Plant-based foods are incredibly powerful when tackling chronic inflammation, yet, what about inflammation caused by autoimmune diseases? Autoimmune diseases confuse your immune system, meaning instead of attacking disease and infection, your own antibodies go after healthy cells.
Today, we’ll focus on one such autoimmune disease called Lupus.
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease — meaning symptoms last longer than six weeks and oftentimes up to years — which negatively affects your skin, joints, and organs and can be mild or life-threatening. When it comes to a lupus-friendly diet, it’s not simple. Per the Lupus Foundation of America, while there is not a single specific diet for lupus sufferers, it’s recommended to eat a balanced diet with a higher intake of veggies and fruits and a lower intake of meat, poultry, and fish.
With that said, there are a few things to take into consideration. First, herbs and supplements absolutely have to be reviewed by a doctor as they may interact with lupus-specific medications. Secondly, vegan and vegetarian diets need to be balanced out with specific supplements such as vitamin B12. Lastly, a lupus-friendly diet has to incorporate a full spectrum of proteins.
All of this points to balance and diversity in your diet!
What is Lupus?
An autoimmune disease specifically targets your immune system’s ability to identify bad versus good. This is a huge problem as “your body’s immune system protects you from disease and infection.” In the instance of an autoimmune disease, this protective system “attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake,” and they can affect pretty much any part of your body. This is how different autoimmune diseases — there are at least 80 identified autoimmune diseases — are categorized.
When it comes to lupus, the immune system creates “autoantibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue,” causing “inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body.” This results in an array of mild symptoms including generalized fatigue, shortness of breath and/or chest pain, dry eyes, and headaches. As lupus progresses, more serious symptoms will manifest including fever, joint issues, — pain, swelling, and stiffness — skin lesions — worsened by sun exposure — a butterfly-shaped rash — most commonly on the face — and severe confusion or even memory loss.
Unfortunately, there is not concrete, scientifically-deduced reason regarding why autoimmune diseases occur, yet it’s conjectured that genetics and environment play key roles. In regards to lupus, it’s been found that sunlight, infection, and certain medications may trigger an onset of symptoms.
How Plant-Based Foods Alleviate Lupus Symptoms
Every human body is different, even when it comes to dealing with autoimmune diseases. With that said, for anyone managing Lupus, it’s recommended to avoid foods with “the amino acid L-canavanine (found in alfalfa seeds and sprouts, but not in leaves), which can activate the immune system and increase inflammation.” Outside of L-canavanine, there are certain plant-based foods that can help counteract medications, alleviate symptoms, and boost necessary health factors. These foods generally fall into one of the following categories.
Nutrient Rich Foods Counteracting Medications
In order to manage Lupus symptoms, many patients are required to take powerful medications such as corticosteroids. While these medications reduce the severity of the disease, they can also have negative effects on the body. For instance, steroids are known to cause bone thinning, skin fragility, fluid retention, weight gain, and even mood changes such as increased irritability, depression, and insomnia.
Plant-based foods offer a wide variety of compounds that can help manage the negative side effects of these medications. Dark leafy greens — such as broccoli, collard greens, and spinach — are rich in calcium to counteract bone thinning. Oranges and carrots are high in vitamin C which can boost collagen and strong skin. Walnuts and chia seeds are omega-3 fatty acid rich which has been linked to decreased anxiety and stress and can help balance out the psychological effects of steroids.
Decrease Consumption of Trans and Saturated Fats
An added perk for managing Lupus on a plant-based diet is that it’s naturally low in unhealthy fats such as trans fatty acids and large amounts of saturated fats. These types of fat are typically found in meat, poultry, and fish and other animal products such as butter. When it comes to Lupus, steroid medications can increase appetite, which may lead to an increase in food consumption. Maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall health, yet maintaining a healthy heart is even more important. Reducing or eliminating the intake of unhealthy fats through a plant-based diet is a great way to keep your heart healthy!
Increase Inflammation-Fighting Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
When the immune system is activated, so is inflammation. While normal inflammation is an integral part of your body’s health, chronic inflammation “can lead to a number of diseases, from atherosclerosis to rheumatoid arthritis.” People with Lupus are generally in a constant, chronic state of inflammation. Plant-based foods are notoriously potent for decreasing inflammation. In recent studies, the “consumption of polyunsaturated fats led to lower levels of markers of inflammation such as interleukin-6, TNF-alpha, and soluble vascular cell adhesion molecules (sVCAM).”
Reducing Salt with Plant-Based Herbs
One of the negative side effects of corticosteroids is water retention, excess fluid buildup in your body. This is also referred to as edema. Water retention can lead to even more side effects such as swelling in the hands, feet, ankles, and legs. While those with Lupus may not be able to lessen corticosteroid use, you can combat water retention by decreasing sodium intake. This means use less salt. Luckily, there are a plethora of plant-based substitutes to flavor your food in lieu of table salt. Some of the more popular options include lemon and lime, healthy oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, herbs, ginger, maple syrup, and certain spices such as pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne, paprika, and cumin, to name just a few! With that said, some plant-based herbs are known to negatively counteract with Lupus medications, therefore make sure to speak with your doctor before making any changes to your diet!
10-Minute Broccoli and Almond Parmesan Pasta/One Green Planet
The key to managing Lupus through diet is avoiding agents that irritate symptoms and incorporating foods that seek to boost your overall health. A healthy body is able to fight and recover in ways that an unhealthy body is unable to do. The following are a few plant-based foods that not only work to balanced out some Lupus side-effects but also add diversity and balance to your diet.
One of the most important compounds for Lupus management is calcium. This isn’t directly linked with the disease itself, but with the “steroid drugs you may take to control lupus,” which can cause your bones to thin. Due to the steroids, Lupus sufferers are more vulnerable to injury such as fractures. Plant-based foods that are high in both vitamin D and calcium, will help counteract this unwanted side effect.
Dark leafy greens are not only a great source of diverse vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, but they are a great source of calcium. In particular, spinach, — Green Spinach and Tahini Soup — broccoli, — 10-Minute Broccoli and Almond Parmesan Pasta — and kale — Kale and Wild Rice Salad!
As mentioned above, reducing the intake of potentially heart-harmful trans fats and saturated fats is a great way to manage your health, especially for those with an autoimmune disease like Lupus. Instead of using animal-based fats, replace them with plant-based, heart-healthy substitutes. Extra-virgin olive oil is an excellent substitute, especially since it’s rich in anti-inflammatory polyunsaturated fatty acids. This heat-friendly oil can be used diversely in recipes such as in these Olive Oil Tamales, Sunflower Seeds and Brussels Sprouts, Artichoke and Olive Spaghetti, or this super creative Sweet Pizza with Blackberry, Ricotta, and Chocolate.
Instead of salt, try citrus juice! Citrus fruits — lime, lemon, grapefruit, and oranges, to name just a few — are rich in healing properties such as vitamin C, as well as an array of nutrients. For instance, one cup of raw lemon juice has a vitamins A, C, E, B6, thiamin, niacin, folate, and choline, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, copper, and selenium. Plus, that one cup of lemon also offers a healthy tidbit of sodium — 2.4 milligrams — which is important as sodium is an essential part of a balanced diet. Citrus fruits have also been linked to healthier skin, proper hydration, and healthy weight management, all of which are hurdles for those trying to counteract Lupus medications.
As mentioned, a large part of managing Lupus symptoms relies on lowering bodily inflammation. Luckily, plant-based foods have many compounds that help in this endeavor. In particular, nuts are a great source of anti-inflammatory properties. How do they accomplish this feat? Turns out, much like extra-virgin olive oil, “healthy nuts are chock full of the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats but contain very little unhealthy saturated fat.” Yet, not all nuts are created equal. Some of those with the most anti-inflammatory properties include “almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and peanuts.”
Nuts are also diverse ingredients on a plant-based diet. They are excellent for creating nut butter, such as this Almond Butter, dairy-free cheese, such as Sliceable Cashew Cheese or this Herbed Macadamia Nut Cheese, and for creamy and rich desserts, such as this decadent Chocolate-Covered Brazil Nut-Stuffed Medjool Dates with Coconut Whipped Cream or this simple Maple Cardamom Candied Walnuts.
Similar to nuts, not all fruits are created equal. When it comes to benefiting those with Lupus, blueberries are a great choice! First off, they are nutrient-rich offering high quantities of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese. Secondly, blueberries have the highest levels of antioxidants, in particular, flavonoids, in all fruits and veggies. What are antioxidants? These agents “protect your body from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage your cells and contribute to aging and diseases, such as cancer.” They are also known to lower blood pressure, protect cholesterol levels, help prevent heart disease, and boost brain function. For those suffering from Lupus, blueberries are a great addition to round out a balanced and diverse plant-based diet.
Blueberries are fairly sweet making them the perfect addition to baked goods, — such as this Blueberry Corn Muffins — morning breakfast bowls, — such as this Blueberry and Millet Porridge — and simple, light desserts — such as this Paleo Blueberry Coconut Slice.
In order to incorporate these newly found, Lupus-friendly foods, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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