A large body of research shows that a healthy, unprocessed diet is very important for managing autoimmune disorder symptoms, including those caused by lupus, because it helps control inflammation stemming from poor gut health. The majority of your immune system is actually located in inside your gastrointestinal tract, which is also known as the microbiome, and researchers believe that up to 90 percent of all diseases can be traced in some way back to dysfunction of the gut/microbiome. That’s why if you have lupus, focusing on a lupus diet treatment plan is a major step natural lupus treatment.
As the Lupus Foundation of America puts it, “The scarcity of lupus-specific diet and nutrition information remains a great frustration. But research has given us insight into foods and lifestyle choices that can help diminish the harmful effects of lupus. In particular, there are foods that can affect the body’s inflammatory response.” (1)
A healing lupus diet can help improve gut health in those with lupus by preventing allergies, reducing deficiencies and slowing down free radical damage. In fact, due to how autoimmune disorders develop, a low-processed lupus diet high in antioxidants is usually key for managing any autoimmune-related symptoms, including those due to arthritis, thyroid disorders, etc., which often overlap with lupus symptoms.
Nutrients that are important for managing lupus, such as fiber and antioxidants, seem to have the most beneficial effects when consumed from real food rather than from supplements. What type of foods are included in a lupus diet? These include healthy fats, plenty of fresh veggies and fruits, and probiotic foods. Considering the fact that lupus can increase your risk for other chronic health problems (for example, women with lupus have a five- to tenfold higher risk for heart disease than the general population!), a nutrient-rich lupus diet can have far-reaching protective effects.
What Is Lupus?
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy tissue and organs. Depending on the specific patient, lupus can cause high levels of persistent inflammation that can negatively affect various parts of the body. Lupus patients often experience tissue damage that affects the heart, joints, brain, kidneys, lungs and endocrine glands (such as the adrenals and thyroid gland). Although it’s not completely known why this happens, lupus risk factors are believed to include: (2)
- Genetic susceptibility, having a family history of lupus or other autoimmune disease symptoms
- Being a woman (90 percent of all lupus patients are women)
- Being between the ages of 15–45, women in this age range 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 caucasians
- Eating a poor diet and having nutrient deficiencies
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Food allergies and sensitivities
- Toxicity exposure
Symptoms of lupus commonly include weakness or fatigue, headaches, joint pain, trouble sleeping, digestive issues, and skin rashes. Unfortunately, because lupus can sometimes be hard to diagnose or manage, patients often also suffer from secondary emotional symptoms related to stress, such as anxiety, depression, memory loss and insomnia. (3)
Conventional lupus treatment usually involves a combination of medications used to control symptoms, along with lifestyle changes — like dietary improvements and appropriate exercise. It’s not uncommon for lupus patients to be prescribed numerous daily medications, including corticosteroid drugs, NSAID pain relievers, thyroid medications and even synthetic hormone replacement drugs. Even when taking these drugs, it’s still considered essential to eat an anti-inflammatory lupus diet in order to manage the root causes of lupus, along with reducing its symptoms.
The Lupus Diet: Why You Must Change How You Eat if You Have Lupus
While there’s no one dietary program that can cure or treat lupus for all patients, a healthy lupus diet can go a long way in preventing flare-ups and decreasing complications.
Inflammation associated with lupus and other autoimmune reactions largely stems from an overactive immune system and poor gut health. Leaky gut syndrome can develop in those with lupus, which results in small openings in the gut lining opening up, releasing particles into the bloodstream and kicking off an autoimmune cascade. This inflammatory process can wind up increasing the risk for many conditions, including heart disease or hypertension, weight gain, joint deterioration, and bone loss, just to name a few. (5)
The epicenter of where inflammation begins is considered to be the microbiome. The human microbiome is a very complex ecosystem of trillions of bacteria that perform essential functions like absorbing nutrients, producing hormones, and defending us from microbes and environmental toxins. These bacteria are constantly in flux throughout our lives, adapting to the foods we eat, the quality of our sleep, the amount of bacteria or chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis, and the level of emotional stress we deal with.
Diet is one of the most influential factors in shaping our microbiota because the foods we eat can either contribute to oxidative damage, allergies and deficiencies, or they can boost our immunity, hormonal balance and overall health.
Whole foods, especially the kinds high in probiotics, antioxidants and prebiotic fiber, can lower inflammation by increasing “good bacteria” in the gut, which help with absorption and defending against toxins or bad bacteria. High-antioxidant foods also have anti-aging effects even for those without lupus or another immune disorder because they fight free radical damage that degenerates cells and tissues.
Top Lupus Diet Foods
Best Healing Foods to Eat on the Lupus Diet
Organic, Unprocessed Foods
Consuming foods in their natural, whole form limits your exposure to synthetic additives, toxins or pesticides. These chemicals are very commonly found in packaged products and non-organic foods (even many veggies and fruit!). Because those with lupus already have weakened immune systems, reducing exposure to synthetic hormones, chemicals, medications and heavy metals is usually crucial for recovery.
Raw and Cooked Vegetables
Raw veggies promote an alkaline environment in the body which can help keep inflammation levels lower. They also supply antioxidants, prebiotics, dietary fiber, and many essential vitamins and minerals. Whether eaten raw or cooked, some of the best choices include leafy greens, garlic, onions, asparagus, artichoke, bell peppers, beets, mushrooms and avocado. These help supply nutrients like the vitamin C, selenium, magnesium and potassium you need. Aim for variety and a minimum of four to five servings per day.
Unprocessed fruit (not commercial fruit juices or sweetened canned fruits) are high in vitamins and other important nutrients like vitamin C and vitamin E, which can be hard to get from other foods. Berries, pomegranate and cherries are especially beneficial due to their high antioxidant levels.
Many types of wild seafood provide omega-3 fats that help reduce inflammation levels. The best choices are wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, halibut, trout and anchovies. Aim to consume these omega-3 foods about two to three times weekly, or consider supplementing. Just be sure to buy “wild-caught” to reduce intake of things like heavy metals found in farm-raised fish, plus limit intake of fish high in mercury.
Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that populate our GI tracts and help keep us healthy. Several foods that contain natural probiotics are yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and cultured veggies like sauerkraut or kimchi.
Bone broth has been consumed for centuries and contains numerous beneficial nutrients like collagen, glutathione and trace minerals. It can help reduce autoimmune and inflammatory symptoms that are associated with lupus, including indigestion and joint pain. Consume eight to 16 ounces of bone broth daily as a beverage or as part of a soup.
Herbs, Spices and Teas
Turmeric, ginger, basil, oregano, thyme, etc., plus green tea are all beneficial.
Certain foods can also help relieve skin irritation and dryness, two very common symptoms associated with lupus. Foods to help moisturize skin from the inside out and prevent free radical damage or allergic rashes include:
- Avocado. Looking for ways to increase your intake? Try these avocado recipes.
- 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
- Berries, cucumbers and melon. Try adding these to homemade green smoothie recipes.
- Drinking plenty of water, herbal tea and green tea
Worst Inflammatory Foods to Avoid on the Lupus Diet
Trans Fats/Hydrogenated Fats
These are used in packaged/processed products and often to fry foods. Cooking at home more and avoiding fast foods, processed meats, and packaged sweets or cheeses can help you decrease your intake. Some people with lupus have a hard time metabolizing saturated fats and should limit sources like cheese, red meat and creamy foods if they causes symptoms to worsen.
Refined Vegetable Oils
These are very cheap to produce and therefore are used in most processed, boxed foods. Check ingredient labels and try to avoid too much canola, corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils, which are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
Pasteurized Dairy Products
Conventional dairy products are homogenized and pasteurized to improve taste and reduce natural bacteria, but processing also decreases important enzymes. This is why conventional dairy products are common allergens.
Refined Carbohydrates and Processed Grain/Gluten Products
These are low in nutrients and may also contribute to poor digestion, weight gain, inflammation and other symptoms. Most also contain gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, barley, rye and most flour-containing products. Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is common in those with autoimmune disorders because gluten can be difficult for many people to digest properly, increasing leaky gut syndrome and triggering symptom flare-ups. (6)
Conventional Meat, Poultry and Eggs
When consuming animal products, it’s important to go for high-quality meat. Farm-raised products are higher in omega-6 fats due to feeding the animals corn and cheap ingredients that negatively affect their microbiomes.
Sugar is known to cause blood sugar fluctuations, can cause moodiness and can be inflammatory when consumed in high amounts. Look out for added sugar found in the majority of packaged snacks, breads, condiments, dairy foods, canned items, cereals, etc.
Because lupus can damage the kidneys, it’s best to try to keep sodium and salt levels low to prevent fluid retention, worsened swelling and electrolyte imbalances. Sodium is highest in foods like condiments, processed meats, canned soups, frozen, premade meals and fried foods.
Alcohol and Too Much Caffeine
These can increase anxiety, worsen inflammation, damage the liver, increase pain, and cause dehydration and sleep-related problems.
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 caused by these foods experienced by lupus patients can include antinuclear antibodies in the blood, muscle pains, fatigue, abnormal immune system function and kidney abnormality. These symptoms are believed to be caused by the amino acid L-canavanine. (7)
Other Ways to Manage Lupus Symptoms
Space Out Your Meals
If indigestion is a symptom you commonly deal with, try eating smaller amounts more frequently throughout the day. Aim for four to six smaller meals instead of three larger ones.
Have Small Amounts of Fat at One Time
Because fat can be difficult to digest for those with lupus, try avoiding very high-fat meals. Fats are important for cognitive and hormonal health but may be digested better when spaced out.
Consider Supplementing with Vitamin D
Researchers now believe that vitamin D is an important nutrient needed for immune system health. In fact, vitamin D appears to modulate the immune system’s activity and has effects on things like bone metabolism, cognition and hormone production.
It’s been found that low levels of vitamin D might be associated with increased risk of autoimmune conditions and other chronic diseases, according to a report published in the International Journal of Rheumatology. (8) If you don’t spend much time outdoors, especially during the winter, talk to your doctor about taking a supplement to prevent vitamin D deficiency.
Avoid Smoking Cigarettes and Using Recreational Drugs
These can worsen lung damage and lead to complications.
Gentle forms of physical activity that can be beneficial for people with lupus include about 20–30 minutes daily of brisk walking, swimming, water aerobics, tai chi, yoga, cycling, Pilates or using an elliptical machine.
Keep Stress Levels Low
Emotional stress, life changes and trauma can trigger lupus flare-ups. Research shows that psychological and emotional stress are capable of increasing inflammatory responses that affect the entire body, so use natural stress relievers to keep cortisol levels in check.
Get Enough Sleep and Rest
Make sleep a priority, aiming for seven to nine hours per night. Also reduce stress and fatigue by taking breaks throughout the day to rest and unwind.
Final Thoughts on the Lupus Diet
- To limit inflammation and poor gut health, people with lupus should try to eat an unprocessed, well-balanced and varied diet with plenty of veggies, fruit, clean proteins, probiotics, fiber and antioxidants.
- Foods to avoid on a lupus diet include added sugar, refined vegetable oils, refined carbs with gluten, farm-raised animal products and synthetic additives found in boxed foods. Some also feel better when reducing certain legumes, such as alfalfa, soybeans and peanuts.
- Those with lupus can help prevent complications like heart disease, joint pain and cognitive/mood problems by reducing intake of processed foods and focusing on fresh or raw foods in addition to moderate intake of healthy fats, grass-fed meats and wild-caught oily fish.