According to the Lupus Foundation of America, an estimated 1.5 million people — 90 percent of them women — are currently living with lupus in the United States.
While between 80 and 90 percent of people with lupus will likely have a normal lifespan, the disease can raise the risk of cancer or infection and can even prove fatal in some cases.
Like other autoimmune diseases, lupus causes the immune system to go haywire and attack the body’s tissues and organs. Its symptoms include:
- Kidney issues
- Joint pain
- A butterfly-like facial rash
- Swelling around the eyes
If untreated, it can lead to irreversible damage of major organs, including the heart, lungs, kidneys and brain.
Many of the symptoms of lupus are heightened during “flares,” periods that can be triggered by any condition that puts physical stress on the body, like illness, injury, exhaustion, surgery or pregnancy. Other triggers include emotional stress and exposure to ultraviolet rays.
Since exposure to sunlight can cause lupus to flare up, people with lupus are cautioned to avoid the sun as much as possible. This can lead to vitamin D deficiency, a condition that can cause another set of health problems in those with lupus…
Low vitamin D can lead to heart risks in lupus patients
A recent study found patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) who have lower vitamin D levels are more likely to have metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, conditions that can raise the risk of developing heart disease. Researchers believe boosting vitamin D levels may provide greater control of these cardiovascular risk factors, as well as improve long-term outcomes for patients with SLE, the most common form of lupus.
With the sun being a key trigger of lupus flares, the researchers note the low levels of vitamin D in SLE patients is likely due to a combination of staying out of the sun, using high-factor sunblock as protection and living in northern countries that don’t get as much sun. Patients with more severe SLE also had lower vitamin D levels.
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and obesity. People with metabolic syndrome have a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke and other blood vessel disorders.
Patients with SLE have a cardiovascular risk up to 50 times greater than that seen in people without the condition, one that cannot just be attributed to traditional cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure or smoking.
The underlying mechanisms of the connection between high blood pressure and low vitamin D in SLE patients are not yet clear. But researchers believe they may be associated with the effect of vitamin D deficiency on the renin-angiotensin hormone system, which regulates blood pressure, fluid and electrolyte balance and systemic vascular resistance.
“This is the largest-ever study examining associations between vitamin D levels and metabolic syndrome in SLE,” observes study co-author Dr. John Reynolds, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Rheumatology at the University of Birmingham. “It also has the advantage of being an international cohort with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, generating results that will be applicable across many settings.”
Researchers say further studies could confirm whether restoring vitamin D to normal levels may help reduce metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance and improve quality of life for SLE patients.
Getting enough vitamin D (and other nutrients)
In addition to potentially lowering these cardiovascular risk factors, maintaining healthy vitamin D levels can help lupus patients protect the health of their bones and kidneys. But since getting vitamin D from sunlight isn’t a good option, it’s best if those with lupus add a vitamin D supplement to their daily regimen. The recommended daily allowance of vitamin D for healthy adults is 600 IU for people under 70 and 800 IU a day for those over 70.
But that amount may be inadequate in people with lupus. One reason: steroid medications — of which prednisone is one commonly taken to combat the inflammation associated with lupus. People taking oral steroids are twice as likely as the general population to have severe vitamin D deficiency — a double whammy for lupus sufferers.
But studies in lupus patients have shown daily oral doses of vitamin D3 at 4000 IU daily to be safe and well-tolerated, following 8 weeks of administration of a weekly 50,000 IU capsule to correct a deficiency. Talk to your doctor to see if this is an option for you.
Other nutrients can be helpful in managing the health impacts of lupus…
Because steroid use is also harmful to the bones, people with lupus need to get at least the daily recommended amount of calcium (1,200 mg a day for women over 50). Good sources include low-fat dairy products, green leafy vegetables and sardines. It’s typically best to get calcium from food unless your doctor recommends supplementing.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to improve sleep and reduce flares in people with lupus, and are naturally heart protective. To increase omega-3s, try eating at least two eight-ounce servings of fish like salmon, tuna or trout every week. If you decide to go the supplement route, make sure you choose one that’s free of toxins.
Also, investigate the differences between fish oil and krill oil if you plan to supplement your omega-3s…
According to rheumatologist Kyriakos Kirou, MD, the omega-3 fatty acids in krill are bound to phospholipids, which significantly helps your body’s cells absorb the omega-3s better. Considering lupus sufferers are also deficient in omega-3s, this could be a game-changer.
Plus, krill oil also contains vitamin D and E. Fish oil contains insignificant levels of vitamin D. Cod liver oil, however, contains vitamin D since the vitamin is concentrated in the liver of fish.
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Lupus facts and statistics — Lupus Foundation of America
What is a lupus flare? — Lupus Foundation of America
Omega-3 in fish: How eating fish helps your heart — Mayo Clinic
7 Easy, Drug-Free Ways to Live Life Better with Lupus — Easy Health Options