They beat colds faster and don't get ill as often: Why it's WOMEN who are the stronger sex

Female hormones could be preventing women getting ill

Female hormones could be preventing women getting ill

They have long suspected it, and science is now proving them right — women are better at fighting off illness.

Last week, researchers suggested that women are genetically programmed to be more resistant to infections and even diseases such as cancer.

Writing in the journal Bio Essays, they said the secret is a woman’s extra copy of the female X chromosome.

It’s what makes her a woman, but it’s now also thought to give her greater access to microRNAs — molecules which may regulate proteins needed for the immune system. MicroRNAs may also halt the production of certain proteins that encourage the growth of cancer.

This latest report follows a number of studies suggesting women are the stronger sex.

Indeed, as a result of this, some experts believe we should be looking to ‘his and hers’ medicine rather than developing treatments prescribed on a unisex basis.

In one study, scientists from Queen Mary, University of London, found that a woman’s immune system can beat a range of infections quicker and more effectively than a man’s.

This could explain why women, who tend to have more colds (seven a year compared with five for men, thanks to their greater exposure to children), can often soldier through while men develop ‘man flu’ and are more likely to take time off work.

Meanwhile, another study involving more than 1,200 office workers found that when men become stressed at work, they are more likely to develop a cold, yet the same is not true of stressed women workers.

Men are less equipped to deal with serious infections, too. Astonishingly, whereas three-quarters of women will survive a severe bacterial infection picked up after surgery, only a third of men will.

Men are also more likely to develop serious conditions such as cancer.

Little wonder then that men tend to die before women — life expectancy for a British woman is 82 compared with just 77 for a man. There is little doubt that lifestyle is partly to blame — men are more likely to indulge in risky habits such as drinking and smoking.

But this latest research suggests lifestyle is not the only difference.

Men are less equipped to deal with serious infections

Men are less equipped to deal with serious infections

The fact is, female hormones — which wreak havoc with a woman’s life every month and cause misery as they decline with the menopause — could also be preventing women getting ill.

‘The reasons women generally have stronger immune responses than men are most likely due to both genes and hormones,’ says Sabra Klein, assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the U.S.

‘There is a compelling body of work to show hormones, including testosterone and oestrogens, have an impact on the way the immune system function, too.

'Many of our immune cells have receptors for hormones such as oestrogens, meaning that oestrogens can regulate the functioning of these cells to alter how they respond to microbes  or allergens.’

Just how great the difference is between men and women’s immune systems surprises even those working in the field.

Dr Ramona Scotland, a lecturer in vascular pharmacology at Queen Mary, University of London, says she was ‘truly amazed’ by the findings of a study she led into male and female immune systems.

She and her team examined the number of white cells — a key part of the immune system — in the gut and lungs of male and female mice.

‘The females we examined  had double the number of white cells,’ she says.

‘Furthermore, the immune cells were better at detecting invading bacteria, and better at dealing with the bacteria.

‘The female immune cells also responded differently. They seemed to invoke a mild response,  meaning the females didn’t feel very ill and carried on as normal, whereas the males were slow to recover and seemed to suffer more.

‘We did our studies on mice and rats but I would expect that same to be true in humans.’


Women’s tough immune systems mean they are less likely to fall ill, but studies also show that when it comes to pain, they may  suffer more than men:

HEART ATTACKS: Men tend to feel less pain during heart attacks. It’s thought to be down to the male hormone testosterone, which has been shown to reduce angina pain.

IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME: More women are affected by this chronic condition than men, and a study found their experience of the symptoms is worse, too. Researchers in London, looked at brain activity of men and women with the condition. Female MRI scans showed more activity in the regions processing emotions and feeling pain.

CHRONIC PAIN: ‘Women consume more over-the-counter pain remedies and have more prescriptions for painkillers,’ says Dr Beverly Collett, consultant in pain medicine at the University Hospitals of Leicester.

‘In tests passing an electrical current across the skin, women will say they feel pain before men will. It’s a myth that women have higher pain thresholds.

‘It could be that women genuinely suffer more pain, or they’re just more likely to get help.’

One theory about why women’s immune systems are stronger is that it is nature’s way of ensuring women stay well, as they have to care for children.

Last year, a team from Cambridge University devised a mathematical model to show how evolution and hormones conspired to make men less able to fight off an infection. 

They concluded that it  was nature’s way of ensuring only the fittest got to hunt and breed with women.

But it is not all good news for women. Their immune systems may be so robust that they can go overboard, triggering an auto-immune condition — an umbrella term for illnesses in which the body attacks itself.

Studies show women are more likely to develop these conditions.

For example, they are nine times more likely to develop lupus, a condition which can affect healthy tissues and organs throughout the body. Women are also three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.

‘Every auto-immune condition is more prevalent among women than men,’ confirms Professor Ashley Grossman, president elect of the Society for Endocrinology.

‘The truth is that we are not certain yet why the gender difference is so extreme when it comes to  auto-immune conditions.

‘But it may be that a woman’s immune system is more trigger-happy than a man’s and, as a result, is more prone to react in this way.’

Some experts now believe that the difference between men and women’s immune system is so different that they should be given different treatments for a ‘wide range’ of conditions.

‘What we want to do is to  force a change in how we look at men and women’s health,’ says Dr Scotland.

‘At the moment, we have a therapy or treatment for a condition and apply it to men and women in the same way. But if their immune systems are this different, then maybe this is the wrong approach.’

Selba Klein agrees.

‘The concept of personalised medicine is not novel. What is novel is considering that gender may be a fundamental factor to consider when designing and administering treatments for diseases.

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