Why are autoimmune diseases on the rise and what makes women more susceptible?
These diseases occur when our immune system starts making antibodies against and destroying healthy cells.
A rise in healthcare in the last century has significantly decreased morbidity rates and increased the average lifespan of humans. We have fought and won over previously life-threatening infections like influenza and SARS. However, this modernisation has brought with itself a new problem of autoimmune diseases - rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and celiac disease to name a few.
Unlike infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases don’t occur due to a microbe. Instead, these diseases occur when our immune system starts making antibodies against and destroying healthy cells. Autoimmune diseases can lead to inflammation and in some cases debility.
There are a lot of possible factors that can increase your risk of developing an autoimmune disease. While scientists have been busy trying to pinpoint the reasons behind it, there has been a gradual increase in the number of cases of these diseases over the last decade.
Here are some of the theories behind this steep rise:
Evolution is a brutal process, letting only the fittest survive. Thanks to being exposed to so many infectious diseases, we have developed genetic changes to evade harmful pathogens over time. Now researchers at the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Netherlands say that the same genes that protect us from infectious diseases also make us prone to autoimmune diseases. And this diversity varies with the change in geographical location, for example, Eurasian people are more resistant to certain diseases like staph infections but they are also more prone to allergies and asthma.
It is believed that as evolution continues, there would be more of these genetic changes and possibly more autoimmune diseases. This is because our immune system can build defences but it can’t prevent infections.
Being a woman
If you are a woman, you are much more likely to get an autoimmune disease. Dr Maunil K Desai, a researcher at the University of South California, explained why in his 2019 research published in Frontiers in Endocrinology, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Frontiers Media. He wrote that a woman’s body goes through several hormonal changes in life. These hormonal changes directly affect both the innate (the one you are born with) and the adaptive (the one you develop over time) immunity along with the immune tolerance in women. It has been found that androgens (produced more in the male body) like testosterone reduce inflammation, a most common symptom of autoimmune disease while estrogens (produced more in the female body) have pro-inflammatory effects.
Additionally, experts say that faulty expression of the X chromosome in women may make them prone to autoimmune diseases.
Then there is the fact that women live longer than men. The longer you live, the more infections your immune system fights and the higher your chances to get an autoimmune disease.
It’s not just about excessive exposure to microbes. Less exposure can increase your risk of autoimmune diseases as well. With rising awareness, humans have created more sterile environments around themselves, especially in developed countries. The immune system of growing children in such countries do not get exposed to enough bacteria (both, good and bad) and is thus more likely to act up. It is called the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ of autoimmune diseases.
Other factors like stress, smoking, diet and exposure to toxic chemicals are also considered to be risk factors for autoimmune diseases.
For more on this topic, please read our article on Celiac Disease.
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