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Natural treatments for SLE

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Natural treatments for SLE

I’ve just been diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus and would like to know if there’s any evidence on natural therapies being helpful for the condition. I’m aware I need to protect my skin from the sun, pace my activities, manage stress, etc. What about diet and supplements?

R.R., via email

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system is hyperactive and attacks its own tissues and organs. It affects the whole body and can cause inflammation and damage to multiple organs including the skin, kidneys, joints, brain, heart and lungs. 

Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, joint pain and stiffness, skin rashes, fever, headaches and dry eyes, although no two cases are the same. Some people will experience symptoms constantly, while others have ‘flares’ where symptoms get worse for a while and then disappear or subside. 

The usual treatment is anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids or NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and drugs to suppress the immune system, but around half of patients are still unhappy with their health and quality of life,1 not to mention the long list of side-effects associated with these drugs.

Your best course of action would be to get in touch with a functional medicine practitioner, who can try to address the root causes of your disease rather than just focus on managing the symptoms. To find one try the Institute for Functional Medicine (www.ifm.org) or Natural Health Worldwide (www.naturalhealthworldwide.com).

But here are some natural treatments and lifestyle changes that may be helpful, based on the science so far.

Health fact

SLE affects about 1 in 1,000 people, mostly women of childbearing age 2.

Find the right diet

A Mediterranean diet may be useful for SLE, according to a new study. SLE patients who most closely followed the diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil, had a lower risk of active disease plus fewer risk factors for heart disease. Abstaining from red meat and meat products as well as sugars and pastries was also associated with beneficial effects, the researchers found.3

Other research suggests that food allergy elimination diets can improve symptoms of SLE,4 so it may be worth working with an experienced practitioner who can aim to uncover any allergies and devise an appropriate diet plan for you.

One diet favored by a number of functional medicine practitioners is the Paleo diet, which is anti-inflammatory and low in common allergens and processed foods. Indeed, Dr Terry Wahls has developed an integrative approach to healing autoimmune conditions based on Paleo principles, which you can find out about via www.terrywahls.com and in her book, The Wahls Protocol (Avery, 2014). 

Heal your gut

Recent evidence suggests that a disturbed gut microbiome may play a role in SLE and other autoimmune diseases,5 so anything that can help to bring it back into balance may lead to improvements in your condition. The right diet is a good start (see above), but supplementing with probiotics is another way to do this, and Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria strains in particular seem to be helpful for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.6 Clinical trials in SLE patients are thin on the ground, but a study in mice with SLE and kidney damage found that giving them five Lactobacillus strains improved kidney function and prolonged survival.7

For a comprehensive guide to healing your gut, check out the Healthy Gut Intensive online show by WDDTY’s sister company, Get Well. You can purchase the recordings at www.getwell.solutions.

Maintain a healthy weight

Up to 35 percent of SLE patients are overweight, and 39 percent are obese. Obesity has also been identified as an independent risk factor in worsening the functional capacity, fatigue and inflammation status of patients with SLE.8 

If you need to lose weight, consider working with an experienced practitioner who can give you one-to-one support. 

Detox

Environmental pollutants such as pesticides and heavy metals, which can easily end up in the body, have been linked to SLE.9 As well as minimizing your exposure to harmful chemicals as much as possible—by eating organic and choosing natural products in your home, for example—you can also try to help your body get rid of existing toxic chemicals in your system by using detox methods such as juicing, sweating and taking high-dose vitamin C. See the WDDTY May 2021 issue for functional medicine doctor Jenny Goodman’s comprehensive guide to detox.

Supplement

The following supplements are showing promise for SLE. For best results, consult with a practitioner who can recommend supplements and dosages based on your individual needs.

Fish oil. A number of studies show that supplementing with omega-3s from fish oil, especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), can improve symptoms in patients
with SLE.
10

Suggested dosage: choose a high-EPA formula, like Life & Soul Pure Omega 3 Liquid by Bare Biology (one teaspoon supplies 3,500 mg of omega-3, including 2,000 mg of EPA) and follow the label instructions

Pycnogenol. In a small preliminary trial of SLE patients, those given Pycnogenol, the registered trademark brand name of French maritime pine bark extract, saw a significant decline in disease activity compared to those given a placebo.11

Suggested dosage: 60–120 mg/day

Vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to SLE,12 and studies suggest that supplements of the vitamin might improve fatigue in sufferers and possibly disease activity, too.13

Suggested dosage: get your levels checked first to determine the best dosage for you

Vitamin C. The higher the vitamin C intake, the lower the risk of active SLE disease, according to one study.14

Suggested dosage: 1–5 g/day, or take to bowel tolerance

Get help from herbs

According to herbalist Meilyr James, owner of the Herbal Clinic in Swansea, Wales (www.herbalclinic-swansea.co.uk), there are three main categories of herbs that can be helpful for patients with SLE: 1) herbs to improve bowel function, to promote a healthy gut microbiome, 2) herbs to help with stress, as this can trigger flare-ups in SLE and 3) anti-inflammatory herbs, as inflammation is a key feature of SLE.

Here are his top herbal recommendations.

For bowel function:

Combine the following tinctures:

50 mL Frangula alnus (alder buckthorn) 1:4 

100 mL Althaea officinalis (marshmallow) root 1:5

Take 3–5 mL, three times daily, after meals in a little water. 

Adjust the dose to suit your size/constitution. Aim for a noticeable increase in bowel movements, at least one and up to three easy bowel movements every day.

For stress:

Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) can help to regulate the stress response and acts as an immunomodulator, says James. 

Take 5 g of the powdered root morning and night in a little warm plant milk. 

For inflammation:

Turmeric is an effective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant herb, helping to repair and prevent damage caused by inflammatory processes, says James. 

Choose high-quality turmeric powder, organic where possible. 

Mix one teaspoon of turmeric with an equal quantity of olive oil or melted coconut oil to form a paste. 

Dilute with a little warm water (or almond milk and honey) and drink twice daily.

For convenience, you can make the paste up in a larger batch; it will store well in the fridge for one week. You can also combine the ashwagandha and turmeric and take them together.

Meditate

Stress may trigger disease flares in SLE and even play a part in the onset of the disease.15 Stress reduction techniques such as meditation may therefore be a useful therapy. In one study of patients with kidney inflammation caused by lupus, meditation significantly improved quality of life.16

Watch out for vaccines

Mounting evidence suggests that vaccinations can increase the risk of autoimmune conditions, including SLE 17

References

1 

Complement Ther Med, 2018; 41: 111–7

2 

Clin Rev Allergy Immunol, 2018; 55: 352–67

3 

Rheumatology, 2021; 60: 160–9

4 

J Ren Nutr, 2000; 10: 170–83

5 

Curr Opin Rheumatol, 2017; 29: 374–7; Curr Rheumatol Rep, 2021; 23: 27

6 

J Cell Physiol 2017; 232: 1994–2007

7 

Microbiome, 2017; 5: 73

8 

Front Immunol, 2020; 11: 1477

9 

Curr Opin Rheumatol, 2016; 28: 497–505

10

J Rheumatol, 2004; 31: 1551–6; Ann Rheum Dis, 2008; 67: 841–8; Ann Rheum Dis, 1991; 50: 463–6

11 

Phytother Res, 2001; 15: 698–704

12

Curr Opin Rheumatol, 2008; 20: 532–7

13

Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken), 2016; 68: 91–8; Am J Med Sci, 2019; 358: 104–14

14

J Rheumatol, 2003; 30: 747–54

15

Rheumatol Int, 2013; 33: 1367–70

16

J Med Assoc Thai, 2014; 97 Suppl 3: S101–7

17

Autoimmun Rev, 2017; 16: 756–65

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