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Apr 01, 2024

Usually, our immune system does a great job at protecting us from bacteria, virus, and parasites that can cause illness in our bodies. It even helps us fight against cancerous cells and other elements that can weaken our bodies. When the body senses danger from a microorganism such as a bacteria or virus, the immune system steps up to keep things under control. However, sometimes, problems in the immune system, like a hormonal imbalance, can cause our defense system to begin attacking our healthy cells. 

On a basic level, autoimmune disorders occur when the body’s natural defenses attack the body’s own healthy tissues. When this happens, an autoimmune disease develops. Each hormone out of balance can contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases. There are about 80 known autoimmune diseases that affect about 23 million people in the United States. Unfortunately, according to the National Institute of Health, women are three times more likely than men to develop an autoimmune disorder and account for nearly 17 million of all people affected by autoimmune diseases in the United States.

What Causes Autoimmune Disease in Women?

Common Concerns: Addressing Your FAQs

Although the exact cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown, some factors increase the risk of autoimmune diseases or trigger an autoimmune disorder. Numerous factors including infections, family history, medications, diet, hormones, genetics, toxic chemicals, environment, and lifestyle can all lead to the development of autoimmune disease.

For instance, an infection caused by a bacteria or virus can trigger changes that confuse the immune system and prompt an abnormal immune response. Family history can make you more susceptible to autoimmune disease, and some medications can cause antibodies to develop that confuse the immune system and create an abnormal immune response. Stress-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or acute stress disorder (ASD) increase the risk of developing an autoimmune condition.

Hormones can also be a significant factor in the development of autoimmune disorders in women. Women undergo several significant endocrine changes throughout life, especially during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. These critical periods associated with massive hormonal shifts correlate with when women have the highest risk of developing autoimmune diseases.

Diet plays a part in the development of autoimmune disease. Our typical diet, especially our “western diet” in the United States, is low in good fiber but high in sugar, fat, salt, and artificial additives. Salt increases immune cells and can cause inflammation and autoimmunity. Food additives as well as processed sugars and oils are inflammatory and can lead to autoimmune disorders.

Why are Women at Higher Risk for Autoimmune Diseases?

Women have about a fourfold increase in risk for autoimmune disorders compared to men. Many factors, including hormonal differences, immune response type, genetic differences, and lifestyle, seem to play a role in the increased incidence of autoimmune diseases in women.

Women’s hormones fluctuate throughout their lifetime, especially during childbearing years. Incidentally, most autoimmune diseases are diagnosed around this period, which means that hormones do have a role in the development of autoimmune disorders. Also, autoimmune diseases tend to get better or worse as hormones fluctuate.

A woman’s immune system tends to react differently to triggers than a man’s system. Women tend to have a stronger response to triggers, which can often lead to inflammation that can damage tissues and organs, increasing the risk of autoimmune diseases.

Genetic differences also play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases. A mother can pass on the genes for an autoimmune disorder to her daughter. Since autoimmune diseases have a genetic component and women tend to have more autoimmune diseases than men, being a woman intrinsically increases the risk factor of developing autoimmune diseases dependent on genes.

Stress, lack of sleep, and overall poor health can also lead to autoimmune diseases. Women are more likely to be stressed than men. Women are also more likely to have sleep orders (such as insomnia) than men. These negative lifestyle choices can increase the risk of autoimmune disease in women compared to men.

Facts About Autoimmune Disease in Women

  • Women most often develop autoimmune disorders between the ages of 15 and 60; however, some disorders are more common earlier in life than later. For example, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and psoriasis tend to start earlier in life, while Sjogren’s and rheumatoid arthritis are often seen in middle age.
  • According to the National Institute of Health, common early symptoms of autoimmune disease include joint pain and swelling, fatigue, skin problems, swollen lymph nodes, and fever.
  • Autoimmune diseases are infamously challenging to diagnose because many symptoms can also be attributed to other disease processes.
  • Blood tests can help to narrow down what kind of autoimmune disorder you might have. 
  • Pregnancy can trigger some autoimmune disorders. Interestingly, people who already have autoimmune disease may see some improvement of their symptoms during pregnancy.
  • Menopause and aging can increase the risk of developing certain autoimmune disorders.


Female sex hormones including estrogen, progesterone, and to a lesser extent, androgens (such as testosterone) have a direct impact on our immune system.

 Estrogen plays many vital roles in the body, including enhancing different elements of the immune system. For instance, estrogen can stimulate an inflammatory response in your body, which can increase the risk of developing autoimmune disorders. When estrogen is high, such as during certain phases of the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, people already genetically susceptible are at increased risk of developing autoimmune disease. 

Interestingly, some autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome, are more likely to occur during the menopause transition when estrogen levels drop. This is likely because estrogen protects joint health and acts as an anti-inflammatory. When these protections stop, the symptoms of these autoimmune diseases become more apparent. Thus, estrogen seems to be able to stimulate and suppress the immune system.


Progesterone, another important reproductive hormone, is anti-inflammatory and helps modulate the immune system as a potent suppressor of inflammatory response. Progesterone levels increase during certain phases of menstruation and pregnancy and then permanently drop during menopause – this can correlate to when a woman has more protection against autoimmune disorders. 

Androgens such as testosterone, dihydrotestosterone (DHT), androstenedione, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) protect against autoimmunity and can suppress the immune system like progesterone. They target several parts of the immune system to dampen the immune response.

Other hormonal considerations include the use of hormonal contraception which is a risk factor for the development or worsening of many autoimmune disorders like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Crohn’s disease, Multiple sclerosis (MS), thyroid disease, and many skin conditions. Regardless of the type of hormonal contraception (estrogen-progesterone hybrid or progesterone-only), these contraceptives predispose users to subsequent development of autoimmune diseases.

 Cortisol, our stress hormone, also plays a role in autoimmune disorders. Cortisol is overproduced under chronic stress and this stress can trigger or worsen autoimmune diseases. High cortisol levels can also disrupt the production of some protective hormones such as progesterone. People with stress-related disorders are more likely to develop autoimmune disorders.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Autoimmune Disease?

Certain factors contribute to autoimmune disease including genetics, dietary components, toxic chemicals, and infection. To reduce the risk of autoimmune disorders:

  • Manage chronic stress, and don’t hesitate to get professional help if needed.
  • Eat a healthy, fiber-rich, fruit and vegetable-dense diet since a bad diet increases the risk of developing an autoimmune disorder.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of autoimmune disorders so you know when to seek medical help.
  • Avoid potential sources of toxic chemicals, especially those found in foods, the environment, and beauty products.
  • Infections are a major cause of autoimmune disorders, so practice good hygiene.
  • Know your genetic risk; be aware of your family history and inform your healthcare provider of any close relatives with autoimmune disease.
  • If you are already being treated for an autoimmune disorder, take your medications as prescribed to keep things under control.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider (and get tested) if you suspect you have an autoimmune disorder.

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