What is lupus?
With variants known as discoid lupus, subacute cutaneous lupus, and systemic lupus erythematosus, lupus is one of several disorders of the immune system considered “autoimmune” in nature. These diseases occur when the immune system malfunctions and turns its infection-defense capabilities against the body, producing antibodies against healthy cells and tissues. These antibodies promote chronic inflammation and can damage organs and tissues. In lupus, these antibodies are known as antinuclear antibodies (ANA) because they target parts of the cell’s nucleus. Experts don’t yet fully understand all of the factors and triggers that cause inflammation and tissue damage in lupus, and research is ongoing.
What are the symptoms?
Flare-ups of lupus can cause acute inflammation and damage to various body tissues and can affect the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and brain. Some of the most common symptoms are painful or swollen joints, unexplained fever, kidney problems and extreme fatigue. A characteristic red skin rash – called a “malar” or “butterfly” rash because it roughly mimics the insect’s shape – may appear across the nose and cheeks. Rashes may also occur on the face and ears, upper arms, shoulders, chest, and hands. Because many lupus patients are sensitive to sunlight, skin rashes often develop or worsen after sun exposure.
What are the causes?
The underlying trigger to develop these antibodies in lupus is unknown, although experts believe that a combination of genetic, environmental, and possibly hormonal factors are involved. The fact that lupus can run in families suggests that there is a genetic basis for its development, but so far no single “lupus gene” has been identified. Experts suspect that several different genes may be involved in determining an individual’s chance of developing the disease, as well as which tissues and organs are affected, and how severe the disease will be if it does occur. Other factors being investigated as contributing to the onset of lupus are overexposure to sunlight, stress, certain drugs, and viruses and other infectious agents.
What is the conventional treatment?
The medical doctors who treat lupus are rheumatologists who specialize in arthritis and other inflammatory disorders. However, depending on the individual, case treatment may involve a wide range of health professionals including clinical immunologists (doctors specializing in immune system disorders), nurses, psychologists, social workers, nephrologists (kidney disease specialists), hematologists (specialists in blood disorders), dermatologists, and neurologists.
Drugs used to treat lupus include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen, alone or combined with other drugs for pain, swelling, and fever. Drugs that work inside cells, including antimalarial drugs such as hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) are used for fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, and inflammation of the lungs. Continuous treatment with antimalarials may prevent lupus flare up from recurring.
However, the mainstays of treatment are corticosteroids such as prednisone (Deltasone), hydrocortisone, methylprednisolone (Medrol), and dexamethasone (Decadron, Hexadrol). These drugs heavily suppress inflammation but can cause short-term side effects including swelling, increased appetite, and weight gain and long-term side effects including stretch marks on the skin, weakened or damaged bones, high blood pressure, damage to the arteries, diabetes, infections, and cataracts.
When the kidneys or central nervous systems are affected immunosuppressive drugs such as cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) and mycophenolate mofetil (CellCept) may be used. These drugs restrain the overactive immune system by blocking production of immune cells. Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, bladder problems, decreased fertility, and increased risk of cancer and infection. The risks increase with the length of treatment.
Sometimes, methotrexate (Folex, Mexate, Rheumatrex), a powerful disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug, is recommended.
What therapies does Dr. Weil recommend for lupus?
The male hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), produced in the adrenals, seems to help and may reduce the need for prednisone. Although DHEA is available over-the-counter, don’t take it without medical supervision. It presents an increased risk of heart attack and breast and prostate cancer so it is vital that a physician monitor anyone taking it for lupus. Furthermore, over-the-counter brands of DHEA may not be as reliable as prescription forms.
Take a good multivitamin/multimineral supplement with recommended dosages of antioxidants. To help address inflammation, increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating sardines or other oily fish (salmon, herring, mackerel) three times a week or supplementing with fish oil. Freshly ground flaxseeds (grind two tablespoons a day and sprinkle over cereals or salads) can also help decrease inflammation. Other dietary strategies include avoiding polyunsaturated vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, corn, etc.), margarine, vegetable shortening, and all products made with partially hydrogenated oils. Eat a low-protein, plant-based diet that excludes all products made from cows’ milk, be sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (with the exception of alfalfa sprouts, which contain the amino acid L-canavanine that can worsen autoimmunity.)
For arthritic symptoms, take a natural anti-inflammatory agent, containing ginger and turmeric. Get the right kind of regular exercise; swimming or water aerobics are best for those who have arthritis symptoms. Investigate traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, both of which often do well with autoimmune conditions. Definitely try one or more mind/body therapies, such as hypnosis or interactive guided imagery.
Autoimmune illnesses tend to wax and wane, and full remissions are possible. The mind/body connection is often obvious in the ups and downs of lupus, so take full advantage of it to promote healing. Avoid support groups that focus on symptoms, and any conventional doctor who encourages a hopeless or negative attitude toward managing the disease.