Out of all people with an autoimmune disease, an astounding 85% are women. Such a high percentage begs the question: What about women’s bodies makes us more susceptible to developing autoimmune diseases? Though scientists continue to investigate the root causes of autoimmunity, many have come to the conclusion that our hormones, specifically estrogen, play a critical role.
Here’s what you need to know about your body’s immune system, what happens when it turns on itself, and what—if anything— you can do about it.
What is an autoimmune disease?
Our bodies contain two intricate immune systems that protect against germs, bacteria, and viruses.
We are all born with an innate immune system that acts fast and first against any foreign substances. These foreign invaders are also known as antigens, substances that trigger your body’s immune system response. Your skin, stomach acid, and ability to develop a fever are all responses of your innate immune system.
An adaptive immune system grows and develops over time as you expose yourself to different germs and vaccines. It’s not as fast as your innate immune system, but it can remember specific antigens and adapt its response to each one.
Autoimmune diseases develop when your adaptive immune system misidentifies your healthy, normal cells and tissues as antigens. When this happens, your immune system produces antibodies (unique proteins that respond to antigens) to attack these supposed invaders. The antibodies that attack your own cells and tissues are known as autoantibodies.
Over 80 different autoimmune diseases exist, from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis to Sjogren’s and multiple sclerosis (MS). You can begin to develop an autoimmune disease before you show symptoms, and they can take longer to diagnose due to their ability to mimic other diseases and conditions. One autoimmune disease also increases the likelihood of developing another during your lifetime.
Women’s health and autoimmune diseases
But what causes more autoimmune diseases to develop in women?
That’s a question scientists continue to study and theorize. Our environment, a triggering event, and certain medications may contribute to the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease. However, one culprit continues to stand out among the rest: our hormones.
Higher levels of estrogen are part of what distinguishes our sex hormone activity from our male counterparts. Estrogen can also impact both our innate and adaptive immune systems and their responses, though the exact mechanisms remain unknown.
Major hormonal transitions, including puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, seem to accompany changes to or the development of autoimmune diseases at a higher rate. Larger amounts of estrogen can cause a greater immune system response and number of antibodies in circulation. The more antibodies and estrogen in our system, the more likely our body produces autoantibodies and generates an autoimmune disease.
Sjogren’s Disease: a woman’s autoimmune disease?
Sjogren’s disease is ten times more likely to develop in women than in men, an autoimmune disease with one of the highest gender disparities.
Sjogren’s is an autoimmune disease that affects the body’s ability to produce moisture. The glands responsible for producing saliva, mucus, and tears become more dry, making it difficult to swallow and moisturize the skin—including the vagina.
Women who experience low estrogen levels throughout their lifetime are more likely to develop Sjogren’s later in life. Declining estrogen levels during menopause also increases a woman’s chance of developing Sjogren’s disease. Keep in mind, however, that decreasing estrogen can contribute to symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness, which are also common symptoms of Sjogren’s disease.
Our hormones, autoimmune diseases, and lingering questions
On the other hand, women diagnosed with different autoimmune diseases may find relief from their symptoms as their estrogen levels decline, the opposite of women with Sjogren’s disease. And, high estrogen during pregnancy appears to alleviate symptoms of multiple sclerosis but not other autoimmune diseases like lupus. Why is this the case?
Instead of identifying estrogen, or our hormones, as the cause of autoimmune diseases, scientists believe it is more likely that they control the severity of symptoms, which can explain why certain autoimmune diseases change based on rising or declining estrogen levels. It’s most likely that autoimmune diseases develop due to several overlapping factors.
How to find relief from autoimmune disease symptoms
The more we learn and understand what causes or contributes to autoimmune diseases, the more we can learn how to treat their symptoms. Autoimmune diseases are also chronic, though, like our hormones, their severity fluctuates over time.
People with autoimmune conditions may experience “flares” from time to time, which are a sudden worsening of symptoms. Certain environments, foods, stress, or other major live events can be a trigger. Triggers can vary between people, even those with the same type of autoimmune disease.
The best way to manage an autoimmune condition is to identify and avoid specific triggers to prevent a flare. Many women find varying levels of symptom relief by eating whole foods, exercising regularly, and prioritizing sleep as much as possible.
Stress reduction methods, such as meditation and yoga can help reduce autoimmune symptoms and balance your hormones.
It’s also important to consider that while our hormones can play a role in developing an autoimmune disease, autoimmune diseases can also wreak havoc with our hormone levels. Make an appointment with your doctor if you suspect your symptoms indicate an autoimmune disease to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment. A doctor can also prescribe certain medications to help you manage symptoms of an autoimmune disease.