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Lupus: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Lupus
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What is Lupus?

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body’s defense system changes and then attacks and destroys normal tissue, causing inflammation and organ damage (x). Symptoms recur as the disease flares. They may be mild and only occasional or they may be disabling and even life threatening (x).

However, there is no cure for lupus and treatment is not simple. Although prescription medications help the symptoms, they have side effects, so some patients add natural remedies to their treatment plans (x).

Who Contracts Lupus?

About 1.5 million people in the USA have some form of lupus. Anyone can contract it, but it is most common in women ages 15 to 44 and two to three times more common in women of color (x).

Lupus in Men

On the contrary, men represent less than a quarter of lupus patients. Their symptoms start around age 40, about 10 years later than in women.

Research attributes the disparity to sex-specific genes that make people more or less susceptible to developing lupus. Scientists studied changes in male and female DNA and concluded that differences in chromosomes and hormones at least play a role, although incomplete.

Forms of Lupus

Lupus comes in four main forms — systemic, discoid, drug-induced and neonatal (x, x).

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

Affecting 70 percent of patients, systemic lupus is the most common form. It causes inflammation in major organs and tissues — the skin, kidneys and joints — but also the heart and brain in the cardiovascular and nervous systems (x).

Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE)

Discoid lupus mainly affects the skin, resulting in inflamed sores and scars. It can cause permanent scarring and hair loss on the scalp or in beards. DLE can cause disease in the internal organs, but this is more common in children and people with spots on the skin (x).

Drug-Induced Lupus

High doses of hydralazine, procainamide and isoniazid can cause lupus symptoms in those who do not have SLE. Typically, they are temporary and disappear after the person stops taking the medication. Men tend to take these medications more often than women and therefore more commonly contract drug-induced lupus (x).

Neonatal Lupus

Neonatal lupus is a rare form of lupus present in infants at birth. Some infants develop skin symptoms and some develop a heart condition called congenital heart block. Others, however, develop both. Neonatal lupus forms when antibodies in the placenta travel to the fetus and damage fetal tissue. Infants born with neonatal lupus do not have SLE and often neither does the mother, though she has a 20 percent chance of developing lupus later (x).

Lupus Symptoms

Different forms of lupus manifest in different ways. Diagnosis requires skin, blood and urine tests to classify the presence of symptoms such as:

Rash

About half of lupus patients develop a red, scaly rash on the nose and cheekbones, sometimes triggered by the sun (x).

Fever

Many lupus patients often have a slight fever before a flare that communicates inflammation or infection (x).

Fatigue

Most lupus patients experience pain and extreme tiredness. Some people find that light exercise is a good way to combat this fatigue (x).

Joint Pain

Joint pain is often one of the first symptoms that patients recognize. Inflammation in the body’s connective tissue and cartilage can cause arthritis, pain, swelling and joint stiffness, especially during a flare if your body is responding to inflammation (x).

Lung Problems

Lupus can target the lungs, causing inflammation, chest pain, shortness of breath, lung scarring or a form of high blood pressure called pulmonary hypertension (x).

Other Symptoms & Complications

  • Headache
  • Memory and learning problems
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Raynaud’s syndrome, in which the fingers turn white or blue from cold
  • Swelling in the eyes, hands, legs and feet
  • Small red spots, sores, damaged veins or calcium deposits under the skin
  • Hair loss
  • Ulcers in the nose, mouth or genitals
  • Weakened nerves in the arms and legs
  • Anemia or abnormal blood clotting
  • Kidney disease and failure
  • Heart disease
  • Seizures and stroke
  • Increased risk of infection, cancer, bone tissue loss and pregnancy complications (x, x, x)

Though males and females manifest the same general symptoms, some symptoms may differ between them. For example, skin and kidney conditions and blood disorders are more common for male patients, as well as seizures and increased risk for cardiovascular disease (x, x, x).

Lupus Symptoms

Causes of Lupus

Genetics

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning symptoms appear when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. It may be because of lifestyle or environmental factors that trigger a genetic tendency (x, x).

There may also be a connection to sex hormones because most lupus patients are women of reproductive age with high levels of estrogen and low levels of progesterone, a hormone that supports pregnancy (x). Similarly, male lupus patients may also have higher levels of estrogen and lower levels of testosterone than those without lupus (x, x).

Food Triggers

Research suggests that Lupus patients may have more dietary restrictions than healthy patients. Certain foods may even trigger flares (x, x, x). For example, garlic contains allicin, ajoene and thiosulfinates. Alfalfa sprouts have an amino acid called L-canavanine, all of which incite the immune system, as research suggests (x, x). But because lupus patients already have an overly active immune system, the extra activity is counterproductive.

Sunlight

Substantial exposure to direct sunlight can trigger skin rashes, joint pain and fever. Doctors recommend limited sun exposure and at least SPF 70, as well as appropriate coverage with clothing and hats. But not all lupus patients are sensitive to the sun (x, x, x).

Medications

After months or years of regular use, certain medications — most of which treat chronic illnesses — can trigger lupus symptoms including (x, x):

  • Procainamide (x)
  • Hydralazine (x)
  • Quinidine (x)
  • Sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim, which contain sulfonamide to fight infections (x)
  • Melatonin and ramelteon, sleep aids that may incite the immune system (x)
  • Echinacea, which fights illness by exciting the immune system (x)

Other Causes & Triggers of Lupus

  • Bacterial and viral infections, especially German measles, Epstein-Barr virus and human parvovirus
  • Endometriosis, oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy after menopause
  • Tobacco
  • Diets high in fat and calories and dietary zinc or iron (x, x, x)

Lupus Treatment & Remedies

Medication

Though the symptoms are different, treatment for males and females is generally the same (x, x). There is no cure, but patients can control their symptoms with medications. Standard lupus treatment includes (x):

  • Pain relivers
  • Corticosteroids to regulate the immune system
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Anticoagulants, which prevent blood clots
  • Antimalarials to relieve inflammation, blood clots, skin rashes, joint pain and protect against sun damage
  • Immunosuppressives that aim to suppress the immune system, including chemotherapy drugs
  • Adrenocorticotropic corticotropin injections designed to help the body produce its own hormones and reduce inflammation
  • Monoclonal antibodies to inactivate B cells, which make antibodies that fight disease (x)

Other Lupus Remedies

In an animal study, lupus patients had significantly low levels of Lactobacillus, a healthy bacteria that protects the gut against pathogenic organisms and microbial disease (x). It is found naturally in yogurt and fermented foods. Research found that supplementation with a range of Lactobacillus types improved kidney function, reduced inflammation and reversed leaky gut in female mice (x).

Supplements

Such medications have side effects (x, x). But fortunately, patients can also include various natural remedies to their treatment plans.

Dehydroepiandrosterone Powder (DHEA)

A natural compound, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) powder improves energy, mental function and reproductive health. Lupus patients have low DHEA levels but studies found that supplementation raised them and lowered symptoms (x, x, x, x ). Women on DHEA supplements could reduce corticosteroid prescriptions and experienced improved mental health and sexuality (x, x).

The recommended dosage is 5 mg a day, increasing to 25 mg over one or two weeks.

Fish Oil

Fish oil is the only source of bioavailable omega-3 fatty acids. They have anti-inflammatory effects, boost heart health and protect the body from harmful free radicals (x). Because heart disease is the leading cause of death in lupus patients, they can benefit from nutrients that improve blood fat levels (x).

In studies on fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids, research found improved blood fat levels and improved function of the lining in the heart and blood vessels (x, x, x). In animal studies, fish oil stopped more than 90% of lung and kidney lesions and significantly extended lifespan (x, x).

Doctors recommend two 1,000 mg capsules two to three times a day.

Vitamin D and Calcium

Vitamin D and calcium are important for healthy teeth, bones and cartilage. Lupus patients who avoid direct sunlight or take certain medications may develop a vitamin D deficiency (x, x). In studies, researchers linked low levels of vitamin D to symptom flares, fatigue, poor mental function, kidney disease, osteoporosis and a greater risk of heart disease and high blood pressure (x, x, x, x, x).

The recommended dosage is 10 to 46 mg per day. Make sure to use an accurate milligram scale to avoid toxic excess amounts. Taking vitamin D with vitamin A may increase the benefits.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E powder is an antioxidant that improves skin health and helps control blood fat levels. In studies on vitamin E, supplementation reduced kidney and cell damage and inflammation, especially with omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil (x, x). In animal studies, vitamin E delayed the onset of lupus and extended lifespan (x).

Doctors recommend 500 mg to 1,000 mg with meals as a daily supplement.

Vitamin A

Used in cosmetics, vitamin A benefits the skin and contains retinoic acid, which modifies the immune function (x). In a study, animals with low vitamin A levels had more severe lupus symptoms that improved with supplementation (x). The recommended dosage is 30 mg per day.

Pure Beta-Carotene Powder

Beta-carotene contains Vitamin A and acts as an antioxidant. Researchers performed a study in which it helped clear skin sores in lupus patients with sun sensitivity (x).

Vitamin C

Though the body does not naturally produce vitamin C, it is essential and works with other enzymes to boost immunity. In a study, research found that it reduced inflammation, decreased antibody numbers and prevented heart problems (x). The general recommended dosage is 1,000 mg once per day.

B Vitamins

B vitamins protects the nervous system and helps it produce new blood. In a study, various B vitamins improved lupus patient’s blood fat levels and symptoms, both physical and mental (x). When measuring a supplement, make sure to use an accurate scale. The recommended dosage is 100 or 200 mg once daily.

Flaxseed Extract Powder

Flaxseed is high in alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, and promotes cardiovascular health. In a study on its relationship to lupus symptoms, it improved kidney function (x). Unless a physician advises otherwise, the recommended dosage as a dietary supplement is 1,000 mg per day.

N-acetyl L-cysteine (NAC)

N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) synthesizes an antioxidant called glutathione to improve liver health and digestion and maintain healthy blood sugar. In lupus patients, it improved symptoms by blocking dysfunctional T-cells, which play a role in immune response (x, x, x). For the full benefits of NAC, the recommended dosage is 600 mg as often as three times a day.

Curcumin

A derivative of turmeric, curcumin is a natural antioxidant with anti-inflammatory qualities, essential to treating lupus symptoms. Research found that it lowered blood pressure and improved kidney disease markers in patients (x). Doctors recommend no more than 1,000 mg daily with food or water.

The Bottom Line

Lupus is an autoimmune disorder, in which an overactive immune system attacks healthy cells. Symptoms may flare occasionally or more severely. Lupus symptoms develop from genetic or environmental tendencies including food, sunlight and specific medications.

Research has found several nutrient deficiencies linked to lupus flares. In studies, supplementation has delayed the onset of lupus, reduced its symptoms, decreased the number of flares and improved critical health outcomes, with only mild or no side effects.

About the author

Mia Simpson


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