A healthy diet is important in general, but perhaps even more so for the roughly 1 million Americans and 3 million people worldwide who suffer from systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).1 Because of the multifaceted challenges presented by the disease, consuming adequate amounts of the right nutrients — and limiting others — can help relieve symptoms and improve outcomes.
“There are no foods that cause lupus and no foods that cure it, but eating a well-balanced diet may help combat some of the side effects of medications, as well as alleviate symptoms of the disease,” said Laura Gibofsky, MS, RD, CSP, CDN, a clinical nutritionist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, New York. First, the “Western diet,” consisting of an excess of fatty, salty, sugary foods, has been implicated in autoimmune diseases overall.2 Proper nutrition can also help improve the risk of comorbid diseases that commonly affect patients with SLE.
In patients with SLE, the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) is at least twice that in the general population, and over half of patients have 3 or more CVD risk factors.3,4 “Following a heart-healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and fatty fish and limiting saturated and trans fats can actually help reduce the risk of heart disease,” Gibofsky told Rheumatology Advisor.
Another common comorbidity with SLE is osteoporosis; researchers have found an increased risk of fracture and bone loss in SLE. Experts attribute this to several factors, including glucocorticoid medications that can lead to bone loss, inactivity due to symptoms such as pain and fatigue, and possibly the disease activity itself. In addition, women comprise approximately 90% of people with SLE, adding to their generally elevated osteoporosis risk.5
Therefore, “maintaining good bone health is an area of concern for people with lupus, and a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D can help counteract bone-damaging effects,” Gibofsky explained. These foods might include “milk, light ice cream or frozen yogurt, cottage cheese, pudding, almonds, broccoli, fortified cereal, oranges, yogurt, hard cheese, soybeans and soy milk, navy beans, oysters, sardines, and spinach,” according to experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.6
Avoid calcium supplements, however, which Johns Hopkins researchers have found to potentially increase the risk of heart damage and arterial plaque buildup. “Due to the risk of accelerated atherosclerosis in lupus, we no longer recommend calcium supplementation and encourage a diet rich in calcium instead,” noted George Stojan, MD, a rheumatologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins.
Another recent development is the shift regarding omega-3 fatty acids, which were believed to be beneficial in patients with lupus by decreasing inflammation. “We showed that omega-3 did not affect disease activity, improve endothelial function, or reduce inflammatory markers, though there was evidence that omega-3 may increase [low-density lipoprotein] LDL cholesterol,” said Dr Stojan. “We no longer recommend omega-3 supplementation in lupus patients.”
Along with nutritional deficiencies, steroid medications can cause significant weight gain and increased cholesterol, blood glucose, and triglycerides, further underscoring the need for patients with SLE who are taking these agents to follow a healthy diet to counter the effects.6 There are also specific things that individuals with SLE should avoid, including alfalfa sprouts and garlic, which can stimulate an already overactive immune system.7
Alcohol intake should be avoided or minimized, as it can lead to liver and stomach damage, particularly when combined with corticosteroids, acetaminophen, and warfarin. People who are taking methotrexate should never drink alcohol.
Consultation and Referral
Rheumatologists may not discuss the topic of nutrition with their patients, which is “mainly due to the complex nature of the disease, and doctors often do not have time to discuss diet when there are so many other topics to cover,” Gibofsky explained. “Many rheumatologists will admit that diet is not their area of expertise and will instead refer their patient[s] to meet with a registered dietitian (RD) who can better help with these questions.”
In a study published in 2015, patients with SLE were referred for nutrition counseling with a registered dietician (RD), and 41 of 71 referrals participated in the sessions.8 At the end of the 6-month period, the patients who received nutrition counseling were more likely to have lost weight; decreased their intake of foods high in fat, sodium, and calories; and increased their consumption of fruits, vegetables, fiber, and fish.
With the vast amount of misinformation available online, Gibofsky often sees patients who went on restrictive diets that are purported to reduce lupus symptoms, which they may have read about on the internet or heard about from a neighbor. “Upon further discussion, I find that they do not actually feel better on the diet and, in fact, they have multiple nutritional deficiencies that could actually be the reason behind their worsening symptoms,” she said.
Given the numerous ways nutrition can have an impact on patients with SLE, it is critical that they understand the optimal way to eat based on each individual case. Although many insurance companies do not pay for visits with an RD, it would be ideal for patients with SLE to consult one.