Autoimmune Disorders in Women 

Autoimmune disorders appear to be on the rise in the U.S. Women make up an overwhelming majority of the diagnoses, as 80% of patients are female. Celebrated each May, National Women’s Health Month offers the opportunity to examine why women are more prone to autoimmune disorders, and to share advice for finding help.  

Autoimmune disorders  

Autoimmune disorders are any condition in which the immune system attacks the body, as it is unable to distinguish the difference between its own healthy tissue and potentially harmful invading antigens. The immune system is overactive. There are no cures for autoimmune disorders, but treatments may be available, depending on the situation. 

Some common autoimmune disorders include:  

  • Grave’s disease: The thyroid gland overproduces the thyroid hormone into the blood as a result of the immune system’s antibody production, resulting in symptoms of bulging eyes, weight loss, nervousness, irritability, rapid heart rate, weakness and brittle hair.  
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome: The nerves in the legs, and sometimes arms and upper body, are attacked by the immune system resulting in weakness. 
  • Inflammatory bowel disease: As the immune system attacks the intestinal lining, individuals can experience diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, fever, weight loss and urgent bowel movements. 
  • Lupus: Antibodies can attach to tissues across the body – including the joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves and kidneys. 
  • Multiple sclerosis: Nerve cells are attacked by the immune system which lead to muscle spasms, poor coordination, pain, blindness and weakness. 
  • Psoriasis: A type of blood cell collects in the skin, which prompts the skin to rapidly regenerate.  
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: The immune system produces antibodies that latch onto the linings of joints. As the immune system cells attack the joints, the result is swelling, inflammation and pain. 

Diagnosing autoimmune disorders 

Many autoimmune disorders have the same early symptoms, and they may flare up or go away during different times. Here are some common symptoms:  

  • Achy muscles  
  • Difficulty concentrating  
  • Fatigue  
  • Hair loss  
  • Low-grade fever  
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet  
  • Skin rash 
  • Swelling or redness  

These symptoms, in addition to tests and a physical exam, are used by health care providers to aid in the diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder. Since they’re very common, the symptoms alone are not specific enough to be diagnostic. While a professional examination is recommended, it’s important to remember there’s not a single test that can be used to diagnose any one autoimmune disorder. This can make the diagnosis process much longer for some individuals. Even when a diagnosis for an autoimmune disorder is solidified, treatment may only be available for symptoms.  

Women are more affected 

There are no clear answers to why women are predominantly affected by autoimmune disorders, but scientists have some clues:  

  • Genetics: Women are born with two of the same sex chromosome – XX – while men have the XY chromosomes. The X chromosome is larger than the Y chromosome, suggesting that it contains more genes; and thus, a larger chance of gene mutations that could lead to an autoimmune disorder. 
  • Hormones: It’s hypothesized that hormonal changes in menopause can increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis for women, as the drop in the protective hormones estrogen and progesterone can leave the joints and bones vulnerable.  
  • Pregnancy: The surge of hormones during pregnancy can trigger autoimmune diseases, especially when combined with the physical changes the body experiences including increased metabolism, weight gain and lipid levels. The mother’s immune system is also suppressed to sustain the fetus and prevent it from being attacked, which can also trigger autoimmune diseases.  

If an individual suspects an autoimmune disorder may be causing their symptoms, it’s important to talk with a primary care provider to determine next steps. Specialist appointments may be needed, depending on the type of symptoms that are present – including rheumatologists, gastroenterologists, endocrinologists and dermatologists.  

Dr. Patricia Ferguson, M.D., is a physician consultant at with Senior Health Services, Emergent Holdings. Emergent Holdings is a separate entity contracted by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to perform administrative services for Blue Cross’ Medicare Advantage program. 

 Photo credit: Phynart Studio

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