After Jewell Singletary was diagnosed with lupus, she also developed rheumatoid arthritis — a common combination since both are autoimmune diseases — and had to use a cane to navigate her college campus. Upon graduation, the now 38-year-old New Jersey resident decided to focus more on supporting her health and maintaining her mobility as she began her career.
She started in the kitchen.
She says the first to be thrown out were sugary drinks, fried foods, and highly processed options. Once she took them out, it wasn’t long before she could throw away another important item: her cane.
“My mobility improved dramatically just from these diet changes alone,” she says. “I haven’t had to use a cane since then, and that progress made me realize just how much changing my diet could do.” A few years later, she tried cutting dairy products and felt another health boost, followed by cutting red meat and pork. Recently, she’s been trying to cut down on her gluten consumption and reports that she’s already feeling some positive effects, such as increased overall energy.
“Dietary habits can definitely 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 science advisory board for Lupus Foundation of America. “Right now, lupus is not curable, but it is manageable, and a big part of how to do that is through lifestyle habits such as exercise, sleep, stress management, and diet.”
Read more: The 7 Best Foods to Fight Inflammation.
What the research says
There is no “lupus diet” recommended for people with the condition. Still, as Singletary found, food can have a major impact on symptoms such as fatigue, as well as inflammation-related effects such as painful, stiff joints. For some, dietary changes can affect other problems, such as frequent headaches, anxiety, and skin irritation, and researchers are digging into the connection.
According to a 2021 study in the journal Lupus Science & Medicine, a type of dietary fiber known as resistant starch may impact lupus by enhancing the effectiveness of the gut microbiome, the community of bacteria, and other organisms in the gastrointestinal tract. Resistant starch is found in foods such as oats, barley, beans, peas, plantains, and lentils. † This fiber feeds the good bacteria in the gut, which in turn support the immune system and reduce lupus-related symptoms, as well as the risk of a condition called antiphospholipid syndrome — an effect of lupus that can cause blood clots.
In research published this year that looked at symptom severity, increased vegetable consumption was linked to improvements in joint and muscle pain and benefiting mood, fatigue, and weight management. In a 2020 study involving more than 173,000 women, high consumption of nuts and legumes reduced potential lupus risk by 41%. That study found that the effects were particularly robust when the shift to plant foods was accompanied by reduced consumption of processed foods, sugar, gluten, and dairy.
Other research on the impact of diet on systemic lupus erythematosus, published in 2018, notes that food choices not only show promise for managing lupus symptoms but also play a role in lowering the risk of associated conditions for lupus, such as cardiovascular disease. Diseases, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and high cholesterol.
Despite these kinds of results, more research is needed to explore links between specific foods and lupus, Kamen says. But in the meantime, making even small changes can lead to better health in the long run for those with the condition.
Read more: What lupus patients want their doctors to know?
Top tips if you have lupus
In general, nutritional advice for people with lupus is similar to advise that applies to everyone, Kamen says. That means more fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains because those contain important nutri andl fiber, which can help reduce Inflammation uce symptoms, she says. In terms of specific tips for people with lupus, here are some to consider:
Make changes when taking corticosteroids.
Using these drugs for managing 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 Prescription for Survival: What You Can Do to live a life. Healthier and more environmentally friendly life.
For example, corticosteroids can cause fluid retention, and adding a salty diet can worsen that problem. Also, a high-protein diet is often recommended, as a drug like prednisone can speed up protein breakdown, resulting in even more protein loss if there’s a digestive problem like Crohn’s disease.
Corticosteroids also lower calcium levels, so according to Hunnes, most people taking these drugs will need to focus on boosting that mineral in their diet and may need to take a supplement. Calcium is found in yogurt, milk, salmon, and broccoli. Other possible effects of the drugs include higher cholesterol and increased blood sugar, so Hunnes adds that limiting sugar and fat is important.
Watch out for food intolerance and sensitivity.
Food allergies are often easy to spot, as they can trigger a dramatic reaction. Still, according to Dr. Bindiya Gandhi, a Georgia-based functional medicine physician, food sensitivities may be harder to detect. These foods can cause indigestion, fatigue, headaches, and bloat. The main problem for people with lupus is that an intolerance reaction can amplify Inflammation, which Gandhi says can become chronic if those foods are consumed regularly.
“Pay attention to how you feel right after you eat, as well as hours later,” she says. “An initial inflammatory response may be mild, but as your body works to digest that food, it may be more noticeable.”
For example, if you eat eggs, you may become overloaded, or gluten contributes to brain fog in the afternoon. Gandhi says that if you feel this way after eating certain foods but still consume them frequently, your inflammatory response doesn’t have time to shut down. That could lead to a higher risk of lupus attacks shortly.
Eat for better kidney health.
Keep in mind that diets may need to change based on the health of certain organ systems, Hunnes adds. In lupus, the kidneys can be most affected. If that happens, specific dietary recommendations should be followed.
Hunnes says limiting animal proteins is usually the most advisable strategy, as well as restricting minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and sodium because they can’t be effectively filtered by the kidneys if those organs are damaged. Speaking to a dietitian about a kidney diet is helpful, as is adding nutritious foods like berries, garlic, olive oil, bell peppers, and cabbage.
Focus on your feelings.
While keeping your digestive system on track is a critical part of staying healthy for everyone, recent research into the microbiome suggests it could be a big boon to lupus patients.
“A major benefit is that a well-functioning gut can control inflammation throughout the body, which is critical to disease management,” says Erin Kenney, a Boston-based registered dietitian and author of Rewire Your Gut. While there are probiotic supplements that support robust, beneficial bacteria in your microbiome, getting what you need from food first can give you more nutrients, she says.
Key tactics include focusing on a high-fiber diet, especially fruits and vegetables, and more fermented foods such as yogurt, pickled vegetables, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut. Kenney says that highly processed foods, including meats like hot dogs and bacon, have been linked to poor gut health, so it’s best to limit those options in your diet.
Read more: Here’s everything you need to know about gut health
While the suggestions from doctors, researchers, and dietitians are important starting points, many people with lupus, like Singletary, have found that it comes down to a personal level when monitoring how food affects them. Tracking food intake and seeing trends in symptom worsening has become a daily activity for many who have lupus.
For example, Margo Pinckney, 45, of Philadelphia, initially cut out processed foods after being diagnosed with lupus. But after several years of navigating her symptoms and becoming more aware of how diet affects her feelings, Pinckney continued to refine her meals and snacks based on which foods flared up her symptoms, especially fatigue. That led to us avoiding the milk path.
“Cheese used to be my best friend — I’d put it on anything,” she says. “However, when I started limiting and eliminating dairy, I felt better. I feel like I have less Inflammation by watching what I eat.”
For Ingrid Perez-Martin, a 41-year-old lupus patient in Georgia, spicy food is the most problematic. She says the longer she’s had lupus, the more challenging these have become.
“Foods that I used to eat all the time now wake me up in the middle of the night because I’m throwing up,” she adds. “There is no food worth adding more illness or another hospitalization to my life. It’s so dramatic. I can clearly see the signs of eating the wrong thing, so I try to be more focused and eat what my health demands.”
Perez-Martin became so knowledgeable about healthy eating and overall wellness for her condition that she became a nutritionist and fitness instructor. “Paying attention to how I treat my body is something I should have done 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 an issue, but she’s particularly sensitive to fast food, which makes her feel sluggish. Because extreme fatigue is such a frustrating symptom for lupus patients, maintaining consistent energy is critical. Weeks says that when she skips the drive-through and focuses on healthy foods instead, she just feels better.
Kamen says examples like this point to how much diet comes down to individual responses. Being able to “read” the effects of certain foods can go a long way toward providing personalized nutrition that can deliver significant benefits to managing lupus, including better sleep, less Inflammation, more energy, a lighter mood, and better gut health.
“Simply put, there’s no way you can get into balance, whether you have lupus or not, without addressing what you’re putting into your body,” Kamen says. “Managing your health often starts on your plate.”
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