Women and Autoimmune Diseases

woman with joint pain

Women and Autoimmune Disorders

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), between 14.7 and 23.5 million American people are affected by 80-plus types of autoimmune diseases which affect nearly every organ and system.

Conservative estimates indicate 6.7 million (or 78.8%) of those diagnosed with autoimmune diseases in the U.S. are women. This may in part be due to research findings indicating women produce a more vigorous immune response and increased antibody production than males.

Many autoimmune diseases in women begin shortly after puberty and often change during pregnancy, usually surfacing in women ages 15 through 44 years.

Identifying and diagnosing autoimmune disorders can be a difficult process due to symptoms often being vague, sporadic and overlapping those of several medical conditions. Autoimmune disorders can easily be mistaken for viral infections, depression, or stress. What’s more, those with autoimmune disease diagnosis are more likely affected by more than one type.

Your Capital Women’s Care team wants to share important information with you about the most common autoimmune disorders affecting women; autoimmune disorder symptoms and complications; autoimmune disease and how it can affect reproductive health and family planning; what you can do to reduce your autoimmune disorder risk; and when you should seek professional diagnosis, care and treatment.

Understanding Autoimmune Diseases

One common element among autoimmune diseases is that miscommunication occurs between the body’s systems and the immune system, inducing chronic inflammation. This miscommunication causes natural defenses found within the immune system to attack normal cells found within any organ or system, treating them as antigens. This can result in destruction of healthy tissues, changes in the way organs normally function, and abnormal growth of organs.

Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any type of tissue, structure, function or system of the body, including skin, joints, brain, glands, cardiovascular system, endocrine system and digestive tract, among others.

Immune-based attack on normal cells is the underlying cause of 80+ identifiable autoimmune disorders. Of those, the 5 most common autoimmune disorders diagnosed in women include:

Autoimmune Disease Risk Factors

Research indicates genetics account for 30% of autoimmunity diseases, with the remaining 70% attributed to environmental causes.

There are several risk factors proven to be tied to autoimmune disorders, including:

  • genetics. Some autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid diseases and multiple sclerosis (MS) occur within families and may be passed genetically. If you have relatives with these autoimmune diseases, you are at greater risk.
  • having a previously diagnosed autoimmune disorder. It’s entirely possible for 1 person to have multiple autoimmune diseases at a time, like type 1 diabetes and autoimmune hepatitis. In fact, you’re more likely to develop an autoimmune disease if you had a previous autoimmune disease diagnosis. About 25% of those in the U.S. facing autoimmune disease are affected by more than one type.
  • developing a virus or infection. Having a virus or infection may trigger an autoimmune disease to surface, particularly in those people with blood relatives already diagnosed.
  • gender. Women are more prone to developing autoimmune disorders than men. More than 85% of those with certain autoimmune diseases like lupus, thyroiditis, and Sjogren’s syndrome, are women, according to NIH.
  • not following healthy lifestyle/eating habits and being overweight or obese. Could increase vulnerability to rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis due to added joint stress of extra weight and fat tissue, which creates substances increasing inflammation.
  • smoking. Research has shown increased risk of developing lupus, hyperthyroidism, and multiple sclerosis (MS) in smokers.
  • medications. Certain blood pressure medicines and antibiotics can cause drug-induced lupus, often a more benign form of lupus. Statins, which lower cholesterol, can cause statin-induced myopathy, a rare autoimmune disorder causing muscle weakness.
  • environmental factors and toxins. Pesticides, heavy metals (lead, mercury and arsenic are a few), and mold and mycotoxins are accountable as recognized triggers for chronic inflammation. Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are both proven to be linked to pesticide usage in research studies.

Autoimmune Disease Symptoms

Autoimmune disorders can be difficult to diagnose, as many have vague, sporadic or similar symptoms occurring with other diseases or medical conditions. Some common vague symptoms occurring frequently with many autoimmune diseases include:

  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • recurring low-grade fever
  • generalized aches and discomfort
  • open sores that don’t seem to heal
  • malaise
  • skin changes (rashes, redness and swelling)
  • unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • difficulty concentrating or “brain fog”
  • pain and/or swelling in joints, connective tissues and/or muscles
  • swollen glands
  • digestive issues
  • abdominal pain
  • numbness and tingling in either/both hands and feet known as paresthesias
  • and noticeable, consistent hair loss.

Specific autoimmune disorder symptoms often overlap those of other medical issues. Be sure to maintain vigilance about your health and note any new symptoms no matter how subtle they seem with your doctor to aid diagnosis and treatment. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases can help reduce or delay the onset of serious complications and improve quality of life.

Serious Complications

Autoimmune diseases can potentially put you at risk for serious complications. The specific risks vary by condition, but some of the more common ones include:

Heart disease. Conditions that cause inflammation, such as lupus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis, can lead to the hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and heart disease.

Mood disorders. Chronic pain and fatigue—the hallmarks of many autoimmune disorders—are often associated with depression and anxiety.

Neuropathy. Nerve damage can develop in many autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and Sjögren's syndrome.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT.) Disease activity and/or being sedentary or needing a wheelchair put you at risk of developing blood clots in your legs. Sometimes blood clots travel to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism.

Organ damage. Autoimmune diseases that attack specific organs can cause significant damage if not properly treated; for example, autoimmune hepatitis can lead to liver damage, and type 1 diabetes can cause kidney problems.

Talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do to minimize complications risks specifically associated with your condition(s).

Autoimmune Disease & Pregnancy

Since most autoimmune diseases occur in women age 15 through 44 years, autoimmune disease may affect your personal reproductive health and family planning.

Women with autoimmune diseases can safely have children. But there could be some risks for the mother or baby, depending on the disease and how severe it is. For instance, pregnant women with lupus have a higher risk of preterm birth and stillbirth. Pregnant women with myasthenia gravis (MG) might have symptoms that lead to trouble breathing during pregnancy. For some women, symptoms tend to improve during pregnancy, while others find their symptoms tend to flare up. Also, some medicines used to treat autoimmune diseases might not be safe to use during pregnancy.

If you want to have a baby, talk to your doctor before trying to become pregnant. Your doctor might suggest waiting until your disease is in remission or suggest changing medicines before you start trying. You also might need to see a doctor who cares for women with high-risk pregnancies.

Some women with autoimmune diseases may have problems getting pregnant. This can happen for many reasons. Tests can tell if fertility problems are caused by an autoimmune disease or an unrelated reason. Fertility treatments can help some women with autoimmune disease become pregnant.

Minimize Risk of Autoimmune Disorders

There are several things you can do to minimize your risk of an autoimmune disorder diagnosis:

Avoid toxins. Air pollution, uranium, lead mercury, cadmium, agricultural or residential pesticides, and excessive alcohol use all increase your risk of developing an autoimmune disease.

Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. An anti-inflammatory diet excludes trans fats, omega-6 fatty acids, sugars, and grains. It includes contains plenty of whole food protein sources, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish.

While eating sugars, grains, and omega-6 fatty acids increases inflammation in your body and raises your risk of autoimmune disorders, functional foods like extra virgin olive oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and leafy green vegetables reduce inflammation and lower your risk of autoimmunity.

Turmeric, spicy foods, chocolate, and red wine in moderation also reduce your risk of autoimmune disorders.

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese raises your risk of developing autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease. However, you can lower your risk by losing weight if needed and maintaining a healthy weight.

In addition to eating an anti-inflammatory diet, research shows that calorie restriction and intermittent fasting can reduce inflammation in your body. Cutting calories and fasting can help prevent autoimmune issues like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes.

If you want to lose weight and reduce your risk of autoimmunity, focus on eating healthy foods, engaging in regular physical activity, and fasting for 12-16 hours a few times a week.

Focus on gut health. Published research shows that there’s a link between your gut microbes and the development of autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.

You can improve your gut health by avoiding grains and sugars, eating plenty of dietary fiber from fruits and vegetables, and taking prebiotic and probiotic supplements.

Quit smoking. Smoking doubles your risk of multiple sclerosis and raises your risk of other autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune thyroid disease by causing inflammation in your body, altering your immune function, and damaging your DNA.

Get enough sleep. Being sleep-deprived, sleeping on an inconsistent schedule, or getting poor-quality sleep all raise your risk of developing autoimmune disease.

You can enhance your sleep quality and lower your risk of autoimmunity by getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night; avoiding screen-time 2 to 3 hours before bed; sleeping in a cool, dark bedroom; and maintaining consistent sleep and wake times.

Tests, Diagnosis & Treatment

There is no single diagnosis test for most autoimmune diseases and there is no cure should you become diagnosed.

Your doctor will provide a treatment plan that helps you to manage symptom “flares” that lessen your pain and inflammation.

To determine diagnosis, your doctor will use a combination of tests and a review of your symptoms plus physical examination. In some cases, imaging may be recommended to confirm diagnosis.

The antinuclear antibody test (ANA) blood test is often the initial test used when symptoms suggest autoimmune disease. A positive test means you may have one of these diseases, but it won’t confirm which type or if you have an autoimmune disease.

Other tests look for specific autoantibodies produced in certain autoimmune diseases. Your doctor might also do nonspecific tests to check for the inflammation these diseases produce within the body.

Treatments can’t cure autoimmune diseases, but they can control the overactive immune response and lessen inflammation or at least reduce pain and inflammation. Drugs used to treat these conditions include:

Treatments are also available to relieve symptoms like pain, swelling, fatigue, and skin rashes.

If you are diagnosed with autoimmune disease, you will most likely be referred to a specialist for treatment, depending on the type of autoimmune disease.

Contact your Capital Women’s Care team if you have questions or concerns relating to autoimmune disease or any other health issue you may have. Our knowledgeable family of health professionals are here to make sure you and your family enjoy and maintain optimal health and a long, quality life.



Our Mission

The providers of Capital Women's Care seek the highest quality medical and ethical standard in an environment that nurtures the spirit of caring for every woman.


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