Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakes healthy tissues for harmful bacteria, viruses, or infections and starts to attack the body. Referred to as autoimmunity, this phenomenon causes significant damage to healthy tissues and results in more than 100 autoimmune conditions.
Data has consistently shown that women are four times more likely to develop autoimmune diseases compared to men. While some researchers have posited that the X chromosome may increase the risk of autoimmunity in women because it is more likely to cause a higher number of mutations, we still don’t know why autoimmune diseases affect women at much higher rates.
Still, gender plays a significant role in immunity, and the fact that women deal with autoimmunity in higher rates means that gender likely plays a role in the development of autoimmune conditions. In that vein, the hormonal contraceptives used by millions of women across America may play a role in increasing autoimmunity risk.
A large portion of the 65% of American women aged 15 to 49 who use contraceptives regularly use hormonal contraceptives such as contraceptive vaginal rings and birth control pills. Female hormones affect immune responses based on an individual’s age, the hormones’ concentration in the blood and other hormone levels.
The menstrual cycle is accompanied by cyclical hormonal changes that start at puberty and last until menopause when the usual cycle is disrupted as the body’s reproductive years end and the transition to perimenopause and then menopause begins.
Changes in the regulation of inflammatory responses as well as a reduction in the expression of genes associated with bioenergetics may also influence the risk of autoimmunity. Additionally, women are typically less susceptible to viral infections compared to males because they have a higher capacity for antibody production, which allows them to respond faster and with more ferocity to viruses.
However, this increases their risk of hyperimmune responses to perceived threats and makes them more predisposed to autoimmunity. Evidence shows that fluctuating hormone levels during perimenopause coupled with this increased hyperimmune response risk can make women more susceptible to autoimmune conditions during peri- and postmenopause.
A 2017 systematic review found that hormonal contraceptive use may be associated with a higher risk of autoimmune conditions including ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune thyroid disease and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Researchers reviewed more than 1,800 papers on the connection between hormonal contraceptives and autoimmunity and found that hormones may significantly increase the risk of multiple autoimmune diseases in women.
Given that contraception is needed for a variety of reasons, efforts by companies such as BiondVax Pharmaceuticals Ltd. (NASDAQ: BVXV) to leverage immunotherapy in an effort to address autoimmunity can come in handy for women who develop autoimmune conditions as a result of their use of hormonal contraceptives.
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