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As if the pain of childbirth isn't enough, women are twice as likely than men to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. So why are women so disproportionately affected? Experts have a few theories. But before we get into the details, let’s cover the basics of autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmunity 101: You can think of your immune system like your personal internal bodyguard. It protects your health by fighting off viruses, bacteria, and infections. But sometimes that bodyguard gets a little mixed up and confuses healthy cells with foreign cells. Autoimmune diseases occur when your immune system mistakenly attacks normal cells and loads up your body with inflammatory proteins.
So why are women significantly more affected? Doctors and scientists blame it on two main factors: genetics and hormones.
- Genetics: Since women have two X chromosomes (men only have one), they have a far greater risk of a larger number of mutations. Some studies even show that there are a few autoimmunity causing genes that are specifically linked to the X chromosome. Recently, scientists discovered a sex-biased gene called VGLL3 that is responsible for inflammation. VGLL3 was found in all women, but only activated in men with autoimmunity. This suggests that simply having two X chromosomes predisposes women to overactive immune systems.
- Hormones: Many women are diagnosed with Autoimmune issues during their childbearing years, when there is an influx of hormonal changes. Whenever a woman goes through an endocrine transition like pregnancy or menopause, her immune system is affected, putting her at risk of certain diseases. In fact, increased estrogen can actually increase inflammation. Testosterone, on the other hand, has been shown to reduce inflammation markers.
All in all, there is still so much to learn about autoimmune diseases. But through medication and lifestyle changes, a high quality of life is possible. According to John Jenkins, MD, a Rheumatologist at St. Vincent Healthcare, “There is a female predisposition to some but not all autoimmune conditions. Generally healthy living which includes good sleep habits and a healthy diet, such as an anti-inflammatory or Mediterranean-type diet, may be helpful. As well as regular exercise and in some cases sun avoidance."
Dr. Jenkins adds, "Dietary influences on autoimmunity or flares of autoimmune diseases are not consistent and may vary between individuals. Achieving remission for these conditions would include these measures as well as a precise diagnosis and antirheumatic treatments or immunosuppressive treatment as prescribed by the physician. Some patients may need to identify factors that cause flares and avoid those, and may also be different for each individual. Some patients report benefit with probiotics as well. Again, this this varies greatly between individuals."