This past Sunday, the 17th season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians premiered and during the episode, Kim Kardashian West received some unsettling medical news, with her doctor calling for her to confirm that she had tested positive for both lupus and rheumatoid arthritis antibodies.
“I’ve been feeling so tired, so nauseous and my hands are really getting swollen,” the mum of four revealed during the episode, prior to consulting her doctor. “I feel like I literally am falling apart,” she said. “I feel this in my bones. It’s starting to really worry me. I really have to look into this. Based on the symptoms, it looks like I have rheumatoid arthritis. It’s so scary. So I have to go to the doctor and see what’s going on because I can’t live like this.”
Following the news, Kim’s doctor made sure to inform her that there was a chance that the results were a false positive. Also, having antibodies for lupus doesn’t mean an official diagnosis. That said, her doctor asked her to schedule a follow-up appointment to get ultrasound scans on her hands and joints.
So, what exactly is lupus?
Lupus, also known as systemic lupus erythematosus, is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system causes inflammation and the breakdown of its own cells. With no cure for the disease, it currently affects at least 1.5 million Americans and more than 5 million people worldwide, with more than 16,000 new cases reported each year in the U.S. alone (1). Characterized by fatigue, joint pain, and a butterfly rash on the face, lupus mostly affects young and middle-aged women of childbearing age, with African-American, Asian, and Native Americans believed to be two to three times more likely to develop the disease than Caucasians.
Lupus is also characterized by flare-ups in symptoms that tend to last longer than six weeks and often for many years. These flare-ups can be severe and can even cause permanent organ damage.
What are the types?
Depending on a person’s symptoms, doctors usually categorize four lupus types.
Type 1: Systemic lupus erythematosus
The most common type of lupus, systemic lupus, affects the entire body, with symptoms worsening over time before then improving.
Type 2: Cutaneous lupus
Generally limited to the skin, cutaneous lupus may cause rashes and permanent lesions with scarring. Also known as discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE), rashes and scarring are usually triggered by exposure to sunlight.
Type 3: DILE
Known as drug-induced lupus, DILE is caused by the long-term use of certain prescription medications, and it can mimic the symptoms of systemic lupus, affecting systems throughout the body.
The forms of medication that have been linked to DILE include prescriptions linked to seizure prevention and acid reflux symptoms. That said, symptoms soon end following the discontinuation of the medication.
Type 4: Neonatal lupus
As said in the name, this rare type affects infants whose mothers have lupus.
What causes the disease?
The exact cause of lupus is, as yet, unknown, yet doctors do agree that it’s triggered when one’s immune system begins to attack the body after it mistakenly thinks that the healthy tissue and cells within the body are a danger to the human body.
Autoantibodies are antibodies produced by the immune system that are only activated when the body recognizes foreign cells. These antibodies are thus created to fight off these foreign cells. However, due to reasons not clearly known, autoantibodies may be inadvertently activated even in the absence of foreign cells. This then results in autoantibodies viewing normal human cells as foreign cells and thus attacking them. When this happens, it results in tissue and organ damage which then soon leads to the breakdown of the entire system in the human body.
As mentioned, there is no clear reason as to what triggers the autoantibodies into attacking normal, healthy human cells. However, the below factors may play a role;
- Chronic stress levels
- Environmental exposure to toxins
- Gut health
- Hormonal imbalances
- Long term use of medication
- Nutrition deficiency
What are some of the symptoms?
According to a 2011 report published in the Maedica Journal of Clinical Medicine, it can be incredibly hard to diagnose a patient with lupus as symptoms are so incredibly similar to many other illnesses, particularly Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and thyroid disorders. In fact, it is often referred to as “the great imitator”, as a result of its symptoms being regularly confused with various other health problems. What’s more, people with lupus will experience flare-ups of symptoms followed by periods of remission, which is likely why their symptoms are often dismissed by other doctors.
Unfortunately, this confusion can often lead to a delay in diagnosis for a number of people, with a majority of them only being diagnosed in their 30s following years of ill health.
While no case of lupus is the same, the symptoms of the disease include;
The John Hopkins Lupus Center found that around 90% of people with the disease will experience some level of fatigue.
For no apparent reason, individuals with lupus are more likely to experience a low-grade fever hovering somewhere between 98.5˚F (36.9˚C) and 101˚F (38.3˚C).
As a result of inflammation in the scalp, people with lupus may notice their hair thinning out slowly, leading to it falling out in clumps. What’s more, some people may even notice thinning of their eyebrows, eyelashes, and other body hair.
Skin rashes and lesions
This symptom is the most visible sign of lupus. A butterfly-shaped rash that appears over the bridge of the nose and on both cheeks, and affects around half of the people diagnosed with the disease. Many people with lupus experience sun sensitivity, thus this rash may suddenly appear after exposure to sunlight.
In addition to the rash, individuals with lupus may also develop lesions on their skin about the size of a coin.
The lungs are one of the organs that can be affected by the inflammation that lupus brings. As a result, patients may find it difficult to breathe, and they may also experience chest pain as well as shortness of breath.
The inflammation of the joints can cause pain, stiffness, and visible swelling in your joints, particularly in the morning. This symptom is one of the reasons why lupus may be confused with another condition that causes joint pain, particularly arthritis.
Additional lupus symptoms include loss of appetite, heartburn, acid indigestion, dry skin, hair, and mouth, oral ulcers, enlarged lymph nodes, muscle pain, osteoporosis, fluid retention, headaches, loss of libido, and depression.
Fortunately, not everyone gets every symptom. While new symptoms can appear, others often disappear.
What complications can the disease cause?
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder, so it affects a number of the body’s organs and processes. As a result, if left untreated and unmanaged, lupus can cause some serious health complications. These include:
- Increased risk of heart disease (2)
- Increased risk of lung, bladder, and liver cancer (3)
- Kidney damage
- Lung damage
- Nerve damage
- Thyroid disorders
How is lupus diagnosed?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has revealed that there is no one test that serves to produce a diagnosis for lupus, just as there is no single test for rheumatoid arthritis.
In order to diagnose your condition, your doctor will take blood, skin, and kidney samples to test. In addition to this, he will also evaluate your medical history and do a complete physical exam. If the results show that you, similar to Kim Kardashian West, have autoantibodies in your blood, then all that it means is that further testing is needed as it does not automatically mean that you have an autoimmune condition. This is why the symptoms you may or may not be displaying are incredibly important.
What are the treatment options?
A lot of the medication prescribed is done to help patients better manage their symptoms. However, in addition to the medication prescribed – which ranges from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to immunosuppressive drugs – one can also adopt natural treatments that all help to reduce the severity of lupus symptoms.
Natural remedies for symptoms
Adopt the lupus diet
While doctors haven’t officially established a lupus diet, there is an eating plan that can help lupus patients manage their symptoms.
Aside from reducing their intake of alcohol and foods high in salt and cholesterol, people with lupus can increase their intake of anti-inflammatory foods as these will help to reduce inflammation in the body.
These foods include:
- Omega -3 fatty acids found in salmon, tuna, or mackerel, as well as walnuts and chia seeds
- Tart cherries
- Whole-grain foods
Manage your stress
Chronic stress can trigger inflammation in the body. It can also worsen your symptoms by increasing fatigue and making you more depressed.
It’s important to adopt practices that will help you manage your stress. This includes yoga and tai chi. Staying active will not only help you manage your stress levels, but it will also help to keep your joints strong and flexible. You can also try listening to music, hiking, or even choosing therapy so that you can talk about how you’re feeling about your diagnosis.
Practice sun protection
Sun exposure can trigger flare-ups. So. it’s important to protect your skin. This can be done by investing in a great, non-toxic sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 50 or higher. You should also invest in a great pair of sunglasses, and get into the habit of always wearing a hat.
The bottom line
The Lupus Foundation of America has revealed that an estimated 80 to 90 percent of people diagnosed with the disease will go on to live a normal life span (4).
One can go on to enjoy a healthy, quality of life. All they will need to do is ensure that they take their medication and that they adopt healthy habits. This will help them better manage their symptoms and flare-ups.