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Natural Alternatives for Lupus Symptoms

By Kiki Powers

Making healthy diet and lifestyle changes will enable you to better manage the symptoms of autoimmune disorders such as lupus, fibromyalgia and Sjogren's syndrome while moving towards healing and wellness.

The following lifestyle modifications will not only benefit autoimmune conditions — minimizing discomfort and maximizing healing — but will also help reduce your risk of every common degenerative disease affecting Americans today.

Implement a low-fat, low-protein diet
Research suggests that one of the healthiest changes you can make is to begin to decrease your reliance on animal proteins such as meat and dairy products and to place a greater emphasis on plant foods such as beans, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and at least 20 other authoritative agencies and organizations in the United States and around the world, a low-fat, high-fiber diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables offers the best disease prevention across the board.

According to the Lupus Journal (2001;10(3):246-8), a diet low in fat, calories and protein significantly reduced lupus symptoms. Another study in the Journal of Renal Nutrition (2000 Oct;10(4):170-83) found lupus symptoms to be aggravated by diets high in calories, protein and fat — especially saturated fat.

Minimizing excessive dietary protein is particularly important for disorders such as lupus and Sjogren's syndrome, since too much dietary protein can create a strain on the kidneys. According to the Kidney International Supplement (2000 Apr;75:S38-43), low-protein diets helped protect against kidney problems such as renal failure.

If you choose to eat animal proteins, try to emphasize cold-water fish like salmon and tuna, which are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Incorporate essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are referred to as "essential," since we can't manufacture them in our bodies and must get them from foods. The EFAs include omega-6 linoleic acid and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid.

The average American gets plenty of the omega-6 fatty acids, found in most nuts, seeds and vegetable oils; however, omega-3s are harder to come by. The omega-3 EFAs are found in cold-water fish such as salmon as well as in flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and dark, leafy greens.

Flax oil is one of the best sources of the essential omega-3s, with up to a 60 percent concentration. Another EFA to consider is evening primrose oil, which is rich in gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and has valuable anti-inflammatory properties.

These important fats are vital for cellular health and are particularly beneficial in those with lupus and other autoimmune disorders. Research has shown considerable benefits with lupus when the balance of dietary fats consisted of essential fatty acids, as opposed to saturated fats (Ann Rheum Dis 1986 Dec;45(12):1019-24).
In fact, a study from the American Journal of Pathology (1987 Apr;127(1):106-21) showed that lupus development was strikingly slowed in mice fed a diet containing quantities of omega-3 fatty acids.

By 10 months of age, 94 percent of these mice were still living, whereas all the mice fed a saturated fat diet were dead.

EFAs also have anti-viral properties and have been shown to help prevent free radical damage. These essential fats play an especially vital role in minimizing inflammation and strengthening immune response, according to Michael Murray, N.D., in his book The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements (Prima Publishing, 1996).

Other research confirms that correcting the balance of dietary fats in favor of the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids has an anti-inflammatory effect (Hawaii Med J 1999 May;58(5):126-31).

Minimize food allergens

There are numerous common food allergens that can greatly aggravate autoimmune disorders and should be minimized in your diet. If you do consume these foods, do so on a rotating basis — such as once every few days — rather than daily. Potentially allergenic foods include soy, citrus, dairy, corn, wheat and eggs.

According to Ellen Mazo and Keith Berndtson, M.D., in their book The Immune Advantage (Rodale Publishing, 2002), certain foods and spices can help relieve allergy symptoms. These include apples, tofu, beans and legumes, sunflower seeds, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as flax seed oil and salmon and spices such as ginger and turmeric.

Beware of inflammatory foods

Many foods and beverages are inflammatory in nature, meaning they promote inflammation in joints and tissues. They may exacerbate autoimmune disease symptoms. These include meats and dairy products, saturated fats, refined foods, sugar, alcohol and caffeine.

One recent study explains that the typical American diet — deficient in fruits and vegetables, with excessive amounts of meat, refined grain products and dessert foods — can have numerous adverse biochemical effects, all of which create a pro-inflammatory state and predispose the body to degenerative diseases (J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2002 Mar-Apr;25(3):168-79).

Give your nutrition a boost

Try to incorporate at least three pieces of fruit per day, either as whole fruit with cereal and oatmeal or blended into smoothies.

Aim for five vegetable servings daily, sparking up your meals with steamed broccoli, baked potatoes with toppings, grilled asparagus, baked yams, beets and corn on the cob.

And always aim to incorporate one big salad daily. Consider spinach salads, grilled vegetable salads and entrée choices like Greek and taco salads.

Target nutritious carbohydrates like whole-grain breads, brown rice, oatmeal and high-fiber, low-sugar cereals, while minimizing refined carbohydrates like white flour products and white rice. Whole, unprocessed carbohydrates break down more slowly releasing glucose gradually into the blood stream. These healthier options are also much higher in nutrients and fiber. Most Americans only eat about 10-15 grams of fiber daily, while we should ideally consume 25 grams or more.

Experiment with dairy alternatives

If you consume dairy products, consider limiting your daily servings, since dairy products are inflammatory foods and prime sources of saturated fat and cholesterol. When consuming dairy products, choose low-fat or fat-free choices whenever possible. Consider replacing dairy items with innovative soy and rice milks, soy "ice cream" and soy cheese, at least occasionally.

Sample vanilla or chocolate soymilk, or create smoothies with soymilk and fresh fruit. These products —free of saturated fat and cholesterol — are rich in healthy fats and beneficial isoflavones. Other dairy alternatives include rice, almond and oat milks.

More on fats and sugar
Focus on olive oil as primary fat for cooking and salad dressings, while avoiding hydrogenated oils and fried foods, which contain dangerous trans-fats. Reading labels is essential, since trans-fats are found in numerous store purchased crackers, processed foods and baked goods.
Other healthy fats to emphasize include avocados and raw nuts and seeds, which can be used in moderation as nutritious snacks and food accents.

Avoid refined sugar wherever possible, since sugar has also been shown to decrease the production of immune-protective antibodies (J Nutr 1972;102(4):535-41). Use honey or maple syrup in moderation, and avoid artificial sweeteners.

Make healthy choices when dining out

Explore vegetarian entrées in ethnic restaurants. If consuming meat or poultry, try to use them as condiments, letting the vegetables and whole grains take center stage, rather than the other way around.

Try to limit your intake of foods with creamy sauces and minimize butter. If you opt for fish or chicken, have them baked or grilled. Top grilled foods with low-fat additions like salsa, low-fat pesto or yogurt-mustard sauce. Thickly sliced eggplant and Portobello mushrooms make wonderful grilled entrées.

Use caution with desserts; if opting for a rich treat, share it with your dinner companion. Seek out healthy desserts, such as fresh fruit and berries either alone or over non-fat frozen yogurt or soy ice cream, fruit tarts, sorbets or chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Bake your own muffins and cookies so you can use whole-grain flours and reduce the fat and sugar. Minimize store-purchased baked goods whenever possible, as they are invariably high in unhealthy fats and are very low in fiber and nutrients.

Make nutritional supplementation a priority

Research suggests that for most busy Americans without special health concerns, multi-vitamin/mineral supplementation can offer important nutritional protection. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that less than 9 percent of Americans consume the recommended five to nine servings a day of fresh fruits and vegetables.

For many people, it can be difficult to obtain the levels of nutrients we need to function at peak levels through diet alone. This is of particular concern for individuals dealing with special health problems. Since diet may not cover all our nutritional needs, a daily broad-spectrum, high-potency, multi-vitamin/mineral supplement can help provide a solid foundation of essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

Be sure your supplement contains rich levels of every essential vitamin, mineral and trace element, including vitamins A, C, D, E, the entire B-complex, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, chromium and iron. These nutrients are essential for immune health, as well as all other body processes.

Especially beneficial nutrients for lupus and fibromyalgia include vitamin A, D, E, beta-carotene, selenium, magnesium and calcium (J Ren Nutr 2000 Oct;10(4):170-83, J Nutr Med 1992;3:49-59).

As you can see, small diet and lifestyle changes can yield powerful results. Experiment with these changes gradually to see what works best for you. Greater energy, wellness and relief from lupus and other autoimmune disorder symptoms are right within your reach.

© Kiki Powers

Kiki Powers, M.S., is director of Natural Health Solutions and a national health writer and lecturer. With a background in health science, research, and clinical nutrition, she specializes in health promotion and disease prevention through diet and lifestyle changes, advocating natural alternatives to traditional medications and treatment where appropriate.

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