The Autoimmune Disease That Venus Williams Has Been Battling Since 2011

Family Health

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

You wouldn’t know by her superstar powers on the tennis court that Venus Williams has an autoimmune disease and has been battling it for years. This disease, which Williams was diagnosed with in 2011, is called Sjögren’s syndrome, and it almost ended her tennis career.

What is Sjögren’s syndrome?

Sjögren’s is one of the most prevalent autoimmune diseases. One medical source says it is estimated to be the second most common rheumatologic (meaning whole body) disorder. As many as 4 million Americans are living with the disease, according to the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation.

 (The disease was first identified in 1933 by Dr. Henrik Sjögren).

 Remember, autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the body. In Sjögren’s, the body attacks glands that make tears and saliva. This is why some of the most common symptoms are dry mouth and dry eyes. But this disease is systemic and affects the entire body. Sjögren’s can affect the joints, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, digestive organs and nerves. It is possible to have mild to severe cases of Sjögren’s. Some people may experience more symptoms than others.

 Other than dry eyes and mouth, what are some other symptoms of Sjögren’s?

  • Joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Dry skin
  • Dry cough
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Difficulty speaking or swallowing (due to dry mouth)
  • Rashes
  • Thyroid problems
  • Inflammation of certain organs (like the kidneys or lungs)

 “Symptoms may remain steady, worsen, or, uncommonly, go into remission,” says the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation.

 “On average, it takes nearly 3 years to receive a diagnosis of Sjögren’s, and this is largely because symptoms mimic other diseases.”

 What causes Sjögren’s?

The cause is unknown but some medical professionals believe it could be hereditary or triggered by some environmental factor, like a virus or bacteria.

 “Many patients develop Sjögren's syndrome as a complication of another autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus,” according to the American College of Rheumatology. 

Who is most affected?

Reportedly, nine out of 10 Sjögren's patients are women. This disease can occur at any age, but it is more common in older women (symptoms usually appear between the ages of 45 to 55).

Complications with Sjögren’s?

According to the American College of Rheumatology says, “most patients with Sjögren's syndrome remain healthy, but some rare complications have been described, including an increased risk for cancer of the lymph glands (lymphoma). Thus, regular medical care and follow up is important for all patients.”

How can you be proactive?

There is no cure for Sjögren's syndrome, but there is a lot you can do to be proactive. Since this disease is an inflammatory condition, it is very important to eat anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables.

Spices and herbs also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Some sources recommend certain foods, including leafy green vegetables, turmeric, avocado, fatty fish, whole grains and garlic.

There is no specific recommended diet for people who suffer from Sjögren's, but Venus Williams said that following a raw vegan diet has really helped her feel good and manage her symptoms.

(Williams reportedly does not eat any foods cooked above 118 degrees Fahrenheit, as this helps prevent nutrient loss that can occur when you cook foods at a high temperature). 

“The thing that has helped me most is high iron intake, along with eliminating cane sugar and corn syrup,” Williams said in an interview.

Eating too much sugar and corn syrup have been linked to increasing inflammation in the body. 

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), iron and other vitamin deficiencies are common in people with Sjögren's. So if you have been diagnosed with this condition, it is important you take a comprehensive nutrient test. This will determine if you have any nutrient deficiencies or imbalances. If you do, you can work with a competent healthcare professional on making changes to your diet and/or finding quality supplements to take.

Some of the symptoms of Sjögren's, like joint pain, can be painful. This disease is usually not fatal, but dealing with chronic pain can really affect quality of life and be discouraging. With pain, you may think that medication is the best solution for relief. But diet can actually play a key role in managing pain. For example,  specific nutrients, like magnesium, may help with pain relief. .     

And since Sjögren's affects the way the body produces moisture, it is extremely important to stay hydrated in order to get relief from symptoms of dry mouth and dry eyes. Limit your alcohol intake and also avoid smoking. 

Be aware of any medications you may be taking that can increase dryness in the mouth and eyes. For example, blood pressure lowering drugs, antihistamines and nasal decongestants may all have the side effect of dry eyes. Talk to your doctor about any prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs you are taking to see if they are exacerbating any symptoms of your Sjögren's.

Finally, as mentioned, Sjögren's often goes undiagnosed for years. If you have any symptoms or suspect you may have this disease, be aggressive about your health and ask your doctor to do the relevant tests to determine whether if you it. The doctor will likely also do a physical examination and review your medical history to help determine if you have this autoimmune disease. 

And remember, the sooner you are diagnosed and can start managing your symptoms, the more manageable living with Sjögren's will be.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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