What is the link between hormones and autoimmune disease?
The link between autoimmune disease and hormones is bidirectional. Not only can imbalances in your hormones contribute to the onset of autoimmune diseases, but autoimmune diseases in and of themselves can cause hormone insufficiency and imbalance.
Autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system starts to attack and damage your own tissue and organs. There are many reasons this can happen, including your genetics, stress, environment, and gut health to name a few.
Hormones are produced by a collection of glands in your body, and when these glands become a target of your immune system, chaos and upset prevail.
This article will delve into the link between those emotions stimulating hormones and autoimmunity.
Life is about balance
...and that goes for your hormones as well. Not only are the levels of hormones vital, but also their proportion in respect of the other hormones in your body. Essential hormones include oestrogen, testosterone, progesterone, cortisol, insulin, and thyroid.
Even when you have a slight imbalance between hormones, it can cause a cascade of hormonal changes. These imbalances can lead to inflammation, cell dysfunction, and tissue damage, all of which contribute to autoimmune conditions.
Many diet and lifestyle factors contribute to hormonal imbalances such as nutrient deficiencies, excess sugar and living with chronic stress.
Symptoms of hormone imbalance
It is easy to brush off symptoms of hormone imbalance and view these as just part of who you are but, really, any symptom reflects something mishappening inside.
Here are a few signs to watch for:
- heavy periods
- tender breast
- hot flushes
- low body temperature
- craving sugar
- hair loss
- dry skin, hair and nails
- feeling the cold
- mood swings
- just not feeling quite right in yourself
Do any of these sound familiar? If so, it might be worth exploring whether you have a hormonal imbalance.
The hormone autoimmunity connection
Now, let’s look at the link between specific hormones and autoimmune diseases.
Oestrogen and autoimmunity
There has been a long debate on why autoimmune disorders affect more women than men - as much as 10 to one in some conditions. The sex hormone oestrogen, typically more dominant in ladies than men, is often hotly debated as a potential reason.
Oestrogen isn’t just one hormone. It relates to three hormones called estrone, estradiol, and estriol. And it does more than just regulate the female reproductive system, it also helps maintain a healthy heart, bones and skin.
Oestrogen may also enhance the inflammatory response by increasing the number of antibodies in the body. As oestrogen dominance in women (and men) is becoming more common, then there is a risk that as well as stimulating a normal inflammatory response, imbalanced oestrogens may switch on autoantibody production as well. Autoantibodies are responsible for damaging self tissue in autoimmune diseases.
Postmenopause, when oestrogen begins to dwindle, women find that their symptoms of autoimmune disease may improve. However, when oestrogen is imbalanced during perimenopause, there is a risk of experiencing an autoimmune flare such as joint pain, hair loss, and migraines.
During this time of life, it is vital to take care of yourself and keep track of your symptoms to ensure that you can take steps to regulate your hormones before they affect your health.
When oestrogen becomes toxic
Exposure to toxins is a critical driver in the onset of autoimmune diseases. You may think of toxins as pollutants in the environment or pesticides in food, but your body can produce toxic byproducts as well.
In certain situations, a type of oestrogen called estrone can be converted into a compound (known as an oestrogen metabolite) that plays havoc in your body and DNA. It is theorised that this damage in DNA might contribute to the onset of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Autoantibodies reactive against host DNA are detectable in the circulation of most people with SLE. Therefore it could be argued that the immune system targets the DNA due to damage already created by the oestrogen metabolite.
More research is needed to understand the link between oestrogen metabolites and autoimmune disease properly. However, given specific oestrogen metabolites are linked to breast cancer, it is worth knowing your current oestrogen status. There are diet and lifestyle strategies that help prevent a buildup of these harmful metabolites.
Cortisol and autoimmunity
The adrenal glands produce cortisol as part of the stress response. Stress can be both emotional and physical, and in times of chronic stress, your adrenal glands become dysfunctional, and cortisol production may be affected.
Over time cortisol resistance leads to dysfunctional stress response and is a risk factor in developing autoimmune disease.
Ordinarily, cortisol lowers inflammation in your body. However, when you are under chronic stress and cortisol is produced for long periods, your body and cells become desensitised. This condition is known as cortisol resistance, similar to insulin resistance in diabetes. As a result, cortisol ceases to lessen the inflammatory response, and inflammation begins to rise.
Over time cortisol resistance leads to dysfunctional stress response and is a risk factor in developing autoimmune disease. Many autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and alopecia areata, have been associated with a disrupted stress response.
Other hormones and autoimmunity
It's not just oestrogen and cortisol that impact the autoimmune response. Progesterone and testosterone, thyroid hormones, insulin and vitamin D, to name a few, all play an essential role in maintaining homeostasis in your body. For example, one study suggests that low testosterone might contribute to higher inflammation in your body, leading to autoimmune disease.
When hormones become out of balance, they impact bodily functions, the immune system and the gut, all factors in the development of autoimmune disease.
What are your options?
If you are experiencing symptoms of hormone imbalance, then it is worth discussing this with your doctor to see how they can help.
At The Autoimmunity Nutritionist clinic, we offer DUTCH hormone testing, one of the most comprehensive hormone panels available that tests sex and adrenal hormones and their metabolites.
Diet and lifestyle strategies can help shift the balance in your hormones if things have gone awry. That is why it is valuable to know your current baseline so you can take action to start improving your symptoms with meaningful changes personalised to you.
- Baillargeon J, Al Snih S, Raji MA, et al. Hypogonadism and the risk of rheumatic autoimmune disease. Clin Rheumatol. 2016;35(12):2983-2987. doi:10.1007/s10067-016-3330-x
- Van Vollenhoven RF, McGuire JL. Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone: can they be used to treat autoimmune diseases? Cleve Clin J Med. 1994 Jul-Aug;61(4):276-84. doi: 10.3949/ccjm.61.4.276. PMID: 7923746.