Ask Sofia: Why do women have more autoimmune diseases?
Autoimmune diseases—when your body attacks healthy cells because it cannot distinguish between your own cells and foreign cells—are now the third most common disease category after cancer and heart disease. While women generally live longer and suffer fewer infectious diseases than their male counterparts, they represent nearly 80 percent of autoimmune disease patients, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Celiac disease, thyroid diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes and lupus are all examples of autoimmune diseases where women significantly outnumber men.
Why? That is a really good question. Hormones, genetics and previous infections may play a role, although researchers continue to examine this issue.
Interestingly, women are often afflicted by autoimmune diseases during times of transition or stress such as puberty, pregnancy and menopause where hormonal changes are also happening. Hormonal fluctuations can impact the immune system and organs, and women experience far more than men.
Some researchers posit that women have more sophisticated immune systems with stronger inflammatory responses—and we know that inflammation plays a critical role in many of autoimmune diseases. Further, the extra X chromosome may be related to susceptibility to some of these conditions. Finally, fetal cells remaining following pregnancy may play a role in development or progression of certain autoimmune diseases.
“You can’t change your genetic predisposition or your chromosomes, but you can take care of yourself to reduce a variety of risk factors by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet that limits processed foods, quitting smoking, staying active and talking to your doctor before you start any new medicine,” said Dr. Pam Jordi.
While there are no cures for an autoimmune disease, over-the-counter and prescription painkillers, supplements and other treatments can help you manage symptoms ranging from pain to swelling to fatigue to digestive issues.