Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy tissue and organs. It causes high levels of persistent inflammation, which can negatively affect nearly every part of the body: the heart, joints, brain, kidneys, lungs and endocrine glands, for example. It’s also called SLE, which stands for Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.
Because lupus symptoms are very similar to many other health conditions — such as thyroid disorders, Lyme disease and fibromyalgia — lupus can be very hard to diagnose.
While some people with lupus are able to lead very normal, happy lives, other lupus patients deal with severe symptoms that can at times can be debilitating. Lupus tends to cause periods of unpredictable “flare-ups,” when symptoms get very bad for a period of time, followed by periods of remission. Common signs and symptoms of lupus include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, insomnia, GI issues and skin rashes.
It takes many lupus patients years to be accurately diagnosed, sometimes leaving patients to be prescribed various prescriptions over and over again that don’t seem to fix the problem. Today, conventional medications for lupus include corticosteroid drugs, NSAID pain relievers, thyroid medications and even synthetic hormone replacement drugs — which help lower inflammation but can cause many unwanted side effects and even long-term health problems.
Although many patients with lupus aren’t thrilled about the effects of the prescriptions they take, most feel they have no other choice and are desperate to find relief from their symptoms. Fortunately, natural remedies for lupus, including supplements, exercise and a healthy diet high in anti-inflammatory foods can all help manage symptoms and improve overall immune function, without raising the risk for complications.
What Causes Lupus?
Lupus or systemic lupus erythematosus is an inflammatory condition that’s triggered by a number of factors that cause the immune system to mistakenly attack the body’s own healthy tissue. The exact cause of SLE (and most autoimmune disorders, for that matter) is still not entirely agreed upon by the medical community today, but researchers know that genetics and someone’s lifestyle both play a part in triggering inflammation.
Potential lupus causes include allergic reactions, viruses, emotional stress, estrogen disruption due to pregnancy or birth control, hormonal imbalances, poor digestion, and metal toxicity.
Lupus risk factors include:
- Having genetic susceptibility and a family history of lupus or other autoimmune disorders
- Being a woman (90 percent of all lupus patients are women)
- Being between the ages of 15–45; women of “childbearing age” are by far the most likely to develop lupus
- Being of African-American, Asian or Native American decent; these ethnicities develop lupus two to three times more often than Caucaisans do
- Eating a poor diet and having nutrient deficiencies
- GI troubles including leaky gut syndrome
- Food allergies and sensitivities
- Toxicity exposure
- A history of infections and other autoimmune disorders
Lupus Symptoms & Warning Signs
Lupus causes symptoms both directly (due to inflammation) and also indirectly due to worsening levels of stress. Therefore, a lupus diagnosis often takes a while to occur accurately. Blood tests are often ordered that check for specific antibodies to help determine the diagnosis of lupus. They include such antibodies called anti-dsDNA and antinuclear antibody. If you suffer from some of the symptoms below frequently, then a doctor may diagnose lupus as your malady.
In addition, any lupus patients suffer psychologically and deal with symptoms of anxiety, depression, memory loss and insomnia — partially because lupus can cause nerve damage to the spinal cord and inflammation of the brain, but also because battling lupus can be very hard.
Common symptoms of lupus include:
- chronic fatigue
- joint pains
- muscle aches
- stiffness, swelling and edema
- shortness of breath and chest pains
- skin rashes and sunburns
- depression and anxiety
- blurred vision and dry eyes
- mouth and nose sores and ulcers
- anemia and weakness
- memory loss and confusion
- complications including higher risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, kidney damage, lung damage, infections, seizures and stroke
Conventional Lupus Treatment: Risks and Side Effects
Lupus is usually treated by conventional medical doctors and rheumatologists with a combination of prescriptions and lifestyle changes. Some patients are prescribed numerous prescriptions at once and are told it takes “experimenting” for a while with different combinations of drugs to get symptoms under control. This can cause a lot of anxiety, many side effects, sometimes dependence on drugs and a much higher risk for other problems.
Prescription medications often used to manage lupus include:
- Immunosuppressive medications: These prescriptions include cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan®), methotrexate (Rheumatrex®) and belimumab (Benlysta®). They’re used to help control inflammation and the overactive immune system. While they might lower pain and inflammation, they can also cause many serious side effects. Immunosuppressive drugs reduce your body’s ability to fight off infections and viruses and might even increase the risk for cancer. They also cause side effects, including kidney problems, bladder problems, hair loss, irregular periods, lung damage, pancreatitis and an allergic form of hepatitis, and worsened sun sensitivity.
- Anti-rheumatic drug: A medication first used for malaria, hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil®) is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, some lupus symptoms, childhood arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.
- NSAID painkillers: Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs are often used for joint pain, muscle aches, headaches and tenderness. NSAIDs can be addictive in nature, form dependence, and cause side effects, including kidney damage and liver damage.
- Steroids: These can include prednisone and hydrocortisone, which are used to lower swelling, pain, skin rashes and inflammation. They can cause many different side effects, including weight gain, a puffy face, hormonal changes, acne, higher risk for bone loss, and mood changes, such as irritability, agitation, excitability, insomnia or depression.
- Blood pressure medications and anticoagulants: These are used to treat problems with blood clotting and blood pressure changes. Side effects can be life-threatening and include increased bleeding, low blood pressure, weakness and heart problems.
- Synthetic hormones and birth control pills: Sometimes used to regulate hormones and combat side effects of other medications, these can increase risk for endometriosis, blood-clotting problems, weight gain and more.
Foods that Make Lupus Worse
Some foods that can contribute to lupus and make autoimmune disease symptoms worse include:
- Gluten: Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley, rye and most flour-containing products. Gluten intolerance is common because it’s difficult for many people to digest properly. This can increase leaky gut syndrome, inflammation or trigger a lupus flare-up.
- Trans fat and sometimes saturated fats: These fats are found in fast food, many fried foods and packaged/processed foods, and can lead to inflammation and heart problems. Some people with lupus have a hard time metabolizing saturated fats and should limit cheese, red meat, creamy foods and packaged foods.
- Added sugar: Too much sugar can overstimulate the immune system and increase pain.
- High-sodium foods: Because lupus can damage the kidneys — in fact, lupus nephritis is a type of kidney disease caused by systemic lupus erythematosus — it’s best to try to keep sodium and salt levels low to prevent fluid retention, worsened swelling and electrolyte imbalances.
- Alcohol and too much caffeine: These can increase anxiety, worsen inflammation, damage the liver, increase pain, and cause dehydration and sleep-related problems.
- Certain legumes: Alfalfa seeds and sprouts, green beans, peanuts, soybeans, and snow peas contain a substance that has been shown to trigger lupus flare-ups in some patients (although not all). Negative reactions in certain patients are believed to be caused by the amino acid L-canavanine.
It’s also very important to avoid smoking cigarettes and using recreational drugs. These can worsen lung damage and inflammation significantly, leading to complications, such as infections.
Natural Lupus Treatment
According to the Lupus Foundation of America as well as Lupus Research Institute (LRI), people turn to diverse natural therapies and alternative medicines to help manage their symptoms. Which are best to treat lupus? Well, looking at lupus research, these can include homeopathy and use of herbs, chiropractic care, traditional Chinese medicine (such as acupuncture and tai chi), Ayurveda and yoga, naturopathy, massage therapy, meditation, and prayer/spirituality.
Here are some of the most effective natural lupus treatment options:
1. Anti-Inflammatory Diet to Heal Gut Issues
Research shows that a healthy, unprocessed diet is very important for managing lupus because it helps control inflammation stemming from poor gut health, reduces risk for complications like heart disease, helps build strength and energy, and reduces side effects of medications.
The best foods for lupus include:
- Organic, unprocessed foods: help reduce exposure to synthetic additives, toxins or pesticides in non-organic foods
- Raw vegetables: promote an alkaline body, reduce inflammation and improve digestion
- Wild-caught fish: provide omega-3 fats to help reduce inflammation, risk for heart disease and pain. Sources include salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, tuna and halibut.
- High-antioxidant foods (vegetables and fruit): include leafy greens, garlic, onions, asparagus, avocado and berries. These foods are high in fiber, vitamin C, selenium, magnesium and potassium to help prevent free radical damage, repair possible damage to the joints and lower fatigue.
- Bone broth: can reduce autoimmune and inflammatory symptoms that are associated with lupus. Consume eight to 16 ounces of bone broth daily as a beverage or as part of a soup.
Certain foods can also help relieve skin irritation and dryness that’s very commonly associated with lupus. Foods to help moisturize skin from the inside out include:
- nuts and seeds like chia, flax, walnuts and almonds (also great sources of fiber and omega-3s)
- coconut oil and olive oil
- wild-caught fish
- raw milk
- cucumbers and melon
- drinking plenty of water and herbal tea and green tea
According to a study published in the Journal of the Arthritis Health Professionals Association, getting regular exercise is important to treat lupus for many reasons. Exercise lowers stress, helps with sleep quality, makes your heart and lungs stronger, strengthens bones, lowers joint pain, improves flexibility and range of motion, and lowers risk for complications. Research done by the National Institute of Physical Activity and Sport Science in Spain has found that “physical exercise is a useful tool for improving cardiovascular fitness, reducing metabolic abnormalities and fatigue, and improving quality of life in people with lupus.” This means you can add lupus treatment to the list of exercise benefits.
Because lupus can cause chronic fatigue, electrolyte imbalances and anemia, it’s crucial to start slowly and not overexert yourself. Give yourself enough rest between workouts to recover and eat within a short window after exercising. Activities that can be beneficial for people with lupus include about 20–30 minutes of the following exercises at once: brisk walking, swimming, water aerobics, tai chi, yoga, cycling, Pilates or using an elliptical machine.
3. Stress Reduction
Research shows that psychological and emotional stress can set off lupus (and other autoimmune diseases) or bring about a lupus flare-up by increasing inflammatory responses. Systemic lupus erythematosus can also be very unpredictable and cause changes to the central nervous system, which leads to severe psychological distress and anxiety.
Different stress relievers work for different people, so keep in mind this might take some experimenting. Many people have found meditation, yoga and acupuncture to be treatment modalities worth considering since they have numerous benefits for both body and mind. Other ways to help manage stress include spending time in nature, breathing techniques, exercising, praying, keeping a journal, reading, joining a support group, seeing a therapist and using essential oils for anxiety.
4. Getting Enough Sleep and Rest
Studies published in the International Journal for Clinical Rheumatology have shown that 53 percent to 80 percent of lupus patients have identified fatigue as one of their primary symptoms. Because fatigue is a big obstacle for most people with lupus, taking measures to make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep every night and also rest during the day is important.
Most people with lupus need to sleep at least eight to nine hours every night, and some need to also take a short nap during the day to keep their energy up. One problem is that insomnia can also be a side effect of lupus, sometimes due to increased anxiety levels, but also due to oversleeping during the day.
Tips for reducing and dealing with fatigue caused by lupus include:
- Try going to bed before 10 p.m. every night.
- Stick to a regular sleep/wake schedule in order to regulate your circadian rhythm and fall asleep more easily.
- Sleep a cool, very dark room, and avoid artificial lights from electronics at least one to two hours before bed.
- Give yourself 10–15 minutes in the morning to breath and be still in order to wake up calmly.
- Always eat a substantial breakfast to give you energy in the morning.
- Cut back or eliminate caffeinated drinks.
- Try doing something active in the morning to get your heart rate up.
- Make a schedule for the day to stay organized and calm, leaving yourself time for short breaks.
5. Protecting and Healing Sensitive Skin
Cutaneous lupus erythematosus is the type of lupus that encompasses a wide range of dermatologic symptoms. Studies show that up to 90 percent of people with lupus develop skin rashes and legions, including a “butter-fly shaped” rash that covers the cheeks and nose.
It’s possible to develop coin-sized skin lesions, red skin, itchiness, peeling and a very high level of sensitivity to sunlight (photosensitivity). In the case of skin lesions, patients might find that as one lesion/patch goes away another one starts to appear and form a scale, usually at the same time that symptoms like fatigue and joint pain increase.
Skin rashes associated with lupus are caused by an underlying inflammatory response. It’s important to protect sensitive skin from irritants and also the sun if skin starts to show signs of a rash, hives or redness. Certain chemicals in household or beauty products (like lotions, detergents, washes and makeup) can worsen skin inflammation and make dryness and itchiness worse. Tips for helping to heal and protect sensitive skin caused by lupus include:
- Avoid direct sunlight during peak hours of the day, especially from 9 a.m.–3 p.m.
- Wear non-toxic sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher.
- Wear sunglasses and a hat.
- Use a humidifier in your bedroom to help keep skin moist.
- Switch from conventional beauty and household products to those that are organic and made with natural ingredients like coconut oil, jojoba oil, shea butter and essential oils.
- Avoid very hot showers, and instead make the water lukewarm.
- Take baths with colloidal oatmeal powder for extra moisture and then lubricate skin right away afterward.
- Spritz dry skin throughout the day with mineral water.
- Consume plenty of vitamin E or take a supplement.
- Avoid wearing antiperspirants, perfumes, scented lotions and chemical-containing makeup.
Supplements that can help reduce nutrient deficiencies and lower inflammation include:
- Omega-3 fish oil (2,000 milligrams daily): EPA/DHA in fish oil are critical for reducing inflammation. A 2016 study on female mice found that consuming DHA stopped lupus symptoms triggered by crystalline silica by ninety-six percent.
- DHEA (200 milligrams daily): can help improve symptoms but best taken with medical supervision
- Vitamin D3 (2,000–5,000 IU daily): can help modulate the immune system and lower depression/anxiety. Also important for hormonal balance and bone health along with calcium
- MSM (2,000–8,000 milligrams daily): a natural anti-inflammatory that can greatly improve digestive symptoms
- Green superfood supplement: ideally includes antioxidants and chlorella or spirulina. This works by alkalizing the body, providing electrolytes, boosting liver and kidney functions, and providing healing nutrients.
- Turmeric: works similarly to steroid drugs used to combat inflammation and pain
7. Treating Pain and Inflammation Naturally
- Essential oils and aromatherapy: Essential oils for lupus include frankincense essential oil (effective at reducing inflammation, take three drops three times daily in water, in honey or in capsule form), helichrysum oil (supports the nervous system and can help reverse autoimmune reactions, take internally or applied to neck area), lavender and geranium oils (used to treat skin inflammation, add three drops to carrier oil and rub into skin), and ginger oil (used for digestive issues, take three drops internally two to three times daily).
- Chiropractic adjustments: can help correct spinal problems, treat headaches, and reduce back pain or joint pain
- Yoga and stretching: improve flexibility, can help lower joint pain and improve range of motion. According to John Hopkin’s University, “Yoga also encourages a meditative focus, increased body awareness and mindfulness and some evidence suggests yoga may help decrease inflammatory mediators including C-reactive protein and interleukin-6.”
- Detox baths using Epsom salts
- Acupuncture: effective for treating chronic pain naturally
- Massage therapy: can help reduce stress, muscle stiffness, soreness and swelling
- Mindfulness meditation: can help people cope better with stress, depression, and chronic tension or pain
Precautions for Treating Lupus & Key Takeaways
- Lupus is a chronic inflammatory, autoimmune disease that causes widespread symptoms that usually come and go.
- Because lupus can be very serious and even life-threatening at times, always make sure to discuss treatment options with your doctor, and don’t stop taking any of your medications without guidance first.
- Whether you choose to take various medications or not, natural remedies for lupus, including an anti-inflammatory diet, exercise, essential oils for pain and stress reduction, can help manage symptoms and prevent further complications.