Venus Williams' Autoimmune Disease Explained

Tennis star Venus Williams kept telling her doctor about her exhaustion. She was used to working hard and seeing results, but her exhaustion wouldn't let her work as hard as she wanted.

Her exhaustion continued for seven years until it wrecked her ability to play tennis. Williams had to drop out of the 2011 U.S. Open just before the second-round match because her fatigue and joint pain were too hard to bear. It was just around then that she was diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that is estimated to affect up to 4 million Americans, according to the Sjögren's Foundation.

Sjögren's (pronounced SHOW-grins) syndrome is often misdiagnosed for other autoimmune disorders, but people with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or scleroderma might also have Sjögren's. Because 90% of Sjögren's cases occur in women mostly in their late 40s, Sjögren's is also mistaken for perimenopause. Williams was in her early 30s when she was diagnosed.

Symptoms of Sjögren's syndrome

Sjögren's attacks the moisture-producing glands that make saliva and tears, so people often experience dry mouth and dry eyes. Like Williams, people with Sjögren's might also feel extreme fatigue and joint pain. The problem with diagnosing Sjögren's is that the symptoms don't often occur at the same time. In other words, someone with Sjögren's might see an eye doctor for dry eye but later see a different doctor for fatigue or joint pain. Sjögren's also doesn't progress in the same way for all people.

Because there isn't a test for Sjögren's syndrome, it might take up to three years for a diagnosis, according to the Sjögren's Foundation. A Sjögren's diagnosis typically involves a rheumatologist who pulls together the list of symptoms.

There's no cure for Sjögren's at the moment, but people with Sjögren's have options to treat their symptoms. The malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can sometimes treat Sjögren's, and some drugs can be prescribed to help in producing saliva. Sprays and lozenges can also help with dry mouth. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help with joint pain. But Williams has found a natural way to manage her condition.

A vegan diet might help manage Sjögren's syndrome

In an Instagram post, Williams said Sjögren's put her on a wellness journey where she researched the value of plant-based nutrition. She also worked with nutritionists to optimize her vegan approach to eating. She founded Happy Viking Superfoods to provide healthy plant-based nutrients in a protein shake.

Although she began her plant-based journey by following a mostly raw diet, her travel demands on the tennis circuit make it difficult. She tells Women's Health that she's a "chegan," which means most of her diet is vegan aside from a little cheating now and then.

As it turns out, Williams might be onto something. A 2024 article in Frontiers in Nutrition highlighted three case studies where women who followed a predominantly raw, plant-based diet saw their symptoms of Sjögren's syndrome disappear after four weeks. All women have been symptom-free, and two of the women haven't had symptoms or needed medication for more than six years.