Actress with Lupus Spreads Awareness for Autoimmune Disease

In 2007, Maria Alejandra Hernandez was living her best life in New York City, working her dream job as an actress. However, she started to feel unwell, and generally tired and run down. She had a kidney biopsy done, but it didn’t lead to any answers. She recovered from the mystery illness, and went on to live her life.

Four years later at age 21, her health problems resurged with a vengeance.

“It started with a pain in my finger, I remember,” Hernandez explains. “I thought I probably bumped it or I’m just stressed out. It’s probably going to go away.”

However, the pain didn’t go away, and in fact continued to spread to her shoulders.

“The pain was so excruciating, I couldn’t even lift my hands,” she says. She was hospitalized for a month, while doctors performed a myriad of tests in an effort to diagnose the cause of her sudden pains.

She was eventually diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus. The autoimmune disease was causing her body’s own immune system to attack her joints, resulting in the unbearable pain in her fingers and shoulders. Shortly after, she started getting rashes on her face. Butterfly rash, which is a skin rash in the shape of a butterfly that appears across the nose and cheeks of lupus patients, is a hallmark symptom of the disease.

Hernandez admits that she knew nothing about lupus prior to being diagnosed. She explains, “I thought I could tell the doctor, okay, give me the medicine so I can just get better. Well, it doesn’t work that way!”

She recounts with emotion finding out that lupus is a life-long, chronic condition: “I remember one of the doctors telling to me that there was no cure; I felt like my life ended right there.”

While 90% of lupus patients are women, the symptoms can be completely different from person to person. Hernandez says that in addition to joint pain, fatigue, and skin rashes, she also experienced weight gain, hair loss, and kidney problems. At that point, she thought that her career as an actress would have to come to an end.

Lupus put a strain not just on Hernandez’ career, but on her relationship as well. At one point, the young woman told her husband that she likely wouldn’t be able to have children, and that he should find a new relationship to fulfill his dream of having kids.

“He said, ‘No way in hell!'” Hernandez laughs. Her husband stood by her side throughout her aggressive medical treatment. She now manages her symptoms with a combination of daily prescription medications and a healthy diet. Staying positive is also an important part of maintaining her mental health.

Hernandez said that her blood tests have shown promising results that her lupus is under control. As a result, she revealed that her and her husband are looking forward to starting a family of their own.

“For Warriors like myself, [becoming a parent] might take a little longer, but I’m not losing hope,” she declared. “If I hadn’t gone what I went through, I wouldn’t be here now, raising awareness [for lupus],” she said.

“Now, lupus doesn’t control me. But I’m using it to help [others].”

Maria can be found on Instagram at: @mariaalejandrahl. To learn more about Maria’s battle with lupus, visit the Today show YouTube channel.

Is There a Genetic Cause of Lupus?

Gabriella Piqueras, a 16-year-old Spanish girl living with lupus.
Gabriella Piqueras is a 16-year-old girl living with lupus in Madrid, Spain. Her DNA may be the key to finding a genetic cause for this debilitating autoimmune disease. Image courtesy of El Pais.

Researchers have long pondered whether there is a genetic cause of systemic lupus erythematosus, known as lupus for short. Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own vital organs and tissues, resulting in widespread inflammation and debilitating symptoms. Now, researchers have discovered a genetic mutation in a young patient, whose DNA may be the key to finding a cure for the disease that affects at least 5 million people worldwide.

One Girl’s Case My Help Solve the Mystery

Gabriella Piqueras, a 16-year-old teen from Madrid, is the center of a new research study published in Nature magazine. Ever since Piqueras was five years old, she has suffered from debilitating symptoms, like constant bruising and bleeding beneath her skin. She was admitted to a hospital in Madrid for treatment, where she was diagnosed with lupus as the cause behind her painful symptoms.

Piqueras’ DNA was recently studied by Carola Garcia de Vinuesa, a leading immunologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. In the study, it was discovered that she had a genetic mutation on her DNA that activates the TLR7 receptor in her cell’s membranes. This receptor activation normally causes immune cells to recognize and attack threatening viruses, but in Piqueras’ case, it causes her immune cells to attack her organs and tissues instead.

Discovering a Genetic Cause for Lupus

After discovering the genetic mutation in the patient’s cells, researchers modified the DNA of mice in a lab at Australian National University in Canberra. As a result, the mice went on to develop lupus. Lead researcher Garcia de Vinuesa commented on the study, saying: “It was already known that this receptor appeared to be activated in lupus patients, but no one knew if it was a cause, a consequence or a side effect of inflammation. Now we can show that it is the cause.”

The discovery of the TLR7 receptor as a genetic cause of lupus is significant. Not only does it show that genetics can lead to development of the disease, it could also explain why 90% of lupus patients are women. Garcia de Vinuesa explains that the instructions for making TLR7 are located on the X chromosome on our DNA. Since women have two X chromosomes on their DNA, and men only have one, women are significantly more likely to develop the disease.

Environmental Factors May Also Play a Role

Maria Galindo, a Madrid-based rheumatologist, states that although the study’s findings are important, it’s also important to consider the environmental causes of lupus as well. She explains that there is “a base of genetic susceptibility that, in the presence of external stimuli, triggers an exaggerated autoimmune reaction.” She concludes, “Everything indicates that the TLR7 pathway is very important, but it is not the only one.”

While more research is required to understand both the environmental and genetic factors behind lupus, this Spanish study sheds light on the chronic autoimmune disease that is often referred to as a ‘cruel mystery’. With more scientific research into lupus, more treatments can be developed to help the 5+ million people living with the disease worldwide. And for patients like Gabriella Piqueras, that could make all the difference.

Top 5 Anti-Inflammatory Foods

If you suffer from autoimmune disease or other auto-inflammatory conditions, then you’re no stranger to inflammation. According to the Cleveland Clinic, inflammation is defined as the process by which your body activates your immune system to fight off bacteria, viruses, and toxins, and to heal damaged tissue. However, if your body sends out inflammatory cells when you’re not sick or injured, you may have chronic inflammation. Excessive chronic inflammation is what underlies many chronic health conditions, from rheumatoid arthritis to systemic lupus erythematosus.

While modern medicine may turn to pharmaceuticals like NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), steroids, or immunosuppressants, patients are increasingly turning to natural products with anti-inflammatory properties to help them prevent damaging inflammation and reduce existing inflammation. In this blog post, we explore 5 anti-inflammatory foods that can help you fight chronic inflammation.

1. Manuka Honey

Manuka Honey from New Zealand

Honey has long been used in traditional medicine for its healing properties. But did you know that manuka honey sourced from New Zealand has such powerful anti-inflammatory properties that it was approved for wound treatment by the FDA?

What sets manuka honey apart from other types of honey are the properties methylglyoxal (MG) and dihydroxyacetone (DHA) which give manuka honey its supreme quality and purity. These properties have been shown to have various health benefits, including protecting against gastric ulcers, inhibiting influenza viruses, soothing sore throats, and treating antibiotic-resistant infections.

Manuka honey is known to be expensive, since it’s exported almost exclusively by New Zealand in limited supply. Check the label to ensure your honey is certified manuka honey, and not a blend of honeys from various countries.

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2. Coffee

Coffee Anti-Inflammatory

Are you surprised by number two on this list? While technically not a ‘food’, coffee beans have polyphenols and other anti-inflammatory properties and bioactive compounds like chlorogenic acids, cafestol, kahweol, and caffeine. These compounds have shown in a few studies to reduce inflammation. A 2015 study found that coffee consumption reduced 10 markers of inflammation among regular coffee drinkers. Those who saw the greatest benefit drank 3-4 cups of coffee per day.

Keep in mind that while coffee has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, coffee can mess with your sleep patterns, especially if you drink it late in the day or are caffeine-sensitive. And, since sleep is an important factor in your overall health and wellbeing, it’s something to consider.

The long and short of it is, you can enjoy your cup of Joe (in moderation, that is)!

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3. Turmeric

Turmeric Health Benefits

Turmeric is root vegetable-derived spice with a vibrant, yellow hue. The spice is commonly used in Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine, and has been used in traditional medicine thanks to curcumin, a bioactive compound with anti-inflammatory benefits.

In a 2006 study of patients with autoimmune ulcerative colitis (UC), patients who took 2 grams of curcumin a day, along with prescription disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD), were more likely to stay in remission than patients who took the prescription medication alone. This suggests that curcumin may help to prolong remission periods for patients with chronic inflammation.

Other research studies on the health benefits of turmeric have shown that curcumin improves memory, lessens pain, fights free radicals, combats depression, helps prevent cancer, and lowers one’s risk of heart disease. That’s a lot of benefits for a spice!

Turmeric and curcumin powder are extremely versatile and can be added to curries, soups, stews, meat marinades, roasted vegetables, rice, eggs, baked goods, smoothies, teas, milk, and more.

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4. Olive Oil

According to Harvard Health Publishing, an anti-inflammatory diet should include olive oil. As this article by Healthline explains, olive oil is rich in monosaturated fats, and has been shown to reduce one’s risk of heart disease and brain cancer in scientific research.

One 2014 study found that the group that followed a Mediterranean diet and consumed an extra 50mL per day of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) significantly decreased their inflammatory markers over the course of 12 months. This is likely because olive oil contains an antioxidant called oleocanthal, which has been recognized as a naturally occurring non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), similar to manmade ibuprofen.

Researchers Lisa Parkinson and Russell Keast concluded: “It is plausible that low, chronic doses of a naturally occurring NSAID such as oleocanthal may attenuate inflammation over time, and may then contribute to significant reductions in the development of chronic inflammatory disease.”

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5. Green Tea

Green tea has long been enjoyed in Eastern traditions for its earthy flavor since the Tang dynasty in 618-907 AD.

More recently, research has found that drinking green tea has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and other serious health conditions. Many of these benefits have been attributed to green tea’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, especially epigallocatechin-3-gallate, known as EGCG for short. EGCG inhibits inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokine production and damage to the fatty acids in your cells.

Plus, green tea makes a great alternative to other anti-inflammatory beverages, such as coffee, that still provides a jolt of caffeine for your morning routine.

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Are you surprised by any of these top 5 anti-inflammatory foods and beverages? Which is your favorite anti-inflammatory foods out of the ones above? Let us know in the comments below!