Lupus means “wolf,” maybe because wolves are sly and lupus is the slyest of the autoimmune diseases–conditions in which the trusty immune system, which normally tracks and destroys viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells, suddenly turns and attacks the body. Most of the autoimmune diseases are satisfied with seizing one organ (say, the thyroid or the liver) or the joints. But lupus has imperial ambitions. The skin, joints, muscles, brain, kidney, and all the connective tissue can become victims of the very system that once guarded their existence.
Although it’s more successful in treating lupus than it was one or two decades ago, conventional medicine still does not know why this symptom-rich disease strikes. At WholeHealth Chicago, we’ve learned alternative therapies to add to conventional medicine to vastly enrich people’s lives. Many treatments come from our patients’ experience. Here’s what we’ve found together.
What is Lupus?
Lupus, also known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells all over the body. Its most visible characteristic is a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and bridge of the nose, but overall its symptoms are unpredictable. A more common and much more benign form of lupus is limited to the skin alone. This form is called discoid lupus erythematosus, so-called because the lesions appear in circular (disc) shapes over exposed areas of the skin. Only about 5% of patients with discoid lupus progress to the more widespread form of this condition. Doctors mainly use topical corticosteroid creams to reduce the inflammation on the surface of the skin. Oral medications are rarely required.
Lupus is known as the “great impostor” because it can cause symptoms almost anyplace in the body, including the kidneys, joints, heart, brain, and skin, making getting a correct diagnosis a challenge. Up to 250,000 Americans are estimated to have lupus, but many are unaware of it.
Women get lupus eight to 10 times as often as men do. Doctors prescribe medications for lupus both to reduce symptoms and to control the otherwise uncontrolled immune system. Although lupus is considered an incurable condition, many patients with lupus experience complete remission of their disease. With each passing disease-free year, the chances of remaining disease-free keep increasing. Well over half of patients with lupus who go into remission remain so for decades.
- Fever, fatigue, swollen glands
- Painfully inflamed joints
- Red rash across the cheeks and nose, and elsewhere on sun-exposed areas of the body as well
- Chest pain or cough
- Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting
- Sun sensitivity
- Blurred vision
- Muscle pain or tingling; numbness, stiffness, temporary paralysis, spasms
- Many other symptoms mimicking a myriad of diseases
What Causes Lupus?
No one knows what triggers the immune system to produce abnormal cells that attack healthy tissues all over the body, though scientists believe that heredity, sex hormones, and infections may play a role. Some experts believe a virus is the underlying cause, but the theory has never been proven. However, it is well known that sunlight, childbirth, abortion, stress, or medications such as hydralazine (an antihypertensive), procainamide (a heart arrhythmia drug), chlorpromazine (a tranquilizer) and some foods may set flare-ups in motion.
Treatment and Prevention
Doctors know of no way to prevent lupus. Instead they focus on controlling acute flare-ups and figuring out the best long-term solutions, which often involve immune-suppressing medications. The key is keeping symptoms at an acceptable, maintenance level. And there may be an acknowledged price to pay because some medications have side effects.
Most symptoms can be controlled with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, or drugs normally used for malaria (hydroxychloraquine). If the lupus worsens, and it looks as if vital organs (the kidney, brain, heart) might be damaged, doctors prescribe medications to suppress the immune system, including corticosteroids or drugs normally used in cancer chemotherapy.
It’s when high-dose steroids are introduced that side effects become a problem: Weight gain, diabetes, cataract formation, and weakening of bones (osteoporosis) are the challenges faced by a patient on steroids. The main advantage of the cancer agents is that they actually have fewer side effects than long-term, high-dose steroids. Using these often allows the doctor to reduce the steroid dose the patient needs to take to keep the disease under control.
Using nutritional supplements and other self-care measures will not cure systemic lupus (SLE) but it will help to improve your overall general health and speed up the healing of organs damaged by this condition. And it may help you stave off acute SLE episodes.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s a wise idea to check with your doctor before starting a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
A mix of supplements taken daily over a long period of time may ease lupus symptoms and slow the advance of the disease as they reduce the needed doses of standard drugs. All of the supplements mentioned here are compatible with lupus medications. In most cases they are not enough on their own, and a doctor’s supervision is recommended. Benefits may take a month to accrue.
Vitamins C and E, selenium, and grape seed extract–all antioxidants–hasten healing and help shield areas such as the heart, blood vessels, joints, and skin from inflammation damage.
Vitamin E may be especially helpful with skin and joint problems. Early studies point to a link between low blood levels of vitamin E–and also vitamin A and beta carotene–and the subsequent development of lupus in later years. It’s still not clear whether the low nutrient levels cause lupus or whether they’re the result of existing lupus that has not yet been diagnosed. The amount of vitamin E in your daily high-potency multivitamin plus an additional 400 IU a day should be sufficient.
Essential fatty acids found in fish oils, flaxseed oil, and evening primrose oil (or borage oil) may help control inflammation in the kidneys, joints, skin, and elsewhere. They may also help the immune system to function better.
The hormone DHEA is being intensively studied for mild to moderate lupus. It may lower the dose of the prescription steroid drug prednisone that a lupus patient needs to take. It may also boost energy and relieve other symptoms. DHEA doses must be high in order to work, so take it with the advice of a physician who is well versed in treating lupus with DHEA. DHEA is not recommended for people at risk for hormone-related cancers (breast, prostate, etc.).
Zinc is another nutrient that promotes healing. Along with vitamin C, it may also play a role in balancing the immune system response. Zinc lowers copper absorption, so zinc users are advised to take extra copper.
The enzyme bromelain, which is derived from pineapple, can cut the inflammation of arthritis associated with lupus. In order for bromelain to be successful as an anti-inflammatory herb, however, it must be taken between meals.
Avoid the sun. Use high-SPF sunscreens when outdoors.
Set aside ample time for rest.
Keep stress to a minimum. A lupus support group may help.
Over-the-counter analgesics and warm compresses can take the edge off achiness and pain.
Avoid alfalfa sprouts, seeds, tablets, tea, and any other form. Alfalfa contains an ingredient called canavanine, a substance that some experts think sets the stage for attacks.
Some specialists recommend a low-salt diet for lupus patients.
When to Call a Doctor
- Any time you notice the symptoms of lupus.
- Any time your lupus suddenly worsens or you develop new symptoms.
- Any time you have along illness you can’t explain, especially if you have fever, joint pain, weight loss, rashes, or breathing difficulties.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: For somebody with lupus, the body is a battlefield, where a rogue immune system, an inappropriate inflammatory response, and the side effects of powerful drugs brought in to suppress both the immune system and the inflammation all duke it out. You’ve got to clean up the mess to heal.
All of these supplements are for long-term use; they can be taken together and with conventional drugs. You may see some improvement within a month. Lupus is a serious condition, so make sure your doctor is aware of their use.
How to Take the Supplements
In lupus, it’s particularly important that you take a daily high-potency multivitamin (which contains essential B vitamins), as well as a good antioxidant combination. Because some studies have reported low antioxidant levels in lupus patients, additional vitamin C and vitamin E are also recommended. One study, for instance, showed that high doses of vitamin E (900 IU-1,600 IU daily) cleared skin lesions in patients with discoid lupus.
For further antioxidant protection, you should add selenium and zinc with copper (copper is needed when taking zinc over the long term).
The essential fatty acids in fish oil, flaxseed oil, and evening primrose oil (or borage oil) act as natural anti-inflammatories, protecting your joints, kidneys, and skin. Add grape seed extract not only as a potent antioxidant but also for its ability to reinforce collagen and other connective tissues (lupus is classified as a connective tissue disorder).
Recent research on the hormone DHEA is showing that high doses of the nutritional supplement may work as well as steroid medications do to calm down active lupus–and without steroids’ unpleasant side effects (such as weight gain, hair loss, and diabetes). Taking DHEA requires medical guidance, but given the side effects of high-dose steroids, it’s worth seeking out a physician who will work with you.
Bromelain, a pineapple-based enzyme, is very safe to use on an ongoing basis. You might consider bromelain whenever your doctor recommends that you try using a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.