Lupus

The Causes & Triggers of Lupus

Lupus is a condition in which the body’s immune system, which typically guards against threats from the outside, mistakenly attacks its own tissues. This can lead to inflammation that affects various parts of the body, including the skin, joints, and organs. 

The experience of living with lupus varies from person to person. For some, it’s a path marked by mild symptoms, while for others it can mean navigating more severe symptoms that require careful management and support. Identifying and understanding the causes and triggers of your symptoms is crucial to regaining your health and improving your quality of life. 

Whether you’re well-versed in the language of autoimmune conditions or are just starting to piece together your own lupus journey, this guide will help you explore the different factors that influence the causes and triggers of lupus. 

Genetic Factors Influencing Lupus

Our genes contain information that is passed down from one generation to the next and determines much of our physical and behavioral traits — it’s no surprise that genes play a role in lupus. 

  • role of family history in lupus risk: You might wonder, “Does my family history affect my risk of lupus?” The answer is yes — research shows it can play a significant role. One large Danish study that reviewed thousands of cases, for example, confirmed that having a family history of lupus is associated with an increased risk of developing not just lupus, but other autoimmune conditions as well. (Source)
  • genetic markers that affect your risk of lupus: Scientists have identified over 30 genes that can predispose an individual to lupus. It is important to remember that these genetic markers don’t guarantee you’ll develop lupus, but can make you more susceptible. (Source)

Understanding these genetic factors is crucial, because it empowers you with knowledge. If you know you’re at a higher risk, you can be vigilant about monitoring symptoms and triggers.

Environmental Triggers

Certain environmental factors, such as sunlight and environmental toxins, can act as triggers for lupus. Let's explore these factors and a few ways you can protect yourself.  

Sunlight

Ultraviolet (UV) light, a component of sunlight, has been identified as a trigger for lupus flares. Research suggests that people with lupus are more sensitive to sunlight, and thus are more susceptible to skin cell damage by UV light. This causes changes in the cells of the skin, which may then be mistakenly targeted by the immune system, leading to inflammation and symptoms of lupus such as the characteristic “butterfly rash” over the nose and cheeks. Wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen, donning a hat and long sleeves, and seeking shade are a few ways to prevent sunlight-related flare-ups. (Source, Source)

Infections 

Certain infections have been identified as potential lupus triggers. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus, best known for causing infectious mononucleosis, has been associated with the onset of lupus in genetically susceptible individuals. The mechanisms are complex, but it is thought that such infections may alter the gut microbiota and eventually stimulate the immune system in a way that exacerbates lupus symptoms. Practicing good hygiene and focusing on strengthening the immune system through a healthy diet and by prioritizing sleep, movement, and reducing stress are simple steps that can help keep infections at bay. (Source, Source)

Silica Dust and Other Toxins

Exposure to silica dust, found in certain industrial workplaces, has been linked to an increased risk of developing lupus. Other environmental toxins such as pesticides may also play a role, though more studies are needed to confirm this connection. While it’s not always possible to completely avoid these substances, being aware of their presence and taking steps to minimize exposure, such as using protective equipment and advocating for safer work practices, can make a difference. (Source, Source)

Hormonal Influences

Hormones are chemical messengers produced by glands of the endocrine system, such as the pituitary and thyroid glands. Hormones travel through the bloodstream from these glands to tissues and organs, delivering messages that tell the body what to do and when to do it. Let’s delve into how hormones can influence lupus.

The Connection With Estrogen

Estrogen, a hormone commonly associated with female reproductive health, may play a significant role in modulating the immune system. Scientists have found that estrogen can potentially increase the production of antibodies that, in the case of lupus, can mean an increase in the activity of the disease. (Source)

Hormonal Changes and Lupus Flares

Life stages such as menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause bring about fluctuations in hormone levels, which can sometimes cause lupus symptoms to flare or subside. For instance, some may experience a worsening of symptoms during their menstrual cycle, or a significant change during pregnancy. (Source)

Beyond Estrogen: The Wider Hormonal Landscape

Prolactin, a hormone that’s responsible for lactation, has also been linked to lupus. Elevated levels of prolactin have been associated with increased disease activity in lupus patients. It’s a complex interplay, where hormones such as prolactin can influence the immune system’s behavior, potentially triggering lupus activity. (Source, Source)

Lifestyle Factors

Navigating through life with lupus means understanding how daily choices can impact overall well-being. Let’s explore how diet and psychological health play a role in managing lupus, always remembering that each person’s journey is unique.

Diet and Nutrition

What we fuel our body with can make a big difference with lupus symptoms. Certain foods, such as those that are highly processed, have the potential to cause inflammation, a known key player in autoimmunity. Alfalfa sprouts, echinacea, and garlic are also known to cause flares. (Source)

Conversely, there are nutrients that may ease the symptoms of lupus, such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids help lower inflammation and support the immune response. Vitamin D deficiency is common in lupus patients, especially when they must avoid sunlight, and this deficiency has been linked to higher lupus disease activity. Vitamin D supplementation has been found to boost the immune system and reduce lupus symptoms. (Source, Source, Source

Stress and Psychological Health

Stress, both physical and emotional, is a likely contributor to the development of lupus and can also act as a trigger for flares. Research suggests trauma and its associated stress response is strongly associated with lupus. (Source, Source)

Medications and Drugs

Medications designed to heal can have unintended consequences and trigger the body’s immune system to target healthy cells, leading to what’s known as drug-induced lupus (DIL). More than 100 different drugs have been associated with DIL. Some common ones include:

  • hydralazine: treats high blood pressure
  • procainamide: treats regular heart rhythm
  • isoniazid: treats tuberculosis 
  • minocycline: treats bacterial infections

Some antibiotics such as Bactrim and Septra (two common trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole combination drugs) can cause increased sensitivity to sunlight, which may trigger a flare. (Source, Source)

Demographic Factors

Gender Disparities

Lupus is far more prevalent in women than in men. In fact, women are 9 times more likely to develop lupus. The reasons behind this are complex, but sex hormones such as estrogen are thought to influence the onset and progression of lupus in those who are predisposed to the disease. The risk of developing SLE seems to be increased both by having two X chromosomes and by being exposed to certain cytokines (proteins used in cell signaling) produced by the fetal placenta during pregnancy. (Source)

Age and Onset of Lupus

Lupus can affect you at any stage of life, however, it’s most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45. Neonatal lupus, while less common, develops in a small percentage of infants. (Source, Source)

Ethnicity and Lupus

Lupus can affect anyone, but it does show patterns across different ethnic groups. Individuals of certain ethnicities, including African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American, are not only more likely to develop lupus but also tend to experience more severe disease courses. More research is needed to uncover why some ethnicities are more susceptible. (Source)

Comorbid Conditions

It’s not uncommon for individuals with lupus to also have other autoimmune or chronic conditions — a situation known as comorbidity. For instance, thyroid, metabolic, and cardiovascular disorders, as well as depression and anxiety, often develop alongside lupus. (Source, Source)

The Bottom Line

Understanding the causes and triggers of lupus is a crucial step in managing the condition effectively. As we’ve explored in this guide, lupus is influenced by many factors — genetic, environmental, lifestyle, and more. Each person’s experience with lupus is unique, and what might be a trigger for one person may not affect another. It is essential to work with health care professionals who can offer guidance on strategies for managing your condition. 

At WellTheory, we’re more than just a source of information. Our team can provide you with resources, advice, and most importantly, a community to support you on your lupus journey. We ensure you’re equipped with the right range of tools so you are able to make the best decisions for your health.

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