Unless you’ve been diagnosed with lupus —  or are a Selena Gomez fan — you probably don’t know much about this particular condition. So let’s break it down: Lupus is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and pain in any part of the body. Specifically, it’s an autoimmune disease, which means your immune system, instead of fighting infections, attacks healthy tissue instead. The Lupus Foundation of America estimates that 1.5 million Americans have a form of lupus, with that number increasing to 5 million worldwide. Ninety percent of lupus patients are women, and the disease generally attacks women of childbearing age.

Lupus can affect several different parts of the body, including your skin, joints, and even internal organs such as the kidneys or heart. Unfortunately, there is no cure for lupus, and symptoms vary by patient — though a common symptom is a butterfly rash, a facial rash that resembles the wings of a butterfly across both cheeks. Treatments will depend on your symptoms as well, so it’s best to discuss those options with your doctor once you receive a lupus diagnosis. 

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Since there is no cure for this disease, a diagnosis does raise the question of whether or not certain lifestyle changes, such as adopting a gluten-free diet or eschewing alcohol, are in order. Rescripted spoke with two medical providers on this topic, both of whom offered their expertise on how to best reduce lupus flare-ups, and if that requires avoiding both gluten and alcohol. 

Should you avoid gluten with lupus?

Before we get into the Dos and Don’ts, it’s important to identify what gluten is, exactly: Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. While going gluten-free has been a trendy dietary choice for several years, lupus patients don’t automatically need to start tossing bread and pasta from their kitchens. Still, it’s always a good practice to consult your doctor if you’re considering going gluten-free or trying a different diet. 

Avoiding gluten is only necessary, however, if you have a gluten-sensitivity or celiac-disease diagnosis: “While some individuals with lupus may have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, which could exacerbate their symptoms, it is not a blanket recommendation for all lupus patients,” says Zohair Abbas, M.D., a board-certified rheumatologist based in Houston, Texas. 

“I advise patients suffering from lupus to undergo testing for celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” says Kevin Huffman, DO, a board-certified bariatric physician. If tests confirm they also have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, then, yes, “it is prudent they avoid [gluten],” says Dr. Huffman. “Gluten is notorious for triggering inflammation among those susceptible.”

If you are experiencing any sort of gastrointestinal issues or gluten sensitivity, Dr. Abbas suggests consulting with a nutritionist or dietitian “to explore gluten-free alternatives such as rice, quinoa, and gluten-free oats.” Regardless of your lupus symptoms, Dr. Abbas says “adopting a balanced and nutrient-rich diet is essential for overall well-being.”

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What about alcohol?

While eliminating gluten depends on the lupus patient’s specific symptoms and diagnoses, both Dr. Abbas and Dr. Huffman advise all lupus patients to curtail their overall alcohol consumption. Now, that doesn’t mean they need to avoid alcohol entirely, but lupus patients should be aware of its potential negative effects. 

“While moderate alcohol intake may not be harmful, excessive alcohol consumption can have negative effects on the immune system and may interact with certain medications used to manage lupus symptoms,” warns Dr. Abbas. In addition, alcohol’s “diuretic impact induces dehydration — a significant concern for patients already prone to kidney complications due to lupus,” says Dr. Huffman. 

Both Dr. Abbas and Dr. Huffman emphasize how imperative it is for lupus patients to discuss their alcohol consumption with their healthcare provider to ensure their drinking doesn’t negatively impact their treatment. “I typically counsel my lupus patients to either abstain from alcohol entirely or to drink moderately and under medical supervision,” says Dr. Huffman. If patients do imbibe alcohol, Dr. Huffman advises “vigilantly monitoring their symptoms in harmony with their treatment regimen.” 

How can I best manage my lupus?

According to Dr. Abbas, lupus management typically involves a multidisciplinary approach: Medications like anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and immunosuppressants are commonly prescribed to control symptoms and prevent flare-ups. He also says regular follow-ups with a rheumatologist, monitoring of blood tests, and imaging studies “are essential components of lupus management.”

From a lifestyle perspective, Dr. Abbas recommends stress management, adequate rest, and a balanced diet for lupus patients. Open communication between the patient and their medical team, as well as active engagement in the prescribed treatment plan, is the best way for lupus patients to take charge of their health. 

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What are some other recommended lifestyle changes for lupus patients?

Dr. Abbas suggests lupus patients explore “regular exercise tailored to individual abilities, stress-reduction techniques such as meditation or yoga.” These activities, paired with sufficient rest, contribute to the patient’s overall well-being. He also advises adding “adequate sun protection” as part of your daily routine, because “lupus patients are often sensitive to sunlight.”

It’s also a good idea to ditch the cigarettes if you’re a smoker. “Smoking can worsen lupus symptoms and increase the risk of cardiovascular complications,” says Dr. Abbas. 

While a lupus diagnosis can be intimidating, it is a manageable condition, as long as patients seek out personalized care plans, as well as “actively participate in their journey toward managing lupus effectively,” says Dr. Abbas.

Sarene Leeds holds an M.S. in Professional Writing from NYU, and is a seasoned journalist, having written and reported on subjects ranging from TV and pop culture to health, wellness, and parenting over the course of her career. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, SheKnows, and numerous other outlets. A staunch mental health advocate, Sarene also hosts the podcast “Emotional Abuse Is Real.” Visit her website here, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.