A-Z Health Topics

Return to Index
by Polsdorfer R

Lifestyle Changes to Manage Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Lifestyle changes can't cure systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), but can help manage symptoms, improve quality of life, and decrease the risk of complications. It's important to find a balance for physical and mental health.

Quit Smoking

Smoking triggers an inflammatory process that affects every cell in the body. It also causes stress on the heart, lungs, and kidneys. The added stress can exacerbate complications of SLE. Fortunately, quitting smoking will have immediate positive effects on your overall health. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about how you can successfully quit.

Avoid Sun Exposure

SLE makes many people sensitive to sunlight. Skin may be more likely to develop a sunburn. Sunlight can also worsen SLE skin rashes, and trigger a flare-up. To protect yourself:
  • Avoid direct sunlight, particularly between 10 am and 4 pm.
  • Wear sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 whenever you go out in the sun.
  • Wear a hat, long sleeves, and clothing that covers your legs down to your shoes.

Infection Prevention and Management

SLE and some medications used to treat SLE, suppress the immune system. This puts you at a higher risk for getting certain infections. Infections may come more frequently, or last longer than in others. To protect yourself:
  • Make sure all recommended vaccines are up to date
  • Get the yearly flu vaccine
  • Get the pneumococcal vaccine
  • Avoid people who are sick, even if it is just a common cold
  • Practice consistent handwashing, especially after being in contact with someone who is sick
Not all infections can be prevented. Early medical care is important for any infections that do develop to decrease the risk of severe infections.


A healthy diet is important for overall well-being and maintaining a healthy weight. Be sure to get adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Dietary changes may also be needed if complications such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, or gastrointestinal problems exist.
Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce SLE activity. Omega-3 is found in fatty fish and certain plant seed oils. Although it is also available in supplement form it is often best to get it from foods. A doctor or pharmacist should be consulted before supplements are taken.
It may be helpful to avoid alfalfa, but there are no other foods that commonly trigger flare-ups. Keep a food diary and avoid foods that seem to have preceeded your symptoms on many occasions.
If alcohol is permitted, drink in moderation. Alcohol can affect how medications work or worsen existing problems. Moderation is 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.

Reduce Stress

Feeling stressed can put extra burden on your body and weaken your immune system. Stress can also worsen your symptoms. Look for ways to reduce stress, such as lifestyle changes, or meditation.
It can be stressful to manage a chronic condition. Consider joining social or support groups for SLE. If you have difficulty getting out, consider staying connected through the internet with video chat, email, or social networking. Try not to isolate yourself and stay in touch with your friends.


Physical activity can help improve strength and overall well-being, which can minimize the effects of SLE. Activities may need to be adjusted during flare ups, but complete bed rest is rarely helpful.
Consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. Exercise programs can be tailored to avoid problem areas, such as a sore hip. To make the most of exercises, an exercise physiologist or physical therapist can help design a safe, effective program.

Monitor Yourself for Depression

It is very common to experience mood changes, especially within the first few months of a new diagnosis or during SLE flares. Depression can undermine your recovery and put you at risk for more serious health complications.
Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in favorite activities that continue for at least 2 weeks should prompt a call to the doctor. There are several treatment options available, such as medications and/or counseling.

Returning to Everyday Life

  • Be an active participant in your care —Keep in touch with your medical team. Let them know if you are having signs that a flare up may be coming. Talk to them about symptoms or treatments that you are having difficulty with. Other treatments options may be available to help you better manage your health.
  • Sexual activity —It is normal for you or your partner to feel concerned about sexual activity. SLE can have an impact on sex and your relationship. You and your partner may also be referred to individual or couples counseling. It will allow you both to talk about your concerns.
  • Counseling —Support groups or one-on-one counseling can help you navigate the challenges of SLE. Support groups allow for interaction with others who have similar experiences. They offer an environment of encouragement and support that will help with adjustments and treatment adherence.


Living well with lupus. Lupus Foundation of America website. Available at: http://www.lupus.org/answers/topic/living-well-with-lupus. Updated June 20, 2013. Accessed May 17, 2016.
Lupus. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health%5FInfo/Lupus/default.asp. Updated February 2015. Accessed May 17, 2016.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115873/Systemic-lupus-erythematosus-SLE. Updated September 15, 2016. Accessed October 6, 2016.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/musculoskeletal%5Fand%5Fconnective%5Ftissue%5Fdisorders/autoimmune%5Frheumatic%5Fdisorders/systemic%5Flupus%5Ferythematosus%5Fsle.html. Updated June 2013. Accessed May 17, 2016.

Revision Information