Autoimmune Diseases and Women

May 6, 2022 | Women's Health

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Autoimmune diseases affect people’s immune systems. These conditions cause immune systems to attack their own healthy cells by mistake. Autoimmune diseases can affect almost every part of the body.

Two of the most common types of autoimmune diseases are Type 1 diabetes, which involves the immune system attacking the pancreas, and rheumatoid arthritis, which involves the immune system attacking the joints, lungs and eyes.

How Common Are Autoimmune Diseases in Women?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 24 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases. One study found that women are twice as likely to develop autoimmune diseases as men.

Women are susceptible to developing autoimmune diseases while experiencing high levels of stress, including during pregnancy or when their hormone levels fluctuate significantly. When people develop one autoimmune disease, their risk for developing additional autoimmune diseases increases.

What Are the Risk Factors for Autoimmune Diseases?

Additional risk factors for developing an autoimmune disease beyond gender or already having an autoimmune disease include:

  • Being a smoker or being frequently exposed to toxic chemicals and substances
  • Being obese
  • Early exposure to infections such as Epstein Barr virus, group A Streptococcus and COVID-19
  • Having a family member with an autoimmune disease
  • Taking certain medications, including blood pressure drugs, statins and antibiotics

Why Are Women More Likely to Develop Autoimmune Diseases?

Women have more robust immune responses than men. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation found three times as many women develop multiple sclerosis as men.

Women may be more likely to develop MS and other autoimmune diseases due to their greater immune responses, their higher levels of estrogen/lower levels of testosterone and their two X chromosomes.

That’s because a gene associated with immune response is found specifically on the X chromosome, and with women having two X chromosomes, they have a “double dose” of the risk factor.

How Can Women Manage Their Autoimmune Diseases?

Living with an autoimmune disease can be a challenge. Thankfully, there are steps that women who are diagnosed with autoimmune diseases can take to manage their symptoms and improve how they feel day to day.

Medications are available that can help relieve many of the symptoms of autoimmune diseases, including mild pain, swelling, depression, anxiety, sleep problems and more.

Insulin injections and hormone replacement therapy can help women with autoimmune diseases that affect the production of those substances. Medications can also suppress the immune system, making its attacks on healthy cells less intense and debilitating.

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