Printer Friendly

Autoimmune diseases & women's health.

For 41-year-old Judy Pate, it started in June 2006 with nervousness, a pounding heart and shaky legs that were so weak it was so hard to climb the stairs to her Boston apartment. A few weeks later, having missed three days of work with what she thought was the flu, she finally received her diagnosis: Graves' disease, a form of hyperthyroidism, caused by an overproduction of thyroid hormone.

Catherine Thomas's diagnosis came 22 years ago, the day she woke up and found she couldn't walk without help. With three daughters under the age of six to care for, she was terrified. But when she heard the diagnosis, she was more mystified than fearful--lupus, something she'd never heard of.

Cindy Baglietto saw a podiatrist three times in the winter of 2006 before she finally got the right diagnosis for the excruciating pain in her hands and feet, pain so severe it felt as if every finger were broken: rheumatoid arthritis.

And Cindy Holzer, herself a health education and gym teacher, had to nearly lose her vision before she finally figured out what was going on in her body and went to the doctor. Her diagnosis: Type 1 diabetes.

While the four women have very different diseases, their conditions share one thing: They're all autoimmune diseases, caused by an out-of-whack immune system.

More than 80 autoimmune diseases have been identified so far, making the category as a whole the third most common major illness in the United States, affecting about one in 31 Americans. (1) And for reasons we still don't understand, women are far more likely to develop many of these diseases. (2)

"It's really shocking when you put all the numbers together," says Caroline Whitacre, PhD, professor in the department of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University in Columbus. She led a task force of autoimmune experts in 1998 that summarized what was currently known about sex differences in autoimmunity and developed an agenda for future research.

While women overall are 2.3 times more likely than men to develop an autoimmune disease, the sex disparities vary depending on the disease. (1) For instance, women are five times more likely to develop hypothyroidism, up to nine times more likely to develop systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), three to four times more likely to develop Graves' disease, three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma, and twice as likely to develop multiple sclerosis. Plus, nine out of 10 people with Sjogren's syndrome are women. (1,3,4,5)

Most researchers agree on one thing: sex hormones must be involved. For instance, symptoms of multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis tend to improve during pregnancy, when levels of estrogen and progesterone are high. They also tend to improve when women take oral contraceptives, which moderate hormone fluctuations. (2) Autoimmune thyroid disease also may improve during pregnancy, then flare after delivery as postpartum thyroiditis.

Lupus, however, might sometimes flare during pregnancy while some other autoimmune diseases show no hormone-related disease changes. (2)

Another theory suggests that fetal cells from earlier pregnancies that remain in a woman's blood for years after giving birth may play a role in some diseases, particularly those that first develop or get worse after pregnancy. (2)

We also know that many immune cells have receptors for sex hormones, says Dr. Whitacre. When hormones bind, or attach, to these immune cells, they can affect the cell's behavior. In fact, women tend to have a stronger inflammatory immune response than men, and inflammation is a key component of many autoimmune diseases. (2)

"So it's that very close relationship with hormones that provides a clue that they play a big role in autoimmune diseases," says Dr. Whitacre.

While hormones may help explain why women are more likely to develop these diseases than men, they aren't behind the actual diseases themselves. For that, blame the immune system.

The immune system developed to protect us from a myriad of foreign invaders. Without its constant vigilance, we wouldn't last a minute. But its very complexity makes it more vulnerable to genetic hiccups that can lead to gene mutations or changes. In some people, those changes increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease.

It takes more than a few rogue genes to develop an autoimmune disease, however; it may take an environmental trigger. (6) In some instances, it seems, that trigger might be a virus, even a flu virus. When the immune system mobilizes to fight that virus, some genetic switch flips on or off and instead of slowing down after the virus is eradicated, the immune system keeps going, turning on your own cells. They could be insulin-producing beta cells, as in Type I diabetes, bone and joint cells as in rheumatoid arthritis, or thyroid gland cells, as in thyroid diseases. Next thing you know, you've got an autoimmune disease.

Here's a look at three of the most common autoimmune diseases in women: lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Type I diabetes.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

The rash started in 1984. "I was kind of nervous about it but afraid to do anything about it," recalls Catherine Thomas of Lake Charles, LA. Finally, she worked up the courage to see a dermatologist. He told her she had lupus but not to worry. So she didn't.

Until the day three months later when she couldn't walk unassisted. That's when the doctor biopsied the rash. Eventually this led to a diagnosis of systemic lupus--a far more serious disease than the dermatological version.

In systemic lupus, your immune system causes inflammation in your cells and tissues, leading to painful, sometimes disabling symptoms. The most commonly attacked tissues are the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels and brain. It's a disease that flares up, disappears into remission then flares again. In addition to chronic pain and disability, it can lead to early heart disease in women and is sometimes life-threatening. (6)

Ms. Thomas's difficulties in getting a diagnosis aren't unique. Women often wind up going from doctor to doctor before finally receiving a definitive diagnosis of lupus, says Joan T. Merrill, MD, medical director of the Lupus Foundation of America and head of the Clinical Pharmacology Research Program at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City. That's because there isn't one specific test to diagnose the disease, although some combinations of symptoms and tests can rule it in or out.

Common symptoms include achy and swollen joints, fever, prolonged or extreme fatigue, skin rashes and anemia. Others include sun or light sensitivity, problems with the kidneys, seizures, mouth or nose ulcers and hair loss. (7) The condition most often strikes women between the ages of 15 and 45, (8) and is three times more common among African-American women than Caucasian women. (8)

Unlike some other autoimmune conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, medications to treat lupus have been slow to come to market. One reason is that lupus is a hard disease to study, Dr. Merrill says, because it waxes and wanes on its own, making it difficult to determine if a potential drug has an effect.

But with more investment in lupus research, she expects to see new, more precisely targeted drugs within a few years. These drugs should be more effective and have fewer side effects than drugs currently available.

Ms. Thomas, 54, has been lucky; more than 20 years after her diagnosis, she hasn't suffered any serious organ or heart damage. Her lupus primarily affects her central nervous system, muscles and joints. To reduce flares, she learned to watch her stress level, noting that "one thing I learned early on is that lupus is all about balance and knowing your limits."

Today she takes steroids and anti-malarial drugs to keep her disease in check and says she hasn't had a flare in eight years. But she remembers well the days when she took 19 different medications, spending more than $1,000 a month in medical bills.

She's also learned to remain positive, something many of her friends find hard to believe. "I tell them that even though lupus changes your life, it doesn't have to change it for the worst. And when you learn that, you'll learn that you're in control of your disease."

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Scott Zashin, MD, has never enjoyed his job so much. The Dallas-based rheumatologist, who is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas's Southwestern Medical School, finally has an entire arsenal of effective drugs to treat the pain and disability that affects his rheumatoid arthritis patients.

The drugs come in two categories: traditional disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate, sulfasalzine (Azulfidine), leflunomide (Arava) and hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil); and, for those who don't respond to DMARDs, biologic agents like TNF blockers adalimumab (Humira), etanercept (Enbrel) and infliximab (Remicade), or the newer biologic

agents abatacept (Orencia) and rituximab (Rituxan), which block specific components of the immune system involved in inflammation. The drugs are very expensive, however, making them difficult to afford for people without insurance or with high co-payments.

"The drugs have changed the outlook for patients with rheumatoid arthritis," says Dr. Zashin. "They're not without potential side effects, but they took people with tremendous amounts of inflammation, who couldn't work or enjoy their lives, and within a month or two that pain just melted away, and these people were living normal lives."

Without treatment, rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive disease that quickly damages bone, joints and tendons, leading to tremendous disability. That's why early treatment is so important, says Dr. Zashin. "We know that within the first two years (after diagnosis) at least half of those with the disease may have damage in their joints on x-rays."

Unlike its sister disease, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis typically strikes young adults between the ages of 20 and 50 and is particularly prevalent in women of childbearing age. Like most other autoimmune diseases, there is no single laboratory test for its diagnosis, although a laboratory test that identifies antibodies to cyclic citrullinated peptides (CCPs) is showing promise. (9) Generally, however, diagnosis is based on a variety of indications, including morning stiffness and arthritis in three or more joints, high levels of rheumatoid factor antibodies and changes seen on x-rays.

That's how Cindy Baglietto was first diagnosed. She began exhibiting symptoms in early December, finding it hard to walk in the morning or if she'd been off her feet for a while. "It felt like the bottom of my foot was severely bruised," she said. Soon thereafter, her hands started hurting so badly she couldn't open doors with a key. As a Realtor based in Plano, TX, that made doing her job difficult, as did the crushing fatigue. Finally, after discussing her symptoms with her aunt, who is a nurse, she made an appointment with a rheumatologist and was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Today she's doing great on first-line drug therapies of methotrexate and the antimalarial drug Plaquenil. She also drinks a juice made from the Brazilian acai berry, a potent anti-inflammatory that has enabled her to stop taking prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. She's had no side effects from the drugs, she says, and knows she's very lucky. The drugs do have side effects, however. Plaquenil can, rarely, cause retinal damage; while methotrexate can, also rarely, reduce the level of white blood cells and lead to inflammation of the lungs.

"I don't know what the future holds for me as far as this disease is concerned, but so far it has not changed my life in the way I feared it would," Ms. Baglietto says, although she admits she hasn't had the disease very long. Starting treatment so early should help her live life relatively free of disability, says Dr. Zashin.

Type 1 Diabetes

Kathi Hozler refuses to let diabetes hold her back. The 48-year-old woman from Jackson Hole, WY, was diagnosed with what many consider to be a childhood disease when she was 40. Despite having to test her blood sugar more than 10 times a day and take regular injections of insulin, a typical summer day for her consists of a two-hour bike ride, a couple of hours training for a water skiing tournament, a game of tennis with her husband and an early evening run with her daughter.

She manages this level of physical activity by being, in her words, over vigilant about her blood sugar and her disease, taking an active role in both. "Diabetes is a disease where you have to become the doctor," she says.

Many people might be surprised to learn that Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. Although Type 2 diabetes, in which an individual's cells become resistant to insulin, is more prevalent in this country, Type 1, in which the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells, comes on more suddenly and can be more dangerous.

For instance, no amount of diet or exercise ever eliminates the need for insulin in someone with Type 1 diabetes as it can in someone with Type 2, and the typical complications of diabetes--nerve, eye and kidney damage, as well as heart disease--tend to strike earlier and more severely.

Interestingly, the fact that Type 1 is an autoimmune disease may lie behind its eventual cure, says Francine Kaufman, MD, professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "Right now in some patients who are newly diagnosed with Type 1, we know there are some beta cells still alive that, over time, will be destroyed. To save them, we have to unlock the mysteries of the immunological system and try to induce tolerance," so the immune cells won't attack beta cells. Efforts to do that are already under way.

Dr. Kaufman is used to seeing older patients like Ms. Holzer and notes that Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age. Some people, she says, may have had low levels of autoimmunity throughout their life until something like a virus flips that genetic switch and sends the immune system into overdrive. Yet many doctors diagnose these patients with Type 2 diabetes--even though they don't fit the typical profile of the overweight, sedentary person who develops Type 2.

That happened to Ms. Holzer. When she first went to her doctor with symptoms of diabetes, including significant weight loss, enormous thirst and urine output and vision loss, he assumed she had Type 2 diabetes and tried to treat her high blood sugar levels with the oral medication often used for that disease. She knew she needed insulin, however, and drove two hours outside her small town to find a diabetes specialist. Since then, she says, she's been through several doctors before finally finding one who "treats me as a whole person."

Like other women interviewed here, Ms. Holzer emphasizes the importance of a positive outlook when it comes to a chronic disease like diabetes. "You have to make the best of a tough situation," she says. She also notes how important it is that women learn to advocate for themselves with health care professionals and become educated about their diseases.


1 Jacobson DL, Gange SJ, Rose NR, Graham NM. Epidemiology and estimated population burden of selected autoimmune diseases in the United States. Clin Immunol Immunopathol. 1997 Sep;84(3):223-43.

2 Whitacre CC, Reingold SC, O'Looney PA. A gender gap in autoimmunity. Science. 1999 Feb 26;283(5406):1277-8.

3 American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Thyroid Fact Sheet. Available at:

4 American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. Autoimmune diseases in women: The facts. Available at:

5 Wood LC, Cooper DS. Ridgway EC. Your Thyroid: A Home Reference, 4th edition. Ballantine Books, NY, 2005; pp35, 82.

6 Reeves GE. Update on the immunology, diagnosis and management of systemic lupus erythematosus. Intern Med J. 2004 Jun;34(6):338-47. Review.

7 Lupus Foundation of America. There's more to lupus than you know. Available at:

8 National Institute of Health. Handout on Health: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. Available at:

9 O'Dell JR. Therapeutic strategies for rheumatoid arthritis. N Engl J Med. 2004 Jun 17;350 (25): 2591-602. Review.

10 Nayar M, Rhodes JM. Management of inflammatory bowel disease. Postgrad Med J. 2004 Apr;80(942):206-13. Review.

11 National MS Society. Disease management consensus statement. Available at:

12 Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America. Facts about Autoimmune myasthenia gravis. Available at:

13 National Psoriasis Foundation. What is psoriasis? Available at:

14 National Psoriasis Foundation. Psoriasis treatment. Available at:

15 The Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation. Treatment for Sjogren's. Available at:

16 Huggins RH, Schwartz RA, Janniger CK. Vitiligo. Acta Dermatovenerol Alp Panonica Adriat. 2005 Dec;14(4):137-42, 144-5. Review.


American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association


Provides patient information and resources.

Lupus Foundation of America


Nearly 300 chapters in 32 states provide support groups and other services.

American Diabetes Association


Provides information on and support for all types of diabetes.

Arthritis Foundation


Offers resources on all types of arthritis.

Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation

1-800 475-6473

Provides information, including support activities.

The Thyroid Foundation of America


Provides information, support and physician referrals.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society


Provides programs for the newly diagnosed and those living with MS.

Disease Description Common Symptoms Primary Treatment

Ulcerative Immune system Blood, diarrhea, Anti-inflammatory
colitis (3) attacks bacteria pain, urgent drugs and
 in the bowel movements, corticosteroids.
 colon. (10) joint pains and
 skin lesions.
Multiple Immune system Numbness, Immune-modifying
sclerosis (11) attacks cells in weakness, drugs such as
 the central tingling in one Avonex, Rebif,
 nervous system. or more limbs, Betaseron and
 impaired vision Copaxone, and
 and eye pain, immunosuppressant
 tremor, lack of medications such
 coordination. at Novantrone
Myasthenia Autoimmune Muscle weakness Anticholinesterase
gravis (12) attack against and fatigue, agents such as
 the cells at the including Mestinon
 junction of weakness of the (pyridostigmine),
 nerves and eye muscles. corticosteroids and
 muscles, leading immune system
 to significant suppressors such as
 muscle weakness. Imuran
 (azathioprine) and
 Surgical options
 include removing
 the thymus gland to
 suppress the immune
 system or removing
 abnormal antibodies
 from blood plasma.
Psoriasis Immune system Patches of Phototherapy,
 triggers an raised, reddish topical medications
 increased growth skin covered by including
 cycle of skin silvery-white Drithocreme
 cells, leading scales that form (anthralin),
 to overgrowth of on the elbows, Dovonex
 cells and knees, lower (calcipotriene),
 lesions. back and scalp. salicylic acid,
 About 10 to 30 coal the tar,
 percent of Tazorac
 people with (tazarotene) and
 psoriasis topical
 develop corticosteroids.
 psoriasis Biologics and
 arthritis. (13) systemic drugs
 including Amevive
 Enbrel (etanercept)
 and Remicade
 (infliximab). (14)
Scleroderma (3) Immune cells Swelling and D-penicillamine to
 produce scar puffiness of the decrease skin
 tissue in the fingers and thickening; other
 skin, internal hands, skin symptoms treated as
 organs and small ulcers, joint needed.
 blood vessels. stiffness in the
 hands, pain,
 sore throat and
Sjogren's Inability to Dry eyes and Over-the-counter
syndrome (3) secrete saliva mouth, swollen eye and mouth
 and tears. neck glands, moisteners. The
 difficulty prescriptions
 swallowing or Lacriserts
 talking, unusual (hydroxypropyl
 tastes or cellulose) for dry
 smells, thirst, eyes and Salagen
 tongue ulcers (pilocarpine
 and severe hydrochloride) and
 dental caries. Evoxac (cevimeline)
 for dry mouth.
 drugs, steroids and
 immune suppressants
 are also used. (15)
Vitiligo (16) Immune system Pale skin Phototherapy, often
 destroys skin patches that get in combination with
 cells that larger. May topical treatments
 contribute to affect the eyes like psoralen
 skin coloring, in some cases. melagenine (an
 leaving extract from human
 unsightly pale placenta), psoralen
 patches. and corticosteroids
 or newer biologics
 such as Elidel
 (pimecrolimus) and

*More than 80 autoimmune diseases affect women. Diseases described above
are some of the more common ones.
COPYRIGHT 2006 National Women's Health Resource Center
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:National Women's Health Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Previous Article:Commonly asked questions about vision.
Next Article:Women & thyroid disease.

Related Articles
Autoimmunity may cause infertility.
Breast implants and autoimmune disease.
Fetal cells may trigger autoimmune disease.
Fetal cells pop up in mom's thyroid.
Fighting Herself.
Such sweet poison: chemicals in our environment and women health.
Women and autoimmune diseases.
Auto exposure: do immune system diseases have an environmental cause?
Autoimmune diseases demand a low-stress lifestyle.
Nested case-control study of autoimmune disease in an asbestos-exposed population.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters