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How to understand lupus: nutrition for lupus patients

Updated: Apr 25

Abstract image of sunset clouds with a female form floating amongst them.

I'm a nurse who was recently diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE. Here's everything I've learned about lupus nutrition since researching my new diagnosis.

Noni juice? Alfalfa sprouts? Vitamin D? What does it all have to do with lupus and autoimmunity? Let's dive in to my comprehensive guide to lupus nutrition and the best vitamins to research if you're a lupus patient. It might help you with your own knowledge, and assist you in explaining lupus to others. Check out another post of mine if you want to know more about lupus symptoms.

Dosis sola facit venenum, the dose makes the poison, as they say. Not all supplements are safe for lupus patients, here's what you need to know.

Standard disclaimers apply: this is a blog containing general information, speak to your doctor before changing / starting / stopping supplements or activities that influence your health.

Table of Contents

  1. Nutrition - what vitamin is deficient in lupus patients?

  2. Can I help my lupus by adding antioxidants to my diet?

  3. Can soy isoflavones improve symptoms of lupus?

  4. Can noni juice help my lupus?

  5. Are there benefits for lupus from eating fatty fish? Omega 3 fatty acids.

  6. How can I get vitamin D if I have to avoid sun exposure?

  7. Can vitamin D reverse lupus?

  8. What is the best natural anti-inflammatory for lupus?

  9. What can worsen lupus? What foods can trigger lupus?

  10. Can alfalfa sprouts cause lupus?

  11. Are there any vitamins that can worsen lupus? What vitamins should autoimmune patients avoid?

  12. Is it true that smoking cigarettes make lupus worse?

  13. How can I boost my immune system with lupus? Should I?

Lupus Awareness Month is coming up (for the US) in May, so it's a great time to learn more about this extremely complex condition. Aussies, your turn is in October.

I was completely overwhelmed when I was first diagnosed. I still am, really. It's been anxiety inducing, confusing and scary. But in an effort to regain a sense of control, I've done a lot of reading. Instead of being sad I'm going to do my best to break down what I've learned so far about strategies for managing nutrition in lupus.

I'm still a nurse after all. I want to keep this post more on the technical side of lupus, but you can read about my diagnosis feelings here. This is a long post, so I've split everything into sections so you can jump around to where the information will be most useful to you. I've also linked some meta-analysis studies, systematic reviews and lots of resources to support you.

Nutrition - What vitamin is deficient in lupus patients?

Lupus patients are at risk of various vitamin deficiencies for several reasons, including the medications they take and the impact of disease activity on the body.

Some medications used in the treatment of lupus, such as corticosteroids and immunosuppressants, can increase the risk of vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is important for maintaining healthy bones and muscles, and deficiencies can lead to bone loss (osteoporosis), fractures, and muscle weakness.

Other vitamins that may be deficient in lupus patients include B vitamins, such as folate and vitamin B12, which are important for red blood cell production and nervous system function, as well as vitamin C, which is important for immune system function and wound healing.

Can I help my lupus by adding antioxidants to my diet?

Antioxidants are substances that can help protect the body's cells from damage caused by harmful molecules known as free radicals. In lupus, oxidative stress caused by an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants may play a role in disease development and progression.

Several antioxidants have been studied for their potential benefits in lupus, including vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium. Vitamin E and Vitamin C have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and may help reduce oxidative stress in people with lupus.

Selenium has antioxidant properties and some studies suggest that selenium supplementation may help to improve disease activity and reduce inflammation in people with lupus. Other antioxidants that may be beneficial for people with lupus include coenzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid.

What are soy isoflavones? Can soy isoflavones improve symptoms of lupus?

Soy isoflavones are a type of phytoestrogen, which are plant-derived compounds that can mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body. Soy isoflavones are found naturally in soybeans and soy products, such as tofu, soy milk, and soy protein powder.

Soy isoflavones are structurally similar to human oestrogen and can bind to oestrogen receptors in the body, exerting both oestrogenic and anti-oestrogenic effects. This means that soy isoflavones can have both positive and negative effects on various aspects of health, depending on the individual's circumstances. Some studies suggest that soy isoflavones may have anti-inflammatory effects and may help to reduce disease activity in some people with lupus, but there's not currently enough evidence to consider it as a treatment pathway.

What is noni juice? Can noni juice help lupus symptoms?

Noni juice is a juice made from the fruit of the noni tree (Morinda citrifolia), which is native to Southeast Asia and Australasia but is also grown in other parts of the world. Noni juice has been marketed for its supposed health benefits, including its potential to help with a variety of conditions, including lupus.

However, there is limited scientific evidence to support the use of noni juice for lupus or any other health condition. While noni juice contains several potentially beneficial compounds, such as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory substances, more research is needed to fully understand the effects of these compounds on human health and disease.

Noni juice has been associated with several potential risks and side effects, including liver damage, gastrointestinal upset, and allergic reactions. Noni juice can interact with some medications, like immunosuppressants used in the treatment of lupus, potentially affecting their efficacy or increasing the risk of getting nasty side effects. It might also overstimulate the immune system and increase symptoms. We just don't know enough about it yet.

What are the health benefits of fatty fish? Omega 3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of essential fatty acid that is found in certain types of fish, such as salmon and tuna, as well as in some plant-based sources, such as flaxseed and chia seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, which could be beneficial for people with lupus.

In lupus, chronic inflammation is a key component of the disease process and contributes to tissue damage and disease progression. Omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce inflammation by blocking the production of pro-inflammatory substances called cytokines and prostaglandins.

Several studies, including this meta-analysis, have suggested that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may have potential benefits for people with lupus, including reducing disease activity and improving quality of life.

Omega-3 fatty acids may also help to improve cardiovascular health, which is an important consideration for people with lupus, as they are at increased risk of developing heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements can interact with certain medications, such as blood thinners, and should be used with caution if you're taking these medications.

I'm supposed to avoid sun exposure. The body needs sunlight to make vitamin D. What should I do?

You should generally avoid the sun if you have lupus, studies suggest UV exposure can cause a disease flare in up to 80% of lupus patients. Our bodies can't make vitamin D, an important vitamin for bone health, immune function, and overall vitality, so we either need to get it from our diets, or from sun exposure. But, if you can't deal with sun exposure, what do you do?

You can have vitamin D levels tested with your primary healthcare provider so you know what supplementation levels you actually require. Getting nutrition from fresh food is always best, but when appetite is a constant issue there are good supplementation options too:

Dietary sources: Vitamin D is naturally found in some foods, such as fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna), egg yolks, mushrooms and fortified dairy products. It can be difficult to obtain enough vitamin D through diet alone.

Vitamin D supplements: Vitamin D supplements are widely available and can be taken in the form of capsules, tablets, or liquid drops. It's important to choose a high-quality supplement that contains vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), as this is the form of vitamin D that is most effective at raising blood levels.

Can vitamin D reverse lupus?

No, there is currently no evidence to suggest that vitamin D can completely reverse lupus, but we do know that it's very beneficial and lupus patients often have a vitamin D deficiency.

While vitamin D is important for overall health, including immune function, bone health, and muscle function, it is not a cure for lupus. More research is needed to help determine better treatment protocols involving targeted vitamin D administration.

As we've learned, lupus is a complex autoimmune disease that is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some nutritional deficiencies may negatively affect lupus but are not considered the primary cause.

What natural anti-inflammatory supplements support healing in lupus?

There are several natural anti-inflammatory options that could be helpful for managing lupus symptoms, although: talk to your doctor, natural remedies should not replace conventional medical treatment and should be used under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

Here are a few natural anti-inflammatory options that you might like to research:

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids: We've covered this but I really can't stress this one enough: Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil and certain plant-based sources, such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts, have lots of health benefits, particularly for inflammatory conditions.

  2. Curcumin: Curcumin is a natural compound found in turmeric, a spice commonly used in Indian cuisine. Curcumin has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and there are anecdotal reports that it may help to reduce joint pain and stiffness.

  3. Ginger: Ginger is a root spice that has been used for centuries in traditional medicine for its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and research supports the potential for ginger to provide these effects. Some people might find it helpful for reducing inflammation and pain.

  4. Green tea: Green tea contains polyphenols, which are natural compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Studies indicate a potential anti-inflammatory benefit from green tea consumption.

  5. Resveratrol: Resveratrol is a natural compound found in red wine, grapes, and berries, and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It may help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.

Always chat with your doctor about supplementation, especially if you're on other medications. Natural remedies can interact with medications or exacerbate certain medical conditions.

What can worsen lupus? What foods can trigger lupus?

While there is no specific diet that has been proven to cure or prevent lupus, certain foods may trigger or worsen lupus symptoms in some people. Here are some common foods that might trigger lupus symptoms:

  1. Nightshade vegetables: Nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers contain solanine, which is a compound that can cause inflammation.

  2. Gluten: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and some people with lupus may be sensitive to it. Eating gluten-containing foods can trigger an inflammatory response.

  3. Soy: Some people with lupus may be sensitive to soy products, which can cause inflammation and trigger lupus symptoms.

  4. Alcohol: Drinking alcohol can interfere with the effectiveness of certain lupus medications and may trigger a lupus flare in some people.

  5. Processed foods: Processed foods, such as fast food, junk food, and packaged snacks, often contain high levels of sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats, which can contribute to inflammation and worsen lupus symptoms.

Everyone with lupus is unique and may have different triggers for their symptoms. Keeping a food diary and tracking symptoms can help you to identify potential triggers, and working with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian can be beneficial to ensure your nutritional goals are covered.

Can alfalfa sprouts cause lupus?

There is limited research on the effects of alfalfa sprouts on lupus specifically, but there is some concern that alfalfa may stimulate the immune system and increase inflammation, potentially worsening lupus symptoms.

Alfalfa sprouts contain a substance called L-canavanine, which has been shown to cause immune dysfunction in some animal studies. In humans, there have been case reports of people with lupus experiencing flares after consuming alfalfa supplements or sprouts, but we ultimately don't really know.

Are there any vitamins that can worsen lupus? What vitamins should autoimmune patients avoid?

Autoimmune patients should not necessarily avoid any vitamins, but they should be cautious about taking high doses of certain vitamins, as they may have the potential to trigger or worsen autoimmune symptoms. It's best to discuss changes or supplementation with your doctor or dietician, but here's a list to guide your research:

  1. Vitamin A: High doses of vitamin A can lead to toxicity, which may cause symptoms such as joint pain, fatigue, and skin rashes. Some studies have also suggested that high doses of vitamin A may increase the risk of autoimmune disease because of its immune-stimulating effects.

  2. Vitamin E: While vitamin E is an important antioxidant, high doses may interfere with immune function and worsen autoimmune symptoms.

  3. Vitamin D: While vitamin D is important for immune function and bone health, high doses may trigger autoimmune symptoms in some people and it can be toxic in large doses. This needs to be balanced with getting enough vitamin D.

  4. Vitamin C: High doses of vitamin C modulates immune function and may interfere with the immune response and worsen autoimmune symptoms in some people.

Is it true that smoking cigarettes make lupus worse?

Yes. It's 210% true. Smoking makes everything worse, we all know that. But we're here for specificity; smoking and lupus don't mix because:

  1. Increased risk of cardiovascular disease: People with lupus are already at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and smoking further increases this risk. Smoking can damage blood vessels, increase blood pressure, and lead to plaque buildup in the arteries.

  2. Worsened lung function: Lupus can cause inflammation in the lungs, and smoking can exacerbate this inflammation and further damage lung tissue.

  3. Increased risk of infection: Smoking can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections. People with lupus are already at an increased risk of infections and smoking is just terrible no matter what angle you're looking through. It's an awfully hard thing to stop, but there are resources available to help.

  4. Increased risk of skin damage: Smoking can damage the skin and accelerate the ageing process, which can worsen skin symptoms in people with lupus, such as rashes and lesions.

How can I boost my immune system with lupus? Should I?

There's some concern that taking immune-boosting supplements like echinacea may worsen symptoms of lupus, for example, echinacea can stimulate the immune system and increase inflammation. Great if you have a cold, but not so great if you are already overactive in the immune department. There are case studies of echinacea causing drug-induced lupus.

In general, people with autoimmune conditions like lupus should be cautious when taking any supplement that may affect the immune response, they might trigger or worsen autoimmune symptoms. Echinacea can interact with medications commonly used to treat lupus, like corticosteroids and immunosuppressants. Medicinal mushrooms like Chaga are a new and popular area of supplementation, but some of these fabulous fungi are also immune boosting and should probably be avoided until we know more about their interactions with immune conditions.

Abstract cloudy scene with glimmers of sun poking through clouds.

Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, stress management, and smoking can all have a significant impact on disease activity in lupus. Diet plays an important role in lupus management, as certain foods and nutrients can either help or harm the immune system.

Maintaining a balanced diet with a focus on good nutritional balance for Omega 3 fatty acids and essential vitamins and minerals can help keep inflammation at bay and ward off issues like Vitamin D deficiency that occur as a side effect of medication and UV avoidance.

Of course, diet alone is very unlikely going to fix a severe lupus flare, but a healthy, balanced diet and appropriate use of dietary supplements may provide some significant health benefits, relieve symptoms and help you decrease exposure to risk factors likely to negatively impact your lupus. Chat about this with your healthcare provider.

Lupus-related kidney disease is a significant area of concern, so keep an eye on those kidneys. You have two, but you don't really have a spare.


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