no. 5 (2001): 460-472.|
|↑6, ↑15||Brown, Amy Christine. “Lupus erythematosus and nutrition: a review of the literature.” Journal of Renal Nutrition 10, no. 4 (2000): 170-183.|
|↑9, ↑16, ↑18, ↑21||Diet & Healthy Eating. Lupus UK.|
|↑10, ↑23, ↑32||Healthy Eating Tips for People with Lupus. Lupus Research Alliance.|
|↑11, ↑12, ↑14, ↑17, ↑19, ↑20||Torkos, Sherry. The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.|
|↑13||Mindell, Earl. Earl Mindell’s New Herb Bible. Simon and Schuster, 2000.|
|↑22||Kinoshita K, Kishimoto K, Shimazu H, Nozaki Y, Sugiyama M, Ikoma S, Funauchi M. 2010. Successful treatment with retinoids in patients with lupus nephritis. Am. J. Kidney Dis. 55:344–347. 10.1053/j.ajkd.2009.06.012|
|↑24||Facing Lupus Fatigue. Lupus Research Alliance.|
|↑26||Bone Up On Osteoporosis in Lupus. Lupus Research Alliance.|
|↑27||Body, mind, soul: The benefits of yoga, tai chi, and pilates. Lupus Foundation of America.|
|↑28||Zhang, Husen, Xiaofeng Liao, Joshua B. Sparks, and Xin M. Luo. “Dynamics of gut microbiota in autoimmune lupus.” Applied and environmental microbiology 80, no. 24 (2014): 7551-7560.|
|↑29||Lupus and Massage. Lupus Research Alliance.|
|↑30||Greco, C. M., A. H. Kao, K. Maksimowicz-McKinnon, R. M. Glick, M. Houze, S. M. Sereika, J. Balk, and S. Manzi. “Acupuncture for systemic lupus erythematosus: a pilot RCT feasibility and safety study.” Lupus 17, no. 12 (2008): 1108-1116.|
|↑31||Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress. Harvard Health Publications.|
|↑33||Living With Lupus: Health Information Basics for You. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).|
|↑34||Palma, Beatriz Duarte, Alexandre Gabriel, Fernando AB Colugnati, and Sergio Tufik. “Effects of sleep deprivation on the development of autoimmune disease in an experimental model of systemic lupus erythematosus.” American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 291, no. 5 (2006): R1527-R1532.|
|↑35||Insomnia. National Health Service.|
|↑36||How does smoking affect people with lupus?. Lupus Foundation of America.|