Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
Often referred to simply as “lupus,” SLE is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects various parts of the body, particularly the skin, blood, joints, kidneys, lungs, and heart. It is caused by an overactive immune system that produces antibodies that attack the body’s own organs, joints, and tendons. The result is the formation of immune cell complexes, which build up in various tissues and cause pain, inflammation, and eventual injury or destruction.
In Living Well with Autoimmune Diseases, Mary Shomon writes: “For most, lupus is considered a mild condition, affecting only a few organs. For others, however, it may not take such a simple course and may trigger serious, even life-threatening, conditions.” Lupus may occur at any age, and while it is found in both men and women, it is more prevalent in women.
DHEA and Lupus
Medical studies have found the use of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) to improve the health of people with lupus. A hormone produced by the adrenal glands, DHEA is a major precursor, or building block, to the sex hormones. Sex hormones include androgens (such as testosterone) and estrogens and play a variety of roles in the body to help maintain health.
Studies have shown that some lupus patients have low levels of DHEA and that this may contribute to the onset of the disease. Therefore, it is thought that increasing the level of androgens may help promote autoimmune function. In the scientific review DHEA For Lupus, Dr. Kay Shaver concludes that the use of DHEA may provide lupus patients with several benefits including the potential to provide relief from symptoms, a decrease in the frequency of disease flare-ups, and possibly even combat the destructive effects on bone health.
Multiple sclerosis is another chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease, but this one specifically targets the central nervous system, affecting the brain and spinal cord. In MS, the body overproduces antibodies that specifically attack myelin (the protective sheath that covers our nerves) and can result in a variety of neurological problems. These problems include:
- Cognitive and psychological changes
- Weakness or paralysis of limbs
- Vision problems
- Speech difficulties
- Problems with walking and motor skills
- Sexual dysfunction
MS is the most commonly acquired neurological disease in young adults. While it can affect anyone, it is most often diagnosed in individuals between the ages 20 and 40. Like many autoimmune diseases, MS is more prevalent in women, affecting twice as many women as men.
Estrogens and MS
Some important studies were created after repeated observations that, upon becoming pregnant, women with MS showed a significant improvement in their symptoms and a decrease in their relapses or flare-ups. The effects of oral hormonal treatment for MS were tested by Dr. Nancy Sicotte et al. who demonstrated that estriol, a hormone elevated during pregnancy, helped to decrease MS symptoms when given to non-pregnant women with MS. More extensive trials in animals with MS confirmed that various doses of estriol work to stabilize and even improve symptoms in this debilitating disease.
Progesterone and MS
Progesterone has also been implicated in the possible treatment of MS. Dr. Herbert Koenig et al. showed in a laboratory study that progesterone may be involved in the process of myelination, or the formation of myelin to protect nerve cells. Their work suggests that the administration of progesterone may be a valuable therapeutic approached for supporting myelin repair in MS patients.
Vitamin D and MS
MS has been linked to deficiencies of vitamin D, which is actually a hormone related to the sex and adrenal hormones. In The Vitamin D Revolution, Dr. Soram Khalsa writes that vitamin D has been suggested as “a possible treatment for MS symptoms, as studies indicated that people with MS have more lesions in the winter than the summer,” which is in turn linked to limited sunlight exposure and lower vitamin D synthesis. While the findings of current studies have shown potential, Dr. Khalsa believes that “many more years of prospective studies are required before we can make solid recommendations.”
Rheumatoid arthritis is a widespread and disabling autoimmune disease that affects the joints (most frequently the free-moving joints such as hands, knees, or hips) and muscles. In RA, the body launches an autoimmune attack on the synovial membranes (the tissue that lines and cushions the joints), leading to inflammation, tissue thickening, and pain. As this process continues, the pain and swelling increase which may result in destruction and deformity of the bones.
Symptoms of RA usually begin between the ages 25 and 50, and perhaps because it is so common, the symptoms are often mistaken as a normal part of aging. Women are afflicted two to four more times frequently than men. For most patients, RA is progressive despite treatment, so the objective of treatment is confined primarily to controlling inflammation, preventing or slowing joint damage, and ultimately easing the condition into remission.
Progesterone and RA
A small study by Dr. Miguel Cuchacovich, et al. indicated the possible benefits of using progesterone treatment in patient with RA. After twelve RA patients received a single intraarticular injection of progesterone, ten of them observed local declines in inflammation for at least one month, with some effects lasting up to two months. While no major adverse effects were reported, the researchers recommended a more prolonged follow-up “is necessary to rule out the late onset of side effects.”
Testosterone and RA
In the article Hormonal pattern in women affected by rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Rossella Valentino et al. noted decreased levels of testosterone in RA patients. The researchers go on to describe how laboratory and clinical studies have shown positive effects when testosterone replacement therapy is used. Dr. David Brownstein agrees, writing in Overcoming Arthritis that in his experience, “most patients who are ill from an autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or Lupus, have depressed levels of testosterone. These patients generally respond favorably to small amounts of natural hormones, including natural
The Endocrine System and Autoimmune Diseases
As the body’s hormonal regulator, the endocrine system releases and then slows and/or stops the production of different hormones in response to various internal and external triggers. The tightly-controlled network of endocrine organs (such as ovaries and testes) and endocrine glands (including the thyroid, pancreas, pituitary, and adrenal glands) may be affected in cases of autoimmune disease. In cases of insulin-dependent diabetes, the pancreas comes under attack, while in Graves’ disease, as discussed earlier, the thyroid gland goes into overdrive in response to the overproduction of antibodies.
Autoimmune diseases involving the endocrine system may also occur when a person produces antibodies to a particular hormone. Antibodies may wreak havoc against naturally occurring hormones such as estradiol and progesterone. For example, when women produce antibodies to their hormones, they may experience erratic ovulation or irregular thickening of the uterine lining; these conditions may cause abnormal menstrual periods or even prevent successful embryo implantation and pregnancy.
The Role of Estrogen in the Immune System
“As it turns out, one of the greatest factors that influence the immune system is gender,” writes Dr. Robert Lahita in Women and Autoimmune Disease. While these conditions also afflict men, they are much more prevalent in women. The authors of The Immune System Cure suggest the following explanation of this gender disparity:
Scientists believe that the female hormone estrogen may be the reason for this. The hormone estrogen may interplay with certain immune factors that enhance the action of the inflammatory response, increasing antibodies that attack certain tissues in the body. An overabundance of estrogen or estrogen-dominance may be a factor in the prevalence of autoimmune conditions in women.
Other studies indicate that women tend to have a more vigorous immune response during their reproductive years when estrogen levels are higher. It is during menopause, when estrogen levels decrease, that a woman’s immune system becomes more similar to that of a man’s. This lowered immune response is believed to be caused by changes in the function and activity of certain immune cells. The incidence of many autoimmune diseases in women dramatically decreases following menopause.
In a review of various studies designed to better understand the relationship between sex hormones and the immune system, Dr. Sarit Aschkenazi et al. explain that sex hormones such as estrogens affect and modify the actions of different types of immune cells. Certain interactions between estrogen and cells of the immune system may also influence other organs of the body that are not directly related to immunity. For example, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis—health issues that often affect women after menopause—are linked to a decrease in estrogen and a loss in estrogen’s ability to regulate the healthy functioning of other types of immune cells.
Dr. Aschkenazi et al. concluded that sex hormones, in particular the estrogens, play a role in the activity of immune cells. Furthermore, a deficiency in estrogen that occurs during menopause may result in a failure of estrogen to properly regulate the immune system. These changes, in turn, may play an important role in the development of menopausal symptoms and disease.
Because many different kinds of proteins and molecules comprise our immune system, it is often a challenge to understand how and why a “crossed signal” in that system may lead to autoimmune disease. Given the complexity of a properly functioning immune system, it is easy to see why autoimmune disorders are so prevalent worldwide. However, research has shown that, in some instances, maintaining hormone balance may be a significant factor in supporting immune system health.