What is Lupus?
Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus or SLE for short) is an autoimmune disease. This means that the sufferer's immune system fails to recognize their body's own tissues and begins to attack them.
In the case of lupus, this causes inflammation of the joints, skin and organs including the kidneys, heart and lungs. In severe cases it can also affect the brain, and the damage caused can be irreversible.The main symptoms of lupus are:
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Severe fatigue
- Skin rashes, especially across the nose and cheeks
The skin rash on the nose and cheeks which is typical of lupus also gives the condition its name. Lupus is Latin for “wolf” and the rash was originally thought to resemble a wolf bite across the face.
Other, less common symptoms of lupus include:
- Weight loss
- Swollen glands
- Increased sensitivity to sunlight
- Hair loss
- Mouth ulcers
- Raynaud's disease (poor circulation to the fingers and toes in cold weather)
People with lupus may find that they have periods where their condition is relatively mild, alternating with flare ups of more severe lupus symptoms.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Lupus
Lupus can be difficult to diagnose as many of its symptoms are similar to those of other conditions. It is usually confirmed by a blood test coupled with the patient's symptoms. Organ scans are also sometimes carried out if necessary. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the more successfully lupus can be managed.
We still do not know exactly what causes lupus, but it is thought that there may be a genetic factor or that it could be triggered by an infection. What we do know is that lupus is more common in women, especially those with Asian or Afro-Caribbean heritage. One likely trigger is the hormonal changes that women experience throughout the courses of their lives; puberty, pregnancy and menopause.
Because the exact cause of lupus is unknown, it is not easy to treat. There is no known cure and medication is aimed at reducing symptoms and controlling flare ups.
Drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or steroids are used to control inflammation. Another drug called hydroxychloroquine is often used to protect organs against damage. There is also a newer class of drugs which suppress the immune system and may be used for autoimmune disorders like lupus.
The problem with most of these drugs is that they only treat the symptoms of lupus, not the underlying cause. They can also cause some serious side effects. This is why many people are now turning to complementary therapies such as traditional Chinese medicine.
Lupus and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a system of medicine which developed thousands of years ago in China. It includes herbal medicine, acupuncture and a variety of other therapies which can be used together to improve health and treat disease.
From a western perspective, we know that lupus is caused by a disorder of the immune system. However, in TCM, the body is viewed quite differently. Because ancient doctors only knew what they could observe from nature, certain environmental factors were seen as “pathogens” which could harm the body. These are still used in TCM today and they include cold, heat, summer heat, dryness, damp and wind.
Because lupus involves inflammation and red rashes on the skin, it is usually seen as a “heat” based disease. The treatment is to restore balance by cooling down the body, and to improve circulation using herbs and/or acupuncture.
TCM can also be useful for managing the day to day symptoms of lupus. Acupuncture is known as an effective treatment for joint pain. It reduces inflammation, influences the central nervous system and triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.
Acupuncture is also thought to help rebalance the immune system, another way in which it could potentially help in the management of lupus.
Aside from herbs and acupuncture, diet and lifestyle play an important role in treating any disease using TCM. You can ask your TCM practitioner for advice on this based on your individual symptoms and diagnosis. There are also a few things that anyone suffering from lupus should be doing to help keep their symptoms under control.
Natural Ways to Manage Lupus
If you suffer from lupus, there are a few things you can do to keep your symptoms at bay and avoid flare ups:
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy fats and whole grains
- Avoid fried foods, processed foods, sugar, caffeine and alcohol which can all increase inflammation
- Stay active by doing some gentle exercise such as walking or swimming, even during flare ups
- Ensure you get enough rest each day
- Avoid overexposure to sunlight – wear a hat and a high SPF sunscreen
- Stop smoking
- Tell your employer, friends and family about your condition and ask them for support
Although there is currently no cure for lupus, you can reduce your symptoms and greatly improve your quality of life by making these small adjustments. TCM also offers a way to manage your condition and improve your general well-being both safely and naturally.