Does Lupus Affect Your Gastrointestinal Health?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lupus — also known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which is the most common type of lupus — is a chronic autoimmune condition characterized by healthy cells and tissues being attacked by the immune system. It causes inflammation and tissue damage and may affect various body parts including the kidneys, joints, lungs, skin, and brain. Symptoms vary from person to person but may include rashes, bodily aches and pains, chronic fatigue, mouth sores, seizures, memory problems, and sensitivity to the sun.

The exact cause of lupus is not fully understood, but it is thought to be related to combined environmental and genetic factors. Lupus is more common in women of childbearing age, per a 2022 article published in Trends in Urology and Men's Health. Certain triggers, such as genetics, exposure to silica and ultraviolet light, and certain medications can also exacerbate the disease. While lupus is primarily known as a systemic autoimmune disease affecting multiple organs, it can also affect the gastrointestinal system, causing symptoms that can range from mild to severe.

How does lupus affect gastrointestinal health?

While the symptoms and severity of lupus can vary from person to person, it is not uncommon for people with the condition to also experience gastrointestinal (GI) problems as lupus may affect one or more organs along the GI tract, per the Lupus Foundation of America. Common GI symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. In some cases, people with lupus may also experience more serious GI complications, such as inflammation of the liver, esophagus, pancreas, or intestines, as well as ulcers in the stomach. Some may experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well.

While some people may experience GI symptoms as a result of lupus, in other cases, those issues may be related to the medications used to treat the condition. This is reiterated in a 2010 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology which stated that more than half of lupus-related GI issues are from medications and infection.

How are gastrointestinal issues treated in people with lupus?

Suppose you have lupus and suspect your GI issues are caused by the condition or the medications you've been prescribed. In that case, it's always best to discuss these GI symptoms with your doctor, who can help to identify the causes and develop an appropriate treatment plan. If the symptoms are related to the use of medications, it may be a sign that the treatment is ineffective, indicating a change is needed, reports Medical News Today. Adjusting the dosage or switching to a different medication may help in these cases. In more severe cases, people with lupus who experience GI complications may require specialized care from a gastroenterologist.

If the GI symptoms are related to the underlying lupus disease, your doctor might prescribe medications to treat inflammation and control symptoms. For example, corticosteroids such as prednisone may be used to reduce inflammation, per the Mayo Clinic. In addition to medication, lifestyle changes can also help to manage GI symptoms in people with lupus such as avoiding smoking and consuming alcohol, getting enough rest, eating healthily, and exercising regularly.