What to Know About Autoimmune Diseases
Women and Autoimmune diseases
Your body's immune system is designed to protect you from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that cause infection. Sometimes, the immune system does its job a little too well. It attacks your body's cells, leading to an autoimmune disease.
While autoimmune diseases can affect anyone, they are far more common in women than men. About 80% of people with an autoimmune disease are female.1 If you've been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or are concerned that you may have one, here's what you need to know.
What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
The immune system is supposed to tell the difference between the body's cells and foreign invaders, such as bacteria or viruses. But, occasionally, a problem with the immune system makes it unable to distinguish between what's part of the body and what isn't.
When that happens, an autoimmune disease can develop. The immune system produces antibodies that attack the body's cells, damaging specific organs or tissues.
Types of Autoimmune Diseases
There are more than 100 types of autoimmune diseases, and some are more common than others. A few are very rare.
Some of the more commonly occurring types of autoimmune disease are:
● Multiple Sclerosis
● Crohn's disease
● Rheumatoid arthritis
● Sjögren’s syndrome
● Type 1 Diabetes
● Grave's disease
● Hashimoto's disease
● Celiac disease
● Alopecia areata
Causes of Autoimmune Diseases
The specific cause of autoimmune diseases isn't known. But certain factors increase a person's risk of developing one. Autoimmune diseases often run in families, so if you have a close relative with an autoimmune disease, you have a higher chance of developing one.
Environmental exposure may also contribute to problems with the immune system's functioning. Hormones may also play a role.
People with one type of autoimmune disease are often at risk of developing another.
Signs of Autoimmune Diseases
Since there are more than 100 types of autoimmune diseases, there are also more than 100 different symptoms. While the specific disease symptoms vary based on the type of issue, there are some symptoms that all autoimmune diseases seem to share in common. Fatigue, a low fever, and dizziness are common hallmarks of an autoimmune disease.2
Disease symptoms tend to come and go. You're in remission when you haven't had any symptoms for a while. If your symptoms return, you're experiencing a flare. Your symptoms may be worse during one flare and considerably milder in another.
Why Do Autoimmune Diseases Affect More Women Than Men?
The exact reason women are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease than men isn't fully understood. But researchers are starting to put together hypotheses.
Women have different chromosomes than men. While men have XY chromosomes, women have two X chromosomes (XX). The second X chromosome is supposed to be inactive, so the body doesn't produce too many X-related genes. 1 However, in some women with autoimmune diseases, the second X chromosome isn't switched off, so the body overproduces certain proteins.
Women's hormones, notably estrogen and progesterone, may also increase their risk for autoimmune diseases.1 Both hormones have an impact on the immune system and antibody production. Additionally, women produce less testosterone than men. Testosterone is believed to suppress somewhat the immune system, which could explain why autoimmune diseases occur less often in men.1
How to Cope With Autoimmune Disease
If you are diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, your family doctor will likely refer you to a specialist focusing on the affected body area. Your primary care provider should also be a source of support and advice for managing your condition.
Treatment options depend on the type of disease and your symptoms. Medications can help relieve symptoms, suppress the immune system, and replace critical substances, such as insulin for people with Type 1 Diabetes.
Often, the symptoms of autoimmune disease are triggered by certain conditions, such as high stress levels or too much sun exposure. Recognizing your triggers and doing what you can to avoid them can help you avoid flares.
1. Why Nearly 80 Percent of Autoimmune Sufferers Are Female, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-nearly-80-percent-of-autoimmune-sufferers-are-female/
2. Autoimmune Diseases, Office of Women's Health, https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/autoimmune-diseases