Why Inflammation Is More Common In Women & What To Do
The sentence "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" was first used to describe relationship conflict between the two sexes based on differences in DNA. But these genetic differences go well beyond compatibility and seep into health, too.
For example, women are more likely to deal with depression and anxiety1 than men, which may be caused in part by inflammation—something else that seems to impact women more than men.
Here's the scoop on the role that sex plays in the inflammatory response and what women can do to ease inflammation and the increased health risks that come with it.
Why women are more sensitive to inflammatory triggers than men
"A woman's immune system is very reactive to changes in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, all of which influence immune activation and inflammation," says Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., president and founder of Big Bold Health. He explains that this is because women's immune systems must be capable of supporting new life during pregnancy.
"This means that a woman's immune system is potentially more sensitive to things that she is exposed to in her surrounding environment than males," Bland adds. Toxins, chemicals, chronic infections, and injuries can all trigger an immune alarm response, leading to inflammation.
Signs you may be dealing with inflammation
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation happens as a response to sudden damage in the body. This can range from a headache, sore throat, ingrown toenails, or an upset stomach. Chronic inflammation happens when your body sends inflammatory cells out to the body, but there is no damage to triage. This can result in autoimmune diseases like psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, chronic fatigue, and gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
But you don't have to have a chronic, diagnosed condition to have excess inflammation in your body. In fact, Bland says there are subtle symptoms that could show you could be inflamed even if you don't realize it. These signs include:
- Irregular menstrual periods
- A particularly difficult time transitioning to menopause
- Frequent headaches
- Depression or depressive feelings
- Mood swings
- Joint pain
- Sleep disturbances
- Skin rashes
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Age-related loss of muscle, clinically referred to as sarcopenia
How women can combat chronic inflammation
Food has a powerful impact on the body's inflammatory pathways, Bland says—particularly for women.
"The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in women due to the high levels of hormone- and immune-balancing nutrients," says Bland. This is a diet built around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish (particularly ones high in omega-3 fatty acids), extra-virgin olive oil, beans, and nuts. These foods are packed with phytochemicals—active compounds found in plants that help your immune system have an appropriate response to toxins, infection, injury, and other causes of inflammation.
To reduce chronic inflammation, he recommends women opt for a Meditteranean-style eating pattern and steer clear of foods such as fried foods, sugary foods, ultra-processed foods, and low-fiber foods.
Inflammation is extremely common in women. In fact, research has found that low-grade inflammation can affect anywhere from 20% to 40% of women who are of reproductive age2. Luckily, your diet can be a vital tool in combating inflammation and its related symptoms. Eating a diet that's primarily Mediterranean and steering clear of fried, fatty, and ultra-processed foods will help balance and restore your immune function.
Colleen Travers is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in health, nutrition, diet, fitness, and wellness trends for various publications and brands. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, SHAPE, Fit Pregnancy, Food Network, and more. She lives on Long Island with her two kids, two rescue pets, and husband.