Can Estrogen Protect Your Immune System? This OB/GYN Thinks So
Estrogen plays a significant role in the health, vitality, and function of your immune system, priming it to ward off infection and disease. As estrogen fluctuates and declines—whether during your monthly cycle, during and after pregnancy, or as part of perimenopause and menopause—your immune system can become vulnerable. Specifically, estrogen deficiency reduces levels of B-cells and T-cells, the workhorse cells of the immune system. Estrogen deficiency also increases levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which interfere with healthy immune function.
Women are disproportionately affected by autoimmune diseases. To date, researchers have identified more than 80 autoimmune diseases, and more than three-quarters of these diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, and thyroid disorders, occur more often in women than in men. Over the past few decades, there has been a dramatic rise in autoimmune diseases—a disturbing trend that scientists cannot fully explain, and one that will continue to affect women in far greater numbers than men.
A refresher on autoimmune disease.
All autoimmune diseases have one unifying characteristic: They are the result of the immune system turning on the body, attacking healthy cells rather than foreign invaders that pose a threat. While autoimmune diseases display a range of symptoms, several symptoms are common to many of them:
- Fatigue, often extreme and sometimes disabling
- Pain and stiffness, especially in joints
- Skin rashes
- Listlessness, a deep, persistent sense of being unwell, which can be disruptive to normal functioning
What are some risks?
Besides declining estrogen and hormonal levels, other risk factors for disrupted immune function and autoimmune disease include genetics, lifestyle, and behavior (including stress, sleep, diet, and exercise, all of which are themselves affected by estrogen).
Exposure to environmental toxins is also a likely culprit in the development of autoimmune disease. A woman's risk for autoimmune disease also increases as she ages, as does the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other diseases, in part because women are living longer than in previous generations (but that's not the whole story).
Where does estrogen come in to play?
Estrogen protects your immune system. Women with chronically low estrogen and women who enter perimenopause or menopause earlier in life are at greater risk for developing some autoimmune diseases than are women who begin menopause later in life. If you already suffer from one or more immune disorders, continued low estrogen might worsen your situation. Multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren's syndrome (which causes dry eyes and dry mouth) are some common autoimmune diseases exacerbated during menopause because of deficient estrogen.
Pregnancy, on the other hand, with its flood of estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones, frequently has a beneficial effect on autoimmune disease. Many women with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis experience an alleviation or cessation of symptoms while they are pregnant and see a return of or increase in symptoms after giving birth, which corresponds to falling levels of estrogen.
Estrogen stimulates the production of anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting cytokines, which, in turn, protect against and help alleviate and slow progression of certain autoimmune diseases. Many of my patients who have multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren's syndrome, and other autoimmune diseases respond to estrogen treatment. If you are dealing with any one of these conditions, discuss with your physician how you can be helped with a hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) plan—it may make all the difference.
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