Living well with lupus

Should I be following a specific diet or nutrition plan for my lupus?

There is no special diet for lupus, despite numerous claims on the Internet, and in various books and other publications. In general, you should try to eat a nutritious, well-balanced, and varied diet that contains plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and moderate amounts of meats, poultry, and fish.

One food for people with lupus to avoid is alfalfa. Alfalfa tablets have been associated with reports of a lupus-like syndrome or lupus flares. The lupus-like effects may include muscle pain, fatigue, abnormal blood test results, changes in how the immune system functions, and kidney problems. These reactions may be due to the amino acid L-canavanine (found in alfalfa seeds and sprouts, but not in leaves), which can activate the immune system and increase inflammation.

If you plan to add herbs, dietary supplements, or vitamins to your diet, you should discuss your decision with your lupus doctor first. This is especially important as herbs or supplements may interact with medicines used to treat lupus. Herbs or supplements should never be used to replace medicines prescribed to control symptoms of lupus or medication side effects.

You may have to cut back or eliminate certain items from your diet because of the medications you are taking, or because of the damage that lupus has done to certain parts of your body.

Alcohol use

Moderate use of alcohol is usually not a problem for people with lupus, but alcohol can lower the effectiveness of some medications, cause new health problems, and/or can make existing problems worse. For example, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs -- such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin®), naproxen (Naprosyn®), and celecoxib (Celebrex®) -- can cause ulcers and bleeding in the stomach and intestines at any time during treatment; the chance of developing an ulcer or internal bleeding increases with alcohol use. Also, anticoagulant medicines such as warfarin (Coumadin®) and the chemotherapy drug, methotrexate, may not be as effective if you are drinking alcohol.

Dietary considerations for corticosteroid use

Corticosteroids can elevate blood pressure and the levels of cholesterol and lipids in the blood. If you are taking steroids, you should limit the fat and salt in your diet as both can contribute to these conditions.

Corticosteroids also can cause or worsen osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become fragile and more likely to break. If you have osteoporosis, you should eat foods rich in calcium every day to help with bone growth. Examples are dark green, leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, collard greens), milk, cheese, and yogurt or calcium supplements that contain Vitamin D.

If you are experiencing fluid retention that causes swelling (edema), you should lower the amount of salt and sodium-containing foods you eat; in particular, processed foods should be avoided.

Medically reviewed on May 28, 2013