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Why are women more likely to develop an autoimmune disease?

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


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First, let’s go over what your immune system does.


The immune system and its part in autoimmune diseases


This is part of the body that is your defense system. It protects you from bacteria, viruses, parasites and cancer cells to keep you healthy. One of the main parts of the immune system is your white blood cells, however, so many other parts of your body are involved in the immune system from your skin to your intestines.


The coolest thing about the immune system is that it can identify healthy cells from unhealthy foreign cells and will attack and kill the intruders to keep you healthy. However, sometimes the immune system gets confused and attacks healthy cells, rather than keeping them safe. This occurrence in the body is called an autoimmune disease. There are over 80 autoimmune diseases out there, and still no one knows why they develop in the first place. The most commonly known ones include lupus, Crohn’s disease, alopecia, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and more.


While people with autoimmune diseases can lead happy and healthy lives, autoimmune disease is included in the top 10 list of female deaths in every age group up to 64 years of age. This makes autoimmune diseases a HUGE issue for women. So much in fact, that women make up 80% of all people diagnosed with them.



How are 80% of people with an autoimmune disease female?


Well, autoimmune diseases aren’t clearly understood. Some are thought to be genetic, whereas others occur at random. However, what we do know comes down to our chromosomes.


Most people have 23 sets of chromosomes; this includes 1 set of sex chromosomes that determines what gender you will have at birth. Those assigned female at birth have two X chromosomes, whereas those assigned male at birth have 1 X and 1 Y chromosome. The X chromosome is roughly 3 times the size of the Y chromosome and carries around 900 genes. The Y chromosome only carries around 55 genes. Because there are so many more genes being carried by the X chromosome, a gene mutation is more likely to occur from an X chromosome. Because women have 2 of these, and men only have 1, women are more likely to have a gene mutation that leads to an autoimmune disease.


However, this does not mean that an autoimmune disease is present from birth. Autoimmune diseases have also been linked to times in women’s lives when they are going through hormonal changes such as puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause. While it is still being discussed why hormonal changes can trigger an autoimmune disease, there is a clear link between the two for some autoimmune diseases.


There are even some studies that suggest autoimmune diseases are more frequent today than they were in the past due to lower fertility rates. This theory states that the immune system would have to respond during pregnancy more frequently in the past when women had larger numbers of pregnancies. Because in the modern day women are less likely to have as many pregnancies, the hormonal shift during pregnancy could be more disorienting for the immune system and could lead to an autoimmune disorder. This is just a theory, not a fact, but it does show us that there is a lot to be learned around the female immune system and how it interacts with large hormonal shifts. These are inevitable throughout a woman’s life!


While there is still so much research to be done, what we do know is the following:

  • Women are much more likely to develop an autoimmune disease

  • There is a hereditary element to some autoimmune diseases

  • There are certain life factors that can either prevent or encourage an autoimmune disease to develop


This is why it is very important to know your family history! If you have family members with autoimmune diseases, be sure to get checked out yourself, and try lifestyle behaviors that aid in the prevention of autoimmune diseases.


 

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Sources:


National Center for Biotechnology Information -https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7292717/


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