How Diet Can Help Manage Lupus Symptoms

fter Jewell Singletary was diagnosed with lupus, she developed rheumatoid arthritis as well—a common pairing, since both are autoimmune conditions—and had to use a cane to navigate her college campus. The 38-year old New Jersey resident chose to focus on her health after she finished her degree. This was in order to keep her mobility and continue her professional career.

Her journey began in the kitchen.

Sugary drinks, fried foods and high-processed options were first to go, she said. Once she eliminated them, it didn’t take long before she could discard one more important item: her cane.

“My mobility improved dramatically just from these dietary changes,” she says. “I haven’t needed to use a cane since, and that progress made me realize how much switching my eating could do.” A few years later, she tried cutting dairy products and felt another health boost, followed by cutting red meat and pork products. Recently she’s tried reducing her consumption of gluten, and she reports she’s already feeling some positive effects, like more overall energy.

“Dietary habits can absolutely help you manage lupus in a much better way, and some research suggests it may even help reduce your risk of developing lupus if it runs in your family,” says Dr. Diane Kamen, a professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina and a member of the medical-scientific advisory council for Lupus Foundation of America. “At this point, lupus is not curable, but it is manageable, and a big part of how to do that is through lifestyle habits like exercise, sleep, stress management, and diet.”

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Research findings

There isn’t a “lupus diet” that’s recommended for those who have the condition, but as Singletary found, food can have a major impact on symptoms like fatigue, as well as inflammation-related effects like painful, stiff joints. Researchers are looking into how dietary changes can affect issues such as frequent headaches, anxiety and skin irritation.

A 2021 study published in the journal Lupus Science & Medicine,A type of fiber called resistant starch, is thought to have an effect on Lupus. It increases the effectiveness of the microbiome (the community of bacteria and other organisms found in the gastrointestinal tract). This fiber feeds the good bacteria in the gut, which in turn support the immune system and reduce lupus-related symptoms as well as risk of a condition called antiphospholipid syndrome—an effect of lupus that may cause blood clots. Oats, legumes, beans, peas & plantains all contain resistant starch.

The 2020 study, which involved over 173,000 women found that high levels of nuts and legumes decreased potential lupus risks by 41%. This year’s research looked at the severity of symptoms. Increased vegetable consumption was found to be linked with reduced joint and muscle pain. Also, it improved mood, fatigue, weight management, and mood. This study revealed that there were strong effects when the switch to plant-based foods was coupled with a decrease in processed food, sugar and gluten.

Another 2018 research on diet and systemic Lupus Erythematosus found that foods have the potential to not only manage lupus symptoms but can also lower the likelihood of developing conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, hypercholesterolemia, heart attack, stroke, or other related diseases.

Kamen says that despite these results, there is still much to be done in order to determine if certain foods are linked with lupus. However, it is possible to make small improvements for better long-term health, especially for people with the condition.

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Here are some top tips for those suffering from Lupus.

Kamen states that nutrition advice for people with Lupus is the same as general guidance. This means that whole grains and fruits should be consumed in greater quantities, Kamen says. Whole grains and vegetables contain valuable nutrients and fiber which can reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms. Here are some tips to help those suffering from Lupus.

Make changes when you’re on corticosteroids

Use of these medications for controlling lupus symptoms is common, and it’s helpful to eat in a way that counteracts some of their known side effects, says Dana Ellis Hunnes, a registered dietitian and author of The Recipe for Survival: How to live a healthier, more environmentally-friendly life.

Corticosteroids may cause fluid retention. Adding salt to your diet can make it worse. Also, a high-protein diet is often recommended since a medication like prednisone can speed up protein breakdown, which can result in even more protein loss if a digestive issue like Crohn’s is involved.

Hunnes said that Corticosteroids also reduce calcium. This means that people who are taking such medications should focus on improving their nutrition and maybe consider supplementation. You can find calcium in dairy products, yogurt, salmon and even broccoli. Other potential effects of the drugs include higher cholesterol and increased blood sugar, so Hunnes adds that it’s important to limit sugar and fat.

Pay attention to food intolerance and sensitivity

According to Dr. Bindiya Ahmed, a Georgia-based functional physician, food allergies are easy to spot because they often cause an immediate reaction. However, sensitivities to certain foods may prove more difficult to diagnose. They can lead to indigestion, fatigue, headaches and bloating. Gandhi warns that chronic intolerance reactions may increase inflammation.

“Pay attention to how you feel right after you eat, but also hours later,” she says. “An initial inflammation response might be mild, but as your body works to digest that food, it could become more noticeable.”

Eating eggs can make you feel congested or gluten may cause brain fog. If you feel this way after eating certain foods but still consume them often, your inflammation response doesn’t have time to power down, Gandhi says. This can increase the likelihood of developing Lupus Flares.

Eat for better kidney health

Hunnes says that certain health conditions may require diet changes. The most vulnerable organs in Lupus are the kidneys. Specific dietary guidelines should be used if this happens.

Hunnes says limiting animal proteins tends to be the most advisable strategy, as well as restricting minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and sodium, since they can’t be effectively filtered by the kidneys if those organs are damaged. Talking to a dietitian is a good idea. You can also add nutrients such as cabbage, garlic, olive oils, bell peppers and bell peppers.

Your gut is your most important asset.

Maintaining a healthy digestion is essential for anyone. However, new research suggests that the microbiome can prove to be beneficial for people with Lupus.

“One big benefit is that a well-functioning gut can keep inflammation in check throughout the body, which is crucial for disease management,” says Erin Kenney, a Boston-based registered dietitian and author of Rewire Your Gut.Probiotic supplements can help you maintain a healthy microbiome. However, it is important to extract the most nutrients from your food, says Sheri.

Focusing on high fiber foods, particularly fruits and veggies, is key, along with consuming more fermented food like yogurt, pickled vegetable, kefir, Kombucha and sauerkraut. Highly processed foods, including meats such as hot dogs and bacon, have been linked to poor gut health, Kenney says, so it’s best to limit those options in your diet.

Learn More Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Gut Health

Solution tailored to your needs

While the recommendations of doctors, dietitians, and researchers are important, Singletary has found that many Lupus sufferers, such as Singletary have discovered that monitoring their food intake is a very personal matter. For many people living with Lupus, tracking food intake has been a regular activity.

Margo Pinckney of Philadelphia (45 years old) cut down on processed foods when she was first diagnosed with Lupus. After navigating her symptoms for several years and learning more about how her diet affected her feelings, Pinckney began to refine her food and snack choices based on what foods were causing her flares, particularly fatigue. This led Pinckney to steer clear of dairy.

“Cheese used to be my best friend—I would put it on everything,” she says. “However, when I began to limit and then eliminate dairy, I felt better. I feel like I deal with less inflammation by paying attention to what I eat.”

Ingrid Perez Martin (41), a Georgian Lupus sufferer, finds spicy foods to be most challenging. The longer she’s had lupus, the more challenging these have become, she says.

“Foods I used to be able to eat all the time now wake me up in the middle of the night, because I have to throw up,” she adds. “There’s no food that’s worth adding more sickness or another hospitalization to my life. It’s that dramatic. I can clearly see the signs when I eat the wrong thing, so I try to be more purposeful and eat what my health requires.”

Perez Martin became so educated about nutrition and general wellness that she was able to become a certified fitness trainer and nutrition instructor. “Paying attention to how I treat my body is something I should have been doing regardless of lupus,” she says. “But now that I have the condition, I take my health more seriously than ever.”

With Sheraya Weeks, a 42-year-old lupus patient in Maryland, dairy is also a problem, but she’s particularly sensitive to fast food, which makes her feel sluggish, she says. Extreme fatigue can be a very frustrating sign for patients with Lupus. It is important to maintain consistent energy, as it is a common symptom. Weeks claims that she feels more energetic if she focuses her attention on healthier foods and skips drive-thru meals.

Kamen says that these examples show how individual responses can affect diet. Being able to “read” the effects of certain foods can go a long way toward personalized nutrition that can offer considerable benefits for handling lupus, including better sleep, lower inflammation, more energy, lighter mood, and better gut health.

“Simply put, you can’t get into any kind of balance, whether you have lupus or not, without addressing what you’re putting into your body,” says Kamen. “Managing your health often starts on your plate.”

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