There are currently about 80 known autoimmune diseases, and the rate at which people are affected by an autoimmune disease has been steadily climbing for the past 30 years. As many as 50 million Americans live with an autoimmune disease today.
But did you know that women are more likely than men to be afflicted with an autoimmune disease? Research shows that autoimmune diseases are twice as likely to affect women than men. Let’s take a look at some of the most common autoimmune disorders in women.
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Autoimmune Diseases and Women
A properly functioning immune system protects you from infection, keeps you healthy, and guards against things that can make you sick, such as bacteria and viruses. Autoimmune diseases occur when your immune system malfunctions, causing your body to mistakenly produce antibodies that attack your healthy organs, cells, and tissues. The symptoms of these afflictions are often scary, debilitating, and sometimes deadly.
Autoimmune diseases are more common in women than in men. One reason for this could be the higher fluctuating hormone levels in females – particularly during childbearing years – which is when many women are diagnosed. Another possible reason shown by studies is that testosterone in men may offer some form of protection against autoimmune diseases. While the exact reason behind the gender bias is unknown, it’s obvious that hormones likely play a role.
Autoimmune Diseases and Hormones
Women typically experience more hormonal changes than men, making them more susceptible to autoimmune diseases. In addition, autoimmune diseases are more likely to affect women during the three major hormonal transitions: puberty, pregnancy, and menopause.
If your hormones become too high or too low at any point, this can significantly impact your immune system’s functionality. In particular, the estrogen and progesterone hormones have a strong effect on your immune system.
When estrogen levels are high, your immune system is more likely to trend towards an autoimmune response. Some studies show that oral birth control or hormone replacement therapy can lead to certain autoimmune diseases.
Low progesterone can also trigger autoimmunity. Low levels of progesterone are common during menopause and can stimulate some autoimmune diseases.
How Can You Tell if You Have an Autoimmune Disease?
You’re busy. You have a career, kids, a spouse, a household to maintain, pets – all of which are vying for your attention. So it probably seems normal if you feel tired, cranky, and achy all the time. But these seemingly ordinary ailments could be signs of an underlying autoimmune disease.
However, diagnosing an autoimmune disease can be tricky because these conditions often share common symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, and low-grade fever. Here are five of the most common autoimmune diseases that affect women and the symptoms to watch out for.
Approximately 90% of those with systemic lupus erythematosus, more commonly known as lupus, are women. Lupus attacks and damages healthy tissues in the body, including the joints, skin, brain, kidneys, and other organs.
There are more questions than answers as to why women are more likely to develop lupus, but estrogen is one potential reason. Some studies have shown that oral contraceptives and hormonal replacement therapy – which affect estrogen levels – may increase the risk of a lupus flare. Genetics, environmental factors, and medications are also factors that contribute to lupus.
However, regardless of your sex or gender, the symptoms of lupus remain the same. Common symptoms are:
- Brain fog
- Joint and muscle pain
- Hair loss
- Red rashes, most commonly on your face
- Chronic fever
- Sun sensitivity
2. Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is a condition in which your immune system attacks the myelin sheath, which protects your nerves. When this happens, it affects the transmission of information from and to your brain, spinal cord, and the nerves connected to them.
Women are twice as likely as men to develop multiple sclerosis. However, this difference is only observed after puberty, suggesting that hormonal changes could be an underlying factor in the gender disparity of this autoimmune disease. Another possible reason is women’s higher percentage of body fat, which has been linked as a key player in multiple sclerosis.
Common symptoms of multiple sclerosis include:
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulties with memory and concentration
- Vision loss
- Numbness or tingling
- Aches and pain
- Bladder and bowel problems
- Difficulties speaking and swallowing
3. Rheumatoid Arthritis
Women are three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system attacks the lining of various joints throughout the body. This results in painful, stiff, swollen, and deformed joints, which leads to reduced movement and function.
While rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, women are most likely to develop it around the time of menopause. Estrogen and progesterone are thought to protect the bones and joints. As these hormones decrease during menopause, so does their ability to decrease inflammation, increasing the risk for rheumatoid arthritis to occur. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are:
- Pain in your joints
- Stiffness in your joints
- Chronic fever
- Weight Loss
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that causes skin cells to build up more rapidly than normal, leading to the formation of red or white-colored scaly, itchy patches on the skin. Psoriasis can begin at any age, but it is often most severe around the time of puberty.
High levels of estrogen during your menstrual cycle may cause psoriasis symptoms. Since hormone levels go up and down during your menstrual cycle, your psoriasis symptoms will also fluctuate throughout the cycle. Although psoriasis is more prevalent in women than men, research shows that men’s symptoms are typically more severe. Symptoms include:
- Red patches of skin covered with thick scales
- Dry, cracked skin that may bleed or itch
- Itching, burning, or soreness
- Thickened, pitted, or ridged nails
- Swollen and stiff joints
5. Thyroid Conditions
Women are 10 times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. Most commonly, women are likely to develop the thyroid conditions of Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Graves’ disease occurs when your body makes too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism), and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis occurs when your body doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism).
Like the other conditions discussed above, hormones are one explanation for the prevalence of thyroid disorders in women. Thyroid problems can happen at any time, but they are especially common during and after menopause when hormone levels are changing.
While Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are both thyroid conditions, the symptoms differ between the two diseases. The symptoms for Grave’s disease include:
- Muscle weakness
- Heat sensitivity
- Bulging eyes
- Light menstrual periods
- Weight loss
- Racing heartbeat
- Shaky hands
- Fine or brittle hair
While the symptoms for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis include:
- Muscle aches
- Stiff joints
- Sensitivity to cold
- Hair loss
Autoimmune Diseases and Functional Medicine
If you’re a woman, you have a higher chance of developing an autoimmune condition at some point in your life. But an autoimmune disease diagnosis doesn’t have to be forever. The functional medicine approach of uncovering the root cause and treating it properly which may include eating a whole foods diet, maintaining a healthy weight, tending to your gut health, managing your stress, increasing movement, getting quality sleep, and reducing toxins are all ways you can reduce your risk for or reverse autoimmune disease.
Addressing autoimmune diseases requires a personalized approach. Take the first step:
- Watch a free webinar to learn about our approach to the health concerns you are facing.
- Schedule a Free Discovery Call to discuss your health concerns and goals to see if our practice is a good fit for you.
- After your discovery call – if we are a good fit, you’ll schedule a consultation with our doctor to dive deeper and formulate an individualized treatment plan for you.
Tri-Cities Functional Medicine is located in Johnson City, Tennessee, and serves patients throughout Tennessee and into Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky. These areas include but are not limited to: Washington County, TN, Sullivan County, TN, Carter County, TN, Greene County, TN, Knox County, TN, Bristol, TN, Holston Valley, TN, Tri-Cities, TN, Walnut Hill, TN, Elizabethton, TN, Greeneville, TN, Morristown, TN, Blountville, TN, Bluff City, TN, Kingsport, TN, Jonesborough, TN, Colonial Heights, TN, Limestone, TN, Knoxville, TN, Bristol, VA, Abingdon, VA, Grundy, VA, Asheville, NC, Boone, NC.