‘Be still, my lupus heart!’

The following was written by freelance healthcare writer, Claire Harding, as she researched the cardiac effects of lupus. I’ll have Claire’s e-mail address should you have questions.

Reduce Heart Disease Risk by Changing Your Diet

“The link between lupus and heart disease is too strong to ignore. Young women with lupus are 50 times more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who don’t have the condition. There are a number of reasons why lupus increases our risk of developing heart disease.

The presence of lupus nephritis raises blood pressure, while the use of steroids to reduce inflammation can lead to an increase in both total and  harmful LDL cholesterol, as well as making you more susceptible to diabetes; all three are risk factors for cardiac disease. Weight gain as a result of inactivity due to joint and muscle pain can also make you more vulnerable. Systemic inflammation is another risk factor that makes coronary heart disease more likely and the use of anti-inflammatories in the management of lupus is important to reduce this complication. Blood clots can be triggered by lupus, so it is no surprise that aspirin, warfarin or heparin may be prescribed to reduce the stickiness of the blood to prevent a blockage in an artery supplying the heart. While all these risk factors can be managed through drugs, making changes to what you eat can help to keep your heart in good shape.

Here we take a look at what you can do.

Getting the balance of fats right

Saturated fats, which come mainly from foods of animal origin, raise levels of LDL cholesterol, the form of cholesterol deposited in the arteries causing them to narrow. Sources in the diet include the fat on meat, butter and full fat dairy produce, fatty and processed meats, ready meals, take out, cakes, cookies, pastries and desserts. We can reduce our intake through the following:

  • Choose the leanest cuts of meat you can and remove the skin from poultry; try to eat white meat and fish more often than red meat.
  • When buying dairy foods always choose those that are lower in fat and as reduced fat hard cheeses are still relatively high in fat, cottage cheese makes a better option; don’t cut back on dairy, as it is a great source of calcium, especially important if you take steroids, as these can thin your bones.
  • Choose a spread based on olive or canola oil and if you need to fry, use these oils, as they are high in monounsaturated fat, the best type of fat for the heart; next best option are polyunsaturated oils and spreads such as sunflower, corn and soya.
  • Limit processed foods where you can and if you rely on ready meals, buy those lowest in saturated fat.
  • If you want to include sweet foods, low fat yogurts, jello and sorbet are good options and do your own baking so that you can control the type of fat used.

Cutting back on your fat intake will also help to shed excess pounds.

Increase omega-3 intake

These essential fatty acids that come mainly from oily fish such as sardines and mackerel not only help to reduce inflammation, but can bring down blood pressure, help to prevent blood clotting and lower triglycerides, which are another harmful fat in the blood. Ideally include these fish once or twice weekly. If you would rather avoid fish, some plant sources of omega-3 include green leafy vegetables, canola, flaxseed or walnut oil, though these fatty acids are not so available for the body to use; omega-3 derived from algae, which are similar to those from fish, can be purchased as a supplement.

Eat more colorful fruit and vegetables

You might have heard the expression to eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, but there is truth in this. Substances called antioxidants protect the circulation by preventing damage from molecules known as free radicals that the body produces and it is these antioxidants that give fruit and vegetables their bright colors. They are also rich in folate, one of the B vitamins, which can lower levels of something called homocysteine, which is an additional risk factor for heart disease. Pulses (peas, beans and lentils) are also important in this group, as they are rich in soluble fiber, which is known to lower LDL cholesterol by preventing cholesterol absorption from the intestines. Half of your plate at each meal should be filled with fruit and vegetables; aim to include red, orange, yellow, green and purple varieties every day. This step will additionally help with portion control to aid weight loss.

Choose wholegrains

Complex carbohydrates that include all parts of the grain are not only higher in fiber, but are richer in vitamins and minerals, some of which are known to be cardio-protective and indeed people who include more wholegrains in their diet are less likely to have heart disease. Oats, barley and rye are particularly good, as they contain soluble fiber. However, the likes of wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta and bran flakes contain more vitamin E and selenium than their refined counterparts; these two antioxidants protect the health of the blood vessels.

Limit salt

Salt can push up blood pressure, so if you still use it in cooking or at the table look to using other seasonings such as herbs, spices, lemon juice, black pepper and garlic; watch out for stock cubes and gravy granules, as these are also salty. However, be aware that around three-quarters of salt in the diet comes from processed foods, so limit your intake of salted snacks, cured or smoked foods, canned soups and sauces and yeast extract. If you currently use readymade meals, consider cooking up large batches of meals to freeze to give you greater control of the salt content. When you buy anything manufactured – even bread and breakfast cereals – check the label to opt for those that contain less salt.

Be cautious with alcohol

Although sticking within alcohol recommendations of no more than one drink daily for women and up to two for men does seem to confer a benefit towards a healthy heart, alcohol should still be viewed with caution. Alcohol is relatively high in calories, so may hamper weight loss attempts and can also interfere with some of the medications used to manage the symptoms of lupus. For instance, methotrexate is less effective with alcohol, as are anti-clotting drugs and if you take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen or naproxen, you are more likely to develop stomach ulcers or bleeding if you drink alcohol.

Follow these six steps to set you on the path to a healthier heart.”

This is Annie. I’d just like to add that the 6 things that Claire listed are often things you may have heard from your Mom, and like me, you dismissed them. What do parents know, anyway?  But, I can’t emphasis the importance of heeding them if you have lupus. Take if from someone who’s traveled down the cardiac road. I wish I’d paid more attention to the things I can do-and I’m a nurse!! “But, it can’t happen to me!!”


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