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What’s Gender Got to Do with It? Turns Out, Quite a Bit

Posted on November 29, 2018

Nearly 24 million Americans are living with one or more autoimmune condition, according to statistics from the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, and the majority of them are women. In fact, women have a three times greater risk of developing an autoimmune disease than men.

A new study, conducted by the Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden and published in the journal Nature Communications, explores a possible reason why women are more susceptible to developing an autoimmune disease than men.

Autoimmune disease develops when the immune system sees the body’s own tissue as a foreign invader and tries to kill that invader off using antibodies and inflammation.

When the immune system malfunctions in this manner, the result is often pain and inflammation.

For many people, autoimmune diseases can negatively impact their day-to-day life.

Singer uses regenerative therapy to help treat individuals living with autoimmune conditions.

Personal cell therapy can help to reduce inflammation caused by autoimmune conditions and help to reset the immune system to normal function.

Some of Singer’s patients are women living with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, Crohn’s disease or scleroderma, a condition that causes the hardening of the skin and connective tissues.

All of these conditions tend to develop more frequently in women than men.

One autoimmune condition in particular experienced more frequently by women than men is systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE. Ninety percent of those affected by SLE are women.

Why Women?

One theory as to why women develop autoimmune diseases more readily is that they don’t have as much testosterone as men. Some researchers believe that testosterone serves as protection against autoimmune diseases, and because women only have about one-10th the testosterone as men, they are more susceptible to immune system attacks.

Testosterone helps to protect men from autoimmune disease because the hormone reduces the number of B cells in the body. B cells are a type of lymphocyte cell of the immune system and release harmful antibodies when attacking an invading bacteria or virus.

When the body sees its own tissue as an invader, the B cells ramp up antibody production.

During their research, the Swedish study authors also worked to understand how the relationship between testosterone and B cells is managed in the spleen, but they do not currently have a clear picture of how the two impact each other.

As part of their study, the researchers studied both mice and men looking for what mechanism increased the viability of B cells. They found that the protein BAFF, also known as B-cell activating factor, is suppressed by testosterone.

They concluded that because women lack BAFF-suppressing testosterone, they have more B cells and a higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases.

Earlier studies have connected genetic variations in the BAFF protein to lupus and other autoimmune diseases. While some individuals living with lupus have been treated with BAFF inhibitors, these medications have not shown significant benefits for most users.

The researchers hope that their study will give insight into how the body regulates BAFF and help to determine who would benefit from BAFF inhibitors.

Other Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disease

In addition to gender, genetics also plays a role in developing autoimmune diseases. Research has shown that conditions such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and diabetes run in families. There is also some evidence that if a close family member has one autoimmune disease, relatives may develop a different autoimmune condition entirely.

Additionally, some studies have connected the presence of celiac disease in a spouse or partner to a greater chance of developing an autoimmune disease.

Another factor in developing an autoimmune condition is already having an autoimmune disease.

If you are living with one autoimmune disease, you have a 25 percent greater chance of developing another autoimmune disease.


University of Gothenburg. “New theory on why more women than men develop autoimmune diseases.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2018


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