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Sjogren's Syndrome Story?

What can you tell me about Sjogren's Syndrome, the disease that caused tennis star Venus Williams to drop out of the U.S. Open recently?

Answer (Published 10/13/2011)

Sjogren's Syndrome is an autoimmune disorder, one of a number of diseases that can occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues. These reactions may be set off by infection, tissue injury or emotional trauma in people who are genetically predisposed to them. Venus Williams has said that she was having trouble with her stamina and also was experiencing swelling, numbness and fatigue, which are typical symptoms of the disease.

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There is no cure for autoimmune diseases, but they are highly unpredictable and can go into remission for weeks, months or even years. Symptoms tend to worsen when those affected are under stress. According to the Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation, as many as four million Americans are living with this disease. Nine out of 10 patients are women; the average age of diagnosis is in the late 40s (Williams is 31).

With Sjogren's syndrome, the immune system targets the glands that produce tears, saliva and other lubricating secretions, leading to dry eyes and dry mouth as well as dryness of the skin, nose and vagina. Conventional treatment focuses on relieving these symptoms, especially by using artificial tears and saline drops for dry eyes. The kidneys, lungs, liver, blood vessels and brain also can be affected; those with severe symptoms may experience blurred vision, fatigue, joint pain, eye pain, hoarseness, and recurrent mouth infections. The mouth problems can interfere with eating and swallowing.

I recommend the following approaches for managing Sjogren's syndrome and other autoimmune disorders:

  • Follow a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet. Minimize consumption of animal products and eliminate milk and milk products.
  • Avoid polyunsaturated oils (vegetable oils) and hydrogenated fats (margarine, vegetable shortening).
  • Get regular aerobic exercise (swimming is best if you have joint problems).
  • Practice progressive relaxation and other mind-body techniques; visualization, hypnosis, and guided imagery can be very effective for moderating autoimmune responses.
  • Try Traditional Chinese Medicine (diet, herbs, acupuncture, and energy work).
  • To reduce inflammation, increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating more salmon, herring, sardines, walnuts, purslane and other leafy greens as well as freshly ground flaxseeds.
  • Include ginger and turmeric in meals for their natural anti-inflammatory effects.

Venus Williams has said that she intends to return to tennis as soon as her body adjusts to her treatment. I hope her positive attitude will be an inspiration to others with this condition.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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