Lupus: A Functional Medicine Guide To This Autoimmune Condition
If you’ve been diagnosed with lupus, or have a loved one with the condition, you probably have a lot of questions. Questions like, “What causes lupus?” “Will I always have this disease?” and “Is there anything I can do about my symptoms?”
At my telehealth functional medicine center, I treat my fair share of people dealing with lupus and other similar conditions. Keep reading for a deep dive into this condition from a functional medicine perspective.
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What is lupus?
Lupus is a systemic autoimmune condition that affects about 1.5 million people in the United States and more than 5 million people worldwide. (1) An autoimmune condition is a group of more than 80 diseases that are characterized by a breakdown in the immune system that causes it to attack its own tissues. Lupus is a systemic autoimmune condition because unlike rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, which affect one specific area of the body, lupus can affect anything from your joints, skin, or kidneys to your blood cells, brain, heart, or lungs.
What are the symptoms of lupus?
Because lupus is systemic, the symptoms can be hard to pin down and include:
- Pain or swelling in joints
- Muscle pain
- Fever with no known cause
- Red rashes, most often on the face (also called the "butterfly rash")
- Chest pain when taking a deep breath
- Hair loss
- Pale or purple fingers or toes
- Sensitivity to the sun
- Swelling in legs or around eyes
- Mouth ulcers
- Swollen glands
- Feeling very tired (2)
That said, the most common symptoms of lupus — the ones that make me immediately suspect the condition — are painful or swollen joints, unexplained fever, kidney problems, and extreme fatigue. Like many autoimmune diseases, lupus is characterized by flare-ups and periods of remission.
What causes lupus?
The underlying cause of lupus is still unknown; that said, experts suggest that there is a genetic, environmental, and possibly a hormonal component since more than 90 percent of people with lupus are women; you are more likely to be diagnosed with lupus if you are from African, Asian, or Native American descent. (1) Other factors are also being investigated as a possible contributors to the disease, including overexposure to sunlight, stress, medications, infections, and alterations in the gut microbiome. For example, a 2019 study revealed that women with lupus had five times more gut bacteria, called Ruminococcus gnavus, than women of similar age and racial backgrounds who did not have the disease. (3) According to the authors, it’s also possible that a lack of a gut bacteria called Bacteroides uniformis — which hinders the growth of R. gnavus — may contribute to the development and severity of the disease.
What are the treatment options for lupus?
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for lupus. That said, it is possible due to the cyclical nature of lupus, to achieve full remission of the disease. I’ve seen it happen! If you’ve been diagnosed with lupus, I recommend working closely with a functional medicine expert and your conventional doctor to create a comprehensive, holistic treatment plan. Why? Because lupus is a serious condition that can cause damage to the body if left unchecked, so you don’t want to ignore traditional medical advice, but lifestyle changes can also be extremely effective at improving symptoms, encouraging remission, and even reducing the need for certain medications.
Because lupus affects so many areas of the body and every person seems to experience it differently, it’s hard to give blanket advice about what lifestyle changes you should make. (Again, I recommend working with a team of professionals!) That said, almost everyone with lupus would benefits from the following lifestyle changes:
1. Eat more healthy fats
Healthy fats, like those found in fatty fish, avocado, and olive oil, are natural anti inflammatories and may help combat symptoms of lupus as well as the underlying inflammation causing them.
2. Start a meditation practice
Studies have connected stress to lupus flares. Starting a daily meditation practice — aim for at least 10 minutes — can decrease stress and calm your nervous system.
3. Take a probiotic
There’s a clear connection between lupus and the gut microbiome. And while there’s still more to learn about exactly what dietary changes may encourage the growth of B. uniformes and keep R. gnavus in check, taking a high-quality probiotic is a good place to start. In the future, fecal transplants or other more specific therapies may very well be standard practice for lupus. While you’re at it, make sure your diet has plenty of fiber. Beneficial fiber feeds healthy bugs and allows them to grow and maintain balance in the gut microbiome. Remember to eat plenty of leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, and fresh fruits.
4. Take vitamin D
Multiple studies have shown that people with lupus are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D. (4) This can be further exacerbated if you’re trying to avoid the sun because sun sensitivity is one of your symptoms. I recommend having your vitamin D levels checked or taking 2,000 IUs of vitamin D per day.
5. Drink turmeric ginger tea
Turmeric and ginger are two of my all-time favorite ingredients. They are both potent anti-inflammatories and as an added benefit, they are also delicious when brewed in a tea. You can buy turmeric-ginger tea in tea bags, loose leaf, or you can even make your own with fresh turmeric and ginger root.
If you’re struggling with lupus, I want you to know that conventional drugs and treatments are only one part of what you can do to help improve your condition. Lupus has a strong connection to stress levels, lifestyle factors, and the gut microbiome — don’t ever settle for a doctor telling you that nothing can be done!
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- Lupus facts and statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.lupus.org/resources/lupus-facts-and-statistics
- N. (2020, October 02). Lupus | Lupus Symptoms | SLE. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://medlineplus.gov/lupus.html
- Doua Azzouz, Aidana Omarbekova, Adriana Heguy, Dominik Schwudke, Nicolas Gisch, Brad H. Rovin, Roberto Caricchio, Jill P. Buyon, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Gregg J. Silverman. Lupus nephritis is linked to disease-activity associated expansions and immunity to a gut commensal. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 2019; annrheumdis-2018-214856 DOI: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2018-214856
- Toloza SM, Cole DE, Gladman DD, Ibañez D, Urowitz MB. Vitamin D insufficiency in a large female SLE cohort. Lupus. 2010 Jan;19(1):13-9. doi: 10.1177/0961203309345775. Epub 2009 Nov 6. PMID: 19897520.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.