Lupus disease affects 1.5 million people in the United States and about 5 million globally. “lupus” is Latin for “wolf” and comes from a 13th century physician, Rogerius, who described facial lesions on his patients as looking like a wolf bite. Relatively little is known about the disease. Still, ongoing research has unveiled substantial facts about this autoimmune condition. But what is lupus and what causes it?
What is Lupus Disease?
Lupus disease is a complicated, chronic autoimmune condition that can affect any part of the body including different organs, joints or skin. It can sometimes affect more than one part of the body.
Lupus develops when something goes wrong with the body’s immune system such that the immune system no longer differentiates between the body’s own healthy tissue and foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. This exposes tissues and organs to attacks by the immune system leading to pain, inflammation and damage. (1)
What Causes Lupus Disease
There is a long list of internal and external factors that scientists believe can lead to the development of lupus disease. These include the following:
Research associates lupus with more than 50 genes which are more commonly found in individuals with lupus than those without the disease. But these genes cannot be directly credited with causing lupus because they are also found in people without lupus. This means that even people with no family history of lupus can still end up getting it. (2) In general, genetic predisposition provides the “blasting cap” for this disease, but does not guarantee the disease until the “dynamite” of lifestyle problems (primarily nutrition, stress, and toxins) activates the disease.
Scientists believe that the hormone estrogen has a link to lupus. This is because 90 percent of all people with lupus are female whose bodies produce higher levels of estrogen than men’s. There is, however, no proof that estrogen or any hormone causes lupus. Still, it seems to affect the severity of the disease because women tend to have more symptoms during pregnancy and before menstrual cycles; times when the body produces more estrogen. (3)
The EPA estimates that there are over 85,000 chemicals in use around the world, with few of them tested for safety upon human exposure. Never mind the 5 pounds/person/day of trash that Americans produce, consider the 206 million pounds of toxic chemicals dumped into American waterways annually. Heavy metals (lead, aluminum, cadmium, arsenic, mercury), hormone disruptors (pesticides, plastics), and volatile organic compounds have been partly responsible for our epidemic proportions of cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Exposure to chemicals like silica dust is believed to trigger lupus in a person who is genetically susceptible. Similar effects can arise from exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or fluorescent lights. Other environmental factors believed to cause or trigger lupus include;
- Sulfur drugs which increase the body’s sensitivity to the sun
- Emotional stress like death in the family, divorce or serious illness
- Penicillin and other antibiotic drugs
- Colds, viral diseases or infections
- Stress caused by injury, pregnancy, birth, surgery or physical harm
Who is at risk of getting lupus disease?
Females account for 9 out of 10 cases of the disease. In most cases, lupus disease is diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 44. The condition is more common in the following ethnicities: blacks, Native Americans, Asians, Hispanic/Latinos, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island descendants. This is believed to be a result of a common gene in these ethnicities. (4)
Symptoms of lupus disease
Symptoms of lupus disease show up during certain times and are therefore referred to as flare-ups. People with lupus can go into periods of remission when they experience few or no symptoms.
Symptoms of lupus disease include:
- Pain and/or swelling in muscles and joints
- Loss of appetite and loss of weight
- Skin rashes caused by bleeding under the skin
- Hair loss
- Pale or purple fingers and/or toes
- Swelling in the legs or around the eyes
- Mouth ulcers
- Swollen glands
- Sensitivity to the sun
- Chest pain upon deep breathing
The different types of lupus
Lupus disease can occur in many forms including the following:
This form is responsible for about 70 percent of all cases. About half of these cases involve a major organ or body tissue like the brain, lungs, heart or kidneys.
Also called discoid lupus erythematosus, this form occurs in about 10 percent of people with lupus disease and only affects the skin.
Sub-acute cutaneous lupus erythematosus
This form of lupus causes non-scarring skin lesions.
About 10 percent of lupus disease is drug-induced. The symptoms are similar to systemic lupus, but will go away once the drugs that trigger it are no longer taken. (4)
This is a rare form of lupus which affects a pregnant woman, or more specifically, her unborn child. The mother’s antibodies affect the child which may cause a skin rash at birth. The baby may also have low blood cell counts and liver problems. Fortunately, the symptoms will normally go away after 6 months from birth and won’t have any lasting effects.
Effects of lupus on the body
Lupus can affect many parts of the body and its systems including the central nervous system, the heart, kidneys, lungs and the circulatory system.
The central nervous system
When it affects the central nervous, lupus disease can lead to dizziness, memory disturbances, headaches, vision problems, strokes, seizures and depression. People with lupus can seem to go through changes in their behavior.
If lupus affects the heart, it causes inflammation that can result in endocarditis and myocarditis. Lupus can also affect the membrane around the heart, leading to pericarditis that causes chest pain. Damage can also occur in the heart valves leading to growths that may cause heart murmurs.
Lupus can cause inflammation of the kidneys, making it hard for the body to get rid of toxins and waste products effectively. One third of people with lupus have kidney problems.
Some lupus victims can develop an inflammation of the lining of the chest cavity. This can cause pain when breathing. Lupus can also lead to pneumonia.
Lupus can also cause anemia and leukopenia (decreased number of white blood cells). It can also lead to a decrease in the number of platelets in blood (thrombocytopenia).
Lupus can also affect blood vessels and cause inflammation. This can interfere with blood circulation.
Other complications of lupus disease include;
Bone tissue death
This happens when the body has low blood supply to a bone and tiny breaks can form in the bone. The bone may eventually collapse and this normally happens in the hip joint.
Basic infections can become more serious because of the effects of lupus on the immune system. Yeast infections, salmonella, respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, herpes and shingles are some of the most common infections people with lupus could have.
Complications in pregnancy
Lupus can affect pregnant women and increase the risk of preterm birth, pregnancy loss and preeclampsia. Women with lupus are advised to delay pregnancy until their symptoms are under better control.
Treatment for Lupus Disease
Sadly, lupus has no known cure for now. However, there are ways to treat the symptoms and make living with lupus a little more bearable. It’s also possible to keep the body from attacking itself by using medication.
Most medications used for the management of lupus disease require a doctor’s prescription. However, there are some drugs available over the counter. The medications include:
- Immunosuppressive drugs which help keep the immune system from attacking the body.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs for relief of pain and inflammation.
- Biologics to help the body’s immune system work properly.
- Steroids to reduce inflammation.
- Anticoagulants to prevent blood clots.
- Antimalarials to protect the skin from UV light and rashes.
It must be noted that these drugs can have side-effects some of which can be serious. Therefore, a doctor should be consulted before taking them.
Rational approaches to lupus:
Diet. Follow a diet that is unprocessed, plant based, avoid dairy, gluten, and eggs (which are common allergens), avoid refined carbohydrates (white flour and sugar).
Stress. Many lupus survivors speak of stress as being the trigger for flare ups. Meditate, relax. If you can’t tolerate something, then change your situation.