Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Becca Malizia, BS, Ellen M. Martin
As our knowledge about nutrition and food as medicine expands, using foods as health enhancers and therapy agents has become increasingly popular. Many patients, including autoimmune, are following dietary guidelines to help mitigate symptoms, based on the growing understanding that diet and nutrition can either exacerbate or reduce symptom severity.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), usually referred to as Lupus, is one of the most common autoimmune diseases. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, Lupus affects an estimated 1.5 million Americans and at least another 5 million people worldwide. Even though Lupus patients are numerous, surveys have found that almost 75% of Americans between the ages of 18-34 have either never heard of Lupus or know little to nothing about the disease.
What is Lupus?
Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease, characterized by inflammation that may affect a wide range of body systems: joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, lungs, and more. Symptoms often vary amongst patients, depending upon which body systems are affected. Common symptoms include some combination of fatigue, fever, joint stiffness or swelling, headaches, and more. Perhaps the most infamous sign of lupus is a butterfly-shaped facial rash that spreads across the nose and cheeks, but even this is not present in all cases. As a result, as with many autoimmune and chronic conditions, no two cases are exactly alike.
The symptoms of each individual patient may wax & wane in both severity and permanence. Consequently, diagnosis can be a complex process. No single test can definitively diagnose lupus. Rather, providers may utilize a combination of physical examination, laboratory and imaging tests, and analysis of symptoms and family medical history to reach a diagnosis.
While there is no cure for lupus at present, available treatments may help control flares in symptoms. Although many pharmaceutical treatments are available, matching them to each individual patient can be challenging, and some may have serious side effects. An emerging understanding of alternative approaches and the importance of lifestyle modifications has highlighted diet, supplements, and exercise as important factors that may moderate or even reverse symptoms, prevent flares, and complement or reduce reliance on pharmaceuticals.
Are There Best Foods For Lupus?
Certain foods and food components may help manage lupus. The internet offers an overwhelming amount of diet recommendations for Lupus patients including a “Lupus Diet”. While we do believe that following a diet that emphasizes anti-inflammatory and antioxidant- foods should help people with Lupus, we don’t believe in a one-diet-for-all approach, because no one type of Lupus exists and symptoms vary greatly among patients. For this reason, we recommend starting with some type of autoimmune-specific protocol, then personalize it for your unique symptoms. Check out our article on immune boosting foods to learn more.
That being said, there is some scientifically backed evidence to support certain foods over others for Lupus patients. This table offers a great starting point for any Lupus patient. We have constructed this table to highlight the abundant information on food and Lupus. In addition to a wide variety of scientific articles (1), we used information from Personal Remedies, which harnesses a knowledge base backed by science to suggest which foods to avoid and consume based on specific diseases. This service is offered to all, and shows individual food items and supplements that are the “best” for Lupus patients, in order of strength of scientific support. Combining their guidelines with our own knowledge, scientific research, and other scholarly tables, we’ve crafted our best foods for Lupus.
In general, following a generic autoimmune diet which broadly focuses on eliminating processed foods, dairy, and added sugar, while increasing consumption of vegetables, fruits, fish and other whole foods may be important for Lupus patients.
The Worst Foods for Lupus
In contrast to these anti-inflammatory foods, there are also pro-inflammatory foods that should be avoided by Lupus patients. These pro-inflammatory foods include processed meats, sodas, salty snacks, packaged sweets, and refined carbohydrates. Unfortunately, these foods are also easy choices when stress eating or snacking. If you suffer from Lupus, these types of food are likely to intensify any symptoms you’re already experiencing.
In addition to these generic pro-inflammatory foods, there are some specific foods that might be harmful to Lupus patients. Besides some of the more obvious ones, alfalfa sprouts should be avoided by people with Lupus because they contain an amino acid, L-canavanine, that has shown to induce Lupus in monkeys and can increase inflammation (2). Cured meats, nightshade vegetables, sweetened cereals, and other sweets such as cakes, cookies, and brownies, are some of the more obvious exclusion foods.
Conventional products have more artificial chemicals (3), which could have greater effects on those with autoimmune diseases that already have compromised immune systems.
Other Tools for Managing Lupus
Engage in Mindful Eating
In addition to concerning yourself with what and what not to eat, other aspects of eating are also important. Eating smaller, balanced meals could help ease digestion and help fight flare-ups. With this, chewing your food slowly and engaging your jaw can help activate your robust oral microbiome and promote beneficial oral health.
What you drink matters too! Water normalizes the pH of mouth – healthy human saliva has a pH of 7.4. When acidic foods and beverages, such as fruit juice and soda, are consumed, oral pH is thrown out of balance (not to mention the additional sugar and calorie intake). When the pH within our mouths falls below 5.5 demineralization occurs, making you more susceptible to oral diseases such as dental caries and periodontal disease. Furthermore, drinking plenty of water daily can help maintain a healthy mouth pH, in addition to keeping you hydrated. When drinking tea, coffee, juice or alcohol, we recommend drinking water alongside for optimal oral health.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
Staying active is incredibly important to maintain healthy living. It is even more important for those who suffer from Lupus and or other autoimmune diseases because it can help reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms. For example, exercise can take on many forms from higher intensity training like running or playing sports to lower intensity exercises like walking, yoga or other movement therapies. Get our free ebook on movement therapy to explore more options!
Relax and Reduce Your Stress
Constant stress is one of the hallmarks of modern life. While our stress responses were beneficial in helping us avoid predation and other life-threatening situations, constant stressors brought about by modern society can be extremely harmful to our bodies. While helpful in short bursts, chronic stress that triggers our flight-or-fight responses, part of our sympathetic nervous system, have harmful consequences. These effects include triggering or exacerbating autoimmune flare-ups. It is therefore important for those with Lupus to reduce overall stress.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to make sure you are getting enough sleep. In actuality, most people do not get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep daily, and for Lupus patients, this can have more serious consequences. Whether taking an afternoon nap, or going to bed earlier, emphasis should be placed on restful sleep. Furthermore, relaxation throughout the day is also important. This could mean an early morning workout, an afternoon yoga class, even taking 15 minutes in the middle of the day just to focus on your breathing. Figure out what works best for you and do it. Take the time to be the best version of yourself: your stress will go down, your body will feel better, and your productivity may even increase!
Overall, lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect patients differently. Following some sort of autoimmune specific, anti-inflammatory diet may help mitigate symptoms. What worked for your friends or spouse might not work for you. Everyone is unique and experimenting with food therapy for Lupus may not be an easy fix. Try not to be overwhelmed by all of the recommendations and information out there, go slowly and trust yourself. At the end of the day, you are your best advocate and you know your body. Fearlessly experiment with your dietary options and be mindful of your reactions. Stay tuned for our new ebook on food therapy to learn more about what makes you unique and how to kick start your journey to finding your optimal autoimmune specific diet.
Check out our other spotlights here
- Learn more about Lupus in our new post here
- Read about your uniqueness in our first Food Matter’s post here
- Click to discover 8 foods to boost your immune system!
- Klack et al. “Diet and nutritional aspects in systemic lupus erythematosus.” Revista Brasileria de Rheumatologia. Vol. 52(3). 2012. 384-408. http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0482-50042012000300009&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en
- Alcocer-Varela et al. “Effects of L-canavanine on T cells may explain the induction of systemic lupus erythematosus by alfalfa.” Arthritis and Rheumatism. Vol 28(1). 1985. 52-70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3155617
- Smith-Spangler, C et al. “Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review” Annals of Internal Medicine. Vol 157(5). 2012. 348-366. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875