Hormones Can Make Autoimmune Diseases Worse, Says New Oxford Study

A new study from BOOST Thyroid and the University of Oxford offers a groundbreaking perspective on how sex hormones influence autoimmune conditions

  • Estrogen and testosterone can make the symptoms of chronic medical conditions feel worse
  • Most past medical research looked only at men, ignoring how menstrual cycles can impact the immune system
  • Autoimmune conditions affect 200 million people worldwide, mostly women

A new paper released on May 16th by the University of Oxford suggests that sex hormones can actually worsen the symptoms of many common autoimmune conditions, which affect 200 million people worldwide, predominantly women.

The paper, “Is Female Health Cyclical? Evolutionary Perspectives on Menstruation,” co-authored by BOOST Thyroid’s Dr. Vedrana Högqvist Tabor and the University of Oxford’s Professor Alexandra Alvergne, explains the dramatic impact of sex hormones on the immune system and provides a new view of why autoimmune conditions can take years to diagnose.

“This marks a crucial first step into the research of often-ignored female conditions like Hashimoto’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and even cancer,” says Dr. Högqvist Tabor. “Until two decades ago, most of the research was geared towards understanding the biology of middle-aged white men. Our study joins the chorus of people raising awareness and pushing for further research on autoimmune conditions.”

The study shows that hormones actually influence how severe a person’s symptoms and overall experience of a disease can be.

In particular, the difference between female and male health is especially impacted by the presence and quantity of different hormones in the body. Depending on when during the menstrual cycle a researcher conducts a study on female participants, they might observe different symptoms, including low energy levels, headaches, and digestive issues.

The goal of the study was to help doctors understand the different range of autoimmune condition symptoms, which will enable them to diagnose conditions faster and prevent health complications. Even though these conditions are widespread, their diverse range of symptoms makes them hard for doctors to identify. A proper diagnosis can take as long as a decade.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is the most common autoimmune condition, and out of affected people, 80% are women. The condition puts a risk at fertility, and increases risk of developing later health complications, including obesity, heart related conditions and cancers.

“This is a massive step forward for understanding inflammatory autoimmune conditions,” said Oxford’s Alvergne. “Both female health and autoimmune health are vastly under-researched, and even less is known about how menstrual cycles play into autoimmune diseases.”

The study was published in the research journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.