Living with Lupus: Alternative treatments and modalities

The character George Costanza of the television comedy Seinfeld used to exclaim every time he had an ailment, "Oh God, is it lupus? Tell me it's not lupus!" For millions of sufferers, a lupus diagnosis is no laughing matter. One in every 500 people living in the United States develops the disease. Five-thousand people die from lupus-related health problems each year.

What is lupus?

Lupus is an autoimmune disease. For reasons that are unclear, the immune system goes haywire and fails to recognize the body's own tissues. It creates antibodies to these tissues and essentially attacks the body from within. This leads to chronic inflammation that can affect almost any part of the body. Episodes of acute disease activity are called flares.

There are two forms of lupus: discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). DLE is the less serious form, affecting mainly the skin. SLE affects more internal organs, almost always affects the joints and can be fatal. People may develop one or both forms of the illness. Certain prescription drugs may cause lupus, but discontinuing the medication typically restores normal immune function.

The origins of lupus remain obscure. Researchers believe there may be a genetic predisposition for the disease, although lupus is not a hereditary illness in the classic sense. Research suggests a retrovirus may be involved as well. Many alternative health practitioners feel lifestyle is also a major factor.

Ninety percent: of lupus patients are women of child-bearing age. Lupus occurs less frequently in children and adult males. Although SLE affects each person differently, there are some common denominators. Following is a list of symptoms and their frequency.

Conventional lupus treatment includes NSAIDs, corticosteroids like cortisone and prednisone, anti-malarial drugs, and cytotoxic drugs. NSAIDs can cause liver damage or stomach ulcers at high levels over time. Long-term corticosteroid use can result in increased appetite, bone loss, cataracts, coronary artery disease and more. The other drugs also pose possible health risks.

Lupus is a serious, chronic condition that requires treatment, but each person has the opportunity to determine what the treatment will be. The healing modalities listed below may vary greatly in their therapies, but the approach is similar: attention to the individual, assistance in self-healing and patient empowerment.


Homeopathy is a 200-year-old healing system founded by German doctor Samuel Hahnemann. Based on the principle of "like cures like." homeopathic remedies are matched to different symptom patterns to stimulate the body's natural healing process. Karen Cohen. D.C., C.C.H., says that homeopathy does classify lupus as an autoimmune disease, but that this is not an important aspect of treatment.

"We look at the symptoms like M.D.'s would, but we don't use the symptoms to get a remedy. There is an individual remedy for each person," she says. not one catch-all homeopathic lupus remedy.

The first visit to a homeopath entails an interview of an hour or more. in which the patient gives a complete medical history as well as information on personal and emotional factors. "Is there a causative onset? Were there earlier immune problems? Is there underlying stress, and how does the person deal with it? I am looking for the state the person is in."

This patient profile enables the homeopath to get to the root of the problem and then prescribe the remedy which is most suitable to the individual. A remedy usually consists of tiny white pills dissolved in the mouth. For someone suffering from chronic illness and used to taking handfuls of medications, this is a little hard to get used to. "Patients don't always understand," Cohen says, that these little pills can actually help. She treats five patients for lupus and has seen their symptoms stabilize or improve. None of them take conventional medications anymore, and they are not limited by their illness, she says.

However, Cohen stresses that homeopathy is not a cure as most people would understand the word. But it does work on normalizing the immune system. "Treatment can take several years, and your lab values don't necessarily become normal. Homeopathy is a great process for alleviating some of the core issues that initiated the emergence of symptoms."


Naturopathy is a multi-faceted approach to healing developed in the late 19th century. Also called natural medicine, it employs a variety of treatments -- from yoga to herbs to homeopathy -- geared toward enabling the body to heal itself. This often requires significant lifestyle changes.

Naturopaths think of autoimmune disorders in terms of toxic build-up -- an accumulation of toxins that overloads the immune system. Because 4/5 of the body's immune cells are in the digestive system, naturopathy takes a nutritional approach to lupus and other autoimmune malfunctions. Treatment starts with eliminating as many toxins as possible, both internal and external. "Patients need to stop taking all drugs and artificial hormones and stop using toxic cleaning products, cosmetics, poor quality water and food," Cathleen Rapp, N.D., says. Patients follow a detoxification diet, comprised of unprocessed, organic, fiber-rich foods, and an intestinal cleansing program. This process enables the digestive system to get back on-line, relieving the immune system's overload and enabling it to function normally again.

For lupus patients, there are specific dietary recommendations. A low-fat, low-protein diet is indicated. Karen Goldinov, executive director of the Lupus Foundation of America's Greater Arizona Chapter, began working with a naturopath and watching her food choices. "For me, no red meat. I've found that I just can't digest it."

The "bad" fats -- hydrogenated or heated -- should be avoided. Foods such as peanuts and animal products [contain] saturated fats, which produce arachidonic acid, a precursor to inflammatory prostaglandins, and should therefore be avoided. Wheat is also blacklisted. Iron is an inflammatory agent, and alfalfa can cause flares. Lupus sufferers should steer clear of echinacea, inula-containing plants like Jerusalem artichoke and elecampagne 9 and other substances that directly stimulate the immune system.

Vitamin C, proanthocyanidins, carotenoids, curcumin and digestive enzymes are just some of the supplements that help support the thymus, digestion, adrenals, liver and kidneys. Essential fatty acids (EFA's) are one of many natural anti-inflammatory substances. Toxins and pollutants in the body damage cell membranes, which send a signal to the immune system, which then overreacts. Antioxidants, which stabilize and strengthen cell membranes, are a must. Probiotics help re-establish the proper balance of good flora in the intestines. A homeopathic remedy may sometimes be indicated as well. Each patient is unique, and a naturopath can tailor a diet and supplement regimen to suit the needs of the individual.

As for Karen Goldinov, naturopathy combined with stress-reduction techniques and exercise brought about a remarkable change. She lost the 100 pounds she had gained since the onset of lupus and kissed her wheelchair goodbye. She has been off all medications for three years, has plenty of energy and says she feels great.

Herbs and acupuncture

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been practiced for thousands of years throughout the world. It emphasizes restoring balance to the body. Acupuncture and herbs are the treatments usually associated with TCM, but many holistic practices fall under the Chinese medicine umbrella.

Visitors to a TCM clinic fill out an extensive intake form, chronicling their primary complaint, daily symptoms, sleep and eating habits, patterns of elimination, and medical history. A western diagnosis can help and hinder, says Marshall Riley, L.A.C., because of a natural tendency to lump people together. "We try to think, `What is this individual's problem?' instead of `Oh, this person has lupus.' We want to treat the individual, not the disease. Autoimmune diseases are tricky. Why did one person get lupus, another chronic fatigue syndrome, and another allergies?" The extensive questionnaire helps TCM practitioners treat each person as unique.

TCM treats the constitution as well as symptoms. For inflammation, for example, "cold" and cleansing herbs are used. If kidney weakness is causing the inflammation, the practitioner works to strengthen the kidneys at the same time. "We try to get patients out of acute pain, get them relief for their symptoms, and then strengthen the body," Riley says.

Integrated medicine

Integrated medicine is a relatively new, holistic approach to illness practiced by medical doctors. Doctors integrate a variety of therapies to treat the patient as a whole person, whereas Western medicine has historically treated only the symptoms of an illness. Charles Farr, M.D., tries to find the trigger for a disease in hopes of modulating it.

Farr explains lupus as "an allergenic reaction to self." The disease arises out of an unhealthful state. "You'll never see a healthy person get lupus." Once the allergenic process has been [set up], it doesn't go away but must be managed. "We are basically concerned with restoring health at the biochemical level," he says. To determine how to assist this restoration, Dr. Farr asks patients to complete a 10-page questionnaire and then reviews the answers for healthy and unhealthy patterns. Next, he uses a variety of diagnostic tests to measure factors such as the heart's function, digestion, toxicity, allergies, enzyme activity. From this comprehensive analysis, he develops an individualized system for health maintenance including exercise, diet and stress reduction.

No hard and fast dietary rules apply to lupus, since each person will have a unique set of food allergies. But he does have some general recommendations: learn to relax and to avoid stress (environmental, emotional, physical), take antioxidants, digestive enzymes and a complex, broad-spectrum multivitamin. Don't overexercise.

So get plenty of fresh air and learn to breathe deeply. If you live in a smoggy urban area, consider relocating.

Farr reminds patients that lupus is a "major failure of health" and that it is up to patients to consistently care for themselves. "Some patients don't respond well because they want someone to do it for them They want it to be easy. That's an attitude our society fosters, but that's not how it works," he says.

A study in supplements

Lorraine Phillips was dying of lupus in 1967. Her kidneys were bleeding, the linings of her heart and lungs were inflamed, and she had a constant fever. When a diagnosis finally came, she was given a prescription for prednisone. After 10 years on the drug, she had lost most of her teeth and acquired a dowager's hump from the medication's calcium-leaching effect. She felt the steroid would do her in before the lupus did, so she began to read up on her condition.

One book recommended pantothenic acid and PABA, two B vitamins. She worked out her own vitamin regimen and over time weaned herself off prednisone. She has shared this regimen with others, who say it has helped in varying degrees. She suggests taking the supplements after meals, to prevent stomach upset (see boxout). She still has a flare every few years, at which time she takes prednisone for 10 days, but she now functions 90 percent of the time as a normal person. "I run the disease; it doesn't run me."

Phillip's daughter, Melissa Manchester, developed the disease at 30. After watching what steroids did to her mother, she decided to take an alternate route. Her rheumatologist, Dr. Daniel Furst, is a rheumatoid researcher who specializes in lupus. He treats her with DHEA, melatonin, high doses of naproxen, and exercise. Although Manchester must have her blood checked every three months because naproxen can cause organ damage, and the DHEA adds bulk to her body, she has no complaints. "I have no more fevers! This treatment has done wonders for me. I have my life back."

Both women urge people to stay away from steroids and to join a support group to network and avoid depression. They recommend taking digestive enzymes, especially during a flare, and eating nutritious foods. They caution against pregnancy. The onset of lupus for both came after difficult pregnancies, and they know one woman who sustained fatal organ damage from her pregnancy and died shortly after giving birth.

Many options, much hope

Other treatment options exist, including oxygen therapy, enzyme therapy and bioelectro magnetics. The healing modalities listed above constitute a primer for individual exploration. As the preceding lupus survivors demonstrate, there are many avenues to health. "Yeah, lupus is rotten. But if you take care of yourself every day, you should be able to grow old and die of something else. You can't goof off, let it slide or deny it," says Phillips. Rapp adds, "Anyone with an autoimmune, serious, `incurable' disease -- don't cave in to the idea you're stuck with this terrible thing. These diagnoses are not cast in stone. Many conditions can be dramatically improved by changing your lifestyle. What it takes for you to get better may be different from what it takes for somebody else to get better. Seek different avenues until you find what works."

Measurements & Data Corporation.


By Heath Davis Havlick

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