What is Lupus?
Lupus, technically known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in many parts of the body. Symptoms vary between people and may be mild to severe. Common symptoms include painful and swollen joints, fever, chest pain, hair loss, mouth ulcers, swollen lymph nodes, feeling tired, and a red rash which is most commonly on the face. Often there are periods of illness, called flares, and periods of remission during which there are few symptoms.
Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your own tissues and organs. Inflammation caused by lupus can affect many different body systems — including your joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.
Lupus can be difficult to diagnose because its signs and symptoms often mimic those of other ailments. The most distinctive sign of lupus — a facial rash that resembles the wings of a butterfly unfolding across both cheeks — occurs in many but not all cases of lupus.
Some people are born with a tendency toward developing lupus, which may be triggered by infections, certain drugs, or even sunlight. While there’s no cure for lupus, treatments can help control symptoms.
No two cases of lupus are exactly alike. Signs and symptoms may come on suddenly or develop slowly, may be mild or severe, and may be temporary or permanent. Most people with lupus have mild disease characterized by episodes — called flares — when signs and symptoms get worse for a while, then improve or even disappear completely for a time.
The signs and symptoms of lupus that you experience will depend on which body systems are affected by the disease. The most common signs and symptoms include:
- Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling
- A butterfly-shaped rash on the face that covers the cheeks and bridge of the nose or rashes elsewhere on the body
- Skin lesions that appear or worsen with sun exposure (photosensitivity)
- Fingers and toes that turn white or blue when exposed to cold or during stressful periods (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Dry eyes
- Headaches, confusion, and memory loss
Lupus occurs when your immune system attacks healthy tissue in your body (an autoimmune disease). It’s likely that lupus results from a combination of your genetics and your environment.
It appears that people with an inherited predisposition for lupus may develop the disease when they come into contact with something in the environment that can trigger lupus. The cause of lupus in most cases, however, is unknown. Some potential triggers include:
- Sunlight. Exposure to the sun may bring on lupus skin lesions or trigger an internal response in susceptible people.
- Infections. Having an infection can initiate lupus or cause a relapse in some people.
- Medications. Lupus can be triggered by certain types of blood pressure medications, anti-seizure medications, and antibiotics. People who have drug-induced lupus usually get better when they stop taking the medication. Rarely, symptoms may persist even after the drug is stopped.
Many (but not all) scientists believe that lupus develops in response to a combination of factors both inside and outside the body, including hormones, genetics, and environment.
Hormones are the body’s messengers. They regulate many of the body’s functions. Because nine of every 10 occurrences of lupus are in females, researchers have looked at the relationship between estrogen and lupus.
While men and women both produce estrogen, its production is much greater in females. Many women have more lupus symptoms before menstrual periods and/or during pregnancy when estrogen production is high. This may indicate that estrogen somehow regulates the severity of lupus. However, no causal effect has been proven between estrogen, or any other hormone, and lupus. And, studies of women with lupus taking estrogen in either birth control pills or postmenopausal therapy have shown no increase in significant disease activity. Researchers are now focusing on differences between men and women, beyond hormone levels, which may account for why women are more prone to lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
Researchers have now identified more than 50 genes that they associate with lupus. These genes are more commonly seen in people with lupus than in those without the disease, and while most of these genes have not been shown to directly cause lupus, they are believed to contribute to it.
In most cases, genes are not enough. This is especially evident with twins who are raised in the same environment and have the same inherited features yet only one develops lupus. However, when one of two identical twins has lupus, there is an increased chance that the other twin will also develop the disease (30% percent chance for identical twins; 5-10% percent chance for fraternal twins).
Lupus can develop in people with no family history of it, but there are likely to be other autoimmune diseases in some family members.
Certain ethnic groups (people of African, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Island descent) have a greater risk of developing lupus, which may be related to genes they have in common.
Most researchers today think that an environmental agent, such as a virus or possibly a chemical, randomly encountered by a genetically susceptible individual, acts to trigger the disease. Researchers have not identified a specific environmental agent as yet but the hypothesis remains likely.
While the environmental elements that can trigger lupus and cause flares aren’t fully known, the most commonly cited are ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB); infections (including the effects of the Epstein-Barr virus), and exposure to silica dust in agricultural or industrial settings.
Other examples of potential environmental triggers include:
- Ultraviolet rays from the sun and/or fluorescent light bulbs
- Sulfa drugs, which make a person more sensitive to the sun, such as Bactrim® and Septra® (trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole); sulfisoxazole (Gantrisin®); tolbutamide (Orinase®); sulfasalazine (Azulfidine®); diuretics
- Sun-sensitizing tetracycline drugs such as minocycline (Minocin®)
- Penicillin or other antibiotic drugs such as amoxicillin (Amoxil®); ampicillin (Ampicillin Sodium ADD-Vantage®); cloxacillin (Cloxapen®)
- Infection, colds, or viral illnesses
- Emotional stress, such as divorce, illness, death in the family, or other life complications
- Anything else that causes stress to the body such as surgery, physical harm, injury, pregnancy, or giving birth
Factors that may increase your risk of lupus include:
- Your sex. Lupus is more common in women.
- Age. Although lupus affects people of all ages, it’s most often diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45.
- Race. Lupus is more common in African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans.
Inflammation caused by lupus can affect many areas of your body, including your:
- Kidneys. Lupus can cause serious kidney damage, and kidney failure is one of the leading causes of death among people with lupus.
- Brain and central nervous system. If your brain is affected by lupus, you may experience headaches, dizziness, behavior changes, vision problems, and even strokes or seizures. Many people with lupus experience memory problems and may have difficulty expressing their thoughts.
- Blood and blood vessels. Lupus may lead to blood problems, including anemia and an increased risk of bleeding or blood clotting. It can also cause inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis).
- Lungs. Having lupus increases your chances of developing an inflammation of the chest cavity lining (pleurisy), which can make breathing painful. Bleeding into the lungs and pneumonia also are possible.
- Heart. Lupus can cause inflammation of your heart muscle, your arteries, or heart membrane (pericarditis). The risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks increases greatly as well.
Other types of complications
Having lupus also increases your risk of:
- Infection. People with lupus are more vulnerable to infection because both the disease and its treatments can weaken the immune system.
- Cancer. Having lupus appears to increase your risk of cancer; however, the risk is small.
- Bone tissue death (avascular necrosis). This occurs when the blood supply to a bone diminishes, often leading to tiny breaks in the bone and eventually to the bone’s collapse.
- Pregnancy complications. Women with lupus have an increased risk of miscarriage. Lupus increases the risk of high blood pressure during pregnancy (preeclampsia) and preterm birth. To reduce the risk of these complications, doctors often recommend delaying pregnancy until your disease has been under control for at least six months.
Diagnosing lupus is difficult because signs and symptoms vary considerably from person to person. Signs and symptoms of lupus may vary over time and overlap with those of many other disorders.
No one test can diagnose lupus. The combination of blood and urine tests, signs and symptoms, and physical examination findings leads to the diagnosis.
Blood and urine tests may include:
- Complete blood count. This test measures the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets as well as the amount of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells. Results may indicate you have anemia, which commonly occurs in lupus. A low white blood cell or platelet count may occur in lupus as well.
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate. This blood test determines the rate at which red blood cells settle to the bottom of a tube in an hour. A faster-than-normal rate may indicate a systemic disease, such as lupus. The sedimentation rate isn’t specific for any one disease. It may be elevated if you have lupus, an infection, another inflammatory condition, or cancer.
- Kidney and liver assessment. Blood tests can assess how well your kidneys and liver are functioning. Lupus can affect these organs.
- Urinalysis. An examination of a sample of your urine may show an increased protein level or red blood cells in the urine, which may occur if lupus has affected your kidneys.
- Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test. A positive test for the presence of these antibodies — produced by your immune system — indicates a stimulated immune system. While most people with lupus have a positive ANA test, most people with a positive ANA do not have lupus. If you test positive for ANA, your doctor may advise more specific antibody testing.
If your doctor suspects that lupus is affecting your lungs or heart, he or she may suggest:
- Chest X-ray. An image of your chest may reveal abnormal shadows that suggest fluid or inflammation in your lungs.
- Echocardiogram. This test uses sound waves to produce real-time images of your beating heart. It can check for problems with your valves and other portions of your heart.
Lupus can harm your kidneys in many different ways, and treatments can vary, depending on the type of damage that occurs. In some cases, it’s necessary to test a small sample of kidney tissue to determine what the best treatment might be. The sample can be obtained with a needle or through a small incision.
Skin biopsy is sometimes performed to confirm a diagnosis of lupus affecting the skin.
This Is Lupus
Treatment for lupus depends on your signs and symptoms. Determining whether your signs and symptoms should be treated and what medications to use requires a careful discussion of the benefits and risks with your doctor.
As your signs and symptoms flare and subside, you and your doctor may find that you’ll need to change medications or dosages. The medications most commonly used to control lupus include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as naproxen sodium (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), may be used to treat pain, swelling, and fever associated with lupus. Stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription. Side effects of NSAIDs include stomach bleeding, kidney problems, and an increased risk of heart problems.
- Antimalarial drugs. Medications commonly used to treat malaria, such as hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), affect the immune system and can help decrease the risk of lupus flares. Side effects can include stomach upset and, very rarely, damage to the retina of the eye. Regular eye exams are recommended when taking these medications.
- Corticosteroids. Prednisone and other types of corticosteroids can counter the inflammation of lupus. High doses of steroids such as methylprednisolone (A-Methapred, Medrol) are often used to control serious disease that involves the kidneys and brain. Side effects include weight gain, easy bruising, thinning bones (osteoporosis), high blood pressure, diabetes, and increased risk of infection. The risk of side effects increases with higher doses and longer-term therapy.
- Immunosuppressants. Drugs that suppress the immune system may be helpful in serious cases of lupus. Examples include azathioprine (Imuran, Azasan), mycophenolate mofetil (CellCept), and methotrexate (Trexall). Potential side effects may include an increased risk of infection, liver damage, decreased fertility, and an increased risk of cancer.
- Biologics. A different type of medication, belimumab (Benlysta) administered intravenously, also reduces lupus symptoms in some people. Side effects include nausea, diarrhea, and infections. Rarely, the worsening of depression can occur.
- Rituximab (Rituxan) can be beneficial in cases of resistant lupus. Side effects include allergic reactions to the intravenous infusion and infections.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Take steps to care for your body if you have lupus. Simple measures can help you prevent lupus flares and, should they occur, better cope with the signs and symptoms you experience.
- See your doctor regularly. Having regular checkups instead of only seeing your doctor when your symptoms worsen may help your doctor prevent flare-ups, and can be useful in addressing routine health concerns, such as stress, diet, and exercise that can be helpful in preventing lupus complications.
- Be sun-smart. Because ultraviolet light can trigger a flare, wear protective clothing — such as a hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants — and use sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 55 every time you go outside.
- Get regular exercise. Exercise can help keep your bones strong, reduce your risk of heart attack, and promote general well-being.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and can worsen the effects of lupus on your heart and blood vessels.
- Eat a healthy diet. A healthy diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Sometimes you may have dietary restrictions, especially if you have high blood pressure, kidney damage, or gastrointestinal problems.
- Ask your doctor if you need vitamin D and calcium supplements. There is some evidence to suggest that people with lupus may benefit from supplemental vitamin D. A 1,200- to 1,500-milligram calcium supplement taken daily may help keep your bones healthy.
Sometimes people with lupus seek alternative or complementary medicine. However, there aren’t any alternative therapies that have been shown to alter the course of lupus, although some may help ease symptoms of the disease.
Discuss these treatments with your doctor before initiating them on your own. He or she can help you weigh the benefits and risks and tell you if the treatments will interfere adversely with your current lupus medications.
Complementary and alternative treatments for lupus include:
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Supplements containing this hormone may help with fatigue and muscle pain. It may lead to acne in women.
- Fish oil. Fish oil supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids that may be beneficial for people with lupus. Preliminary studies have found some promise, though more study is needed. Side effects of fish oil supplements can include nausea, belching, and a fishy taste in the mouth.
- Acupuncture. This therapy uses tiny needles inserted just under the skin. It may help ease the muscle pain associated with lupus.
Ashwagandha is one of the most effective herbal remedies available for treating Lupus. Ashwagandha helps in increasing the flow of blood throughout the body, which helps in eliminating toxins causing Lupus from the body. This herb is rich in natural steroids which are very beneficial in reducing inflammation of the body cells, thereby proving to be very useful in treating autoimmune diseases like Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
The root of Ashwagandha contains chemicals that help provide relief from Lupus and its associated symptoms of joint pain, swelling, memory loss, fatigue, and stiffness in the body joints. Ashwagandha can be consumed internally in the form of capsules, root powder, extract, decoction, etc., to get relief from Lupus.
Turmeric has been used traditionally by both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat Lupus and its associated symptoms. Curcumin is the main ingredient of Turmeric, helping in reducing the inflammation of body tissues and cells. This helps in providing relief from joint pain, which is one of the most common symptoms of Lupus.
Turmeric is a naturally found antiseptic and helps the body fight against infections which aggravate the problem of Lupus. Turmeric is a very cheap and naturally found herbal remedy. It can be consumed internally in addition to cooking food or milk. Turmeric can also be applied topically to the painful joint area in the form of salve, or ointments.
Black Cohosh has been used effectively as an important herbal remedy to treat Lupus. Black Cohosh helps in maintaining estrogen balance in the body, thereby curing the problem of Lupus in menopausal women due to low estrogen levels. Black cohosh is also very useful in treating the inflammation of the joint tissues and the acute pain associated with it.
These properties of Black cohosh make it an important ingredient of many anti-lupus herbal remedies available on the market. Black cohosh can be consumed in the form of capsules, tonics, dried root powder, and extract.
Feverfew is another very remarkable herbal remedy for curing the symptoms associated with Lupus. Feverfew helps in inhibiting the process of the COX-2 enzyme which causes inflammation in the joints of the body. Feverfew is also very effective in reducing pain and is, therefore, actively used to treat Lupus.
Feverfew also helps in increasing the circulation of blood in the body, which helps in removing the toxins responsible for causing Lupus and arthritis. Feverfew is available in the form of extract, capsules, tonics, etc., to provide relief from Lupus.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is a popular herbal remedy that is used to treat Lupus and its associated symptoms. St. John contains the chemical compounds hyperforin and hypericin, which help in treating depression related to Lupus. It is also very effective in soothing joint pain and discomfort associated with Lupus, Arthritis, etc. The oil of St. John’s Wort is also very effective in reducing joint inflammation, which is a common Lupus symptom.
St. John’s Wort can be applied topically on the joints in the form of essential oil to provide relief from lupus pain. It can also be consumed in the form of herbal tea, tincture, extract, capsules, tonic, etc.
White Willow is yet another very beneficial herbal remedy to cure Lupus and its related symptoms. The bark of White willow is rich in medicinal properties and is used to treat the pain of the joints associated with Lupus. Salicylic acid is the main component of White willow, which is a naturally found aspirin and helps in providing relief from pain.
White willow bark is also very useful in treating inflammation of the body tissues and joints, associated with Lupus. White willow bark provides a soothing and calming effect to joint pain and can be consumed in the form of tincture, capsules, decoctions, etc. It can also be brewed into herbal tea for immediate relief.
Devil’s Claw is a very powerful herbal remedy that is used effectively to treat Lupus. Iridoids are the main chemical compound found in Devil’s Claw which helps in preventing inflammation of the joints associated with the autoimmune disease Lupus.
It also helps in providing relief from the pain associated with the soreness of muscles and tendons in the case of Lupus. Devil’s claw can be consumed in the form of capsules, extracts, infusions, decoctions, etc., to provide relief from Lupus symptoms.
Rosemary is another very effective herbal remedy used for treating Lupus. Rosemary helps in increasing blood circulation in the body, thereby reducing inflammation of the body tissues by removing toxins. Rosemary is also very effective in reducing pain caused due to sore muscles and tendons in the body. It helps in bursting stress and provides a soothing and calming effect on the nerves of the body.
All these properties of Rosemary make it a much sought-after herbal remedy for Lupus. Rosemary essential oil can be massaged on the aching joints, muscles, and tendons to provide instant relief. It can also be consumed in the form of herbal tea, extract, capsules, etc.
Meadowsweet is another very useful herbal remedy for curing aches and pain associated with Lupus disease. Meadowsweet contains Salicylic acid, which is a naturally found aspirin used for fast pain relief. It is also rich in anti-inflammatory properties, which help in reducing inflammation caused by Lupus.
The leaves of Meadowsweet are rich in medicinal properties and can be consumed in the form of extract, decoctions, tonics, herbal tea, etc., to get relief from Lupus symptoms.
Always consult with a doctor/dermatologist before taking any herbal supplements
The best food for lupus includes the following:
- Organic raw vegetables help reduce inflammation and digestion.
- Fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants like berries, avocados, leafy greens, onions, garlic, and asparagus. The high fiber content of these fruits and veg as well as their high vitamin and mineral content help reduce fatigue and joint pain.
- Wild fish are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids that can help keep inflammation in check. Excellent sources of omega-3 include salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, and sardines.
- Bone broth helps relieve inflammation and is highly recommended for the symptoms of lupus.
- Olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, flax, and chia are good sources of omega-3 and they also help to relieve the skin irritation that often occurs with lupus.
- Drink ample amounts of fresh water, green tea, and other antioxidant herbal teas.
Food to Avoid
Some food is known to contribute to lupus and make the symptoms even worse. Food to avoid at all costs includes the following:
Gluten intolerance is very common because it is difficult for some to digest. It can lead to inflammation and trigger flare-ups in lupus sufferers.
Because of the condition’s effects on the kidneys, it is best that people avoid a high-sodium diet. This can help limit inflammation, fluid retention, and electrolyte imbalance.
- Trans Fats
The trans fats and certain saturated fats found in fried food and processed products can exacerbate inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease. Many lupus patients find it difficult to metabolize these fats and should try to limit them in their diets.
Diets high in sugar can increase symptoms by excessively stimulating the immune system.
- Caffeine and Alcohol
These drinks should be avoided or limited because they are known to cause liver damage and worsen inflammation, and pain. They also increase feelings of anxiety and lead to insomnia.
- Some Legumes
Some lupus patients experience flare-ups as a result of certain legumes including peanuts, alfalfa seeds, green beans, and sprouts. This is because of the presence of an amino acid called L-canavanine.
- Lupus or SLE is a chronic inflammatory condition caused by an overactive immune system response.
- It causes a wide range of symptoms including inflammation, joint pain, and skin rashes.
- flare-ups can come and go and are triggered by a number of factors including allergic reactions and illness.
- It can be a very serious condition so it is always best to seek professional medical help as a first-line.
- As well as certain prescription medications, your doctor is likely to recommend certain lifestyle changes.
- Natural treatments aimed at keeping symptoms under control include exercise, rest, an anti-inflammatory diet, and essential oils.
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