Lupus: Using Diet and Nutrition to Improve Symptoms and Outcomes

Patients with SLE are at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease; a heart-healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and fatty fish can help reduce the risk.
Patients with SLE are at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease; a heart-healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and fatty fish can help reduce the risk.

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.

High-Yield Data Summary

  • Rheumatologists should discuss the impact diet may have on symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus and then refer their patients to meet with a registered dietitian.

Comorbidity Control

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.”

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