Hormones are chemical substances secreted by the cells of the endocrine system that regulate bodily functions. Males have sex hormones known as androgens and women’s sex hormones include estrogens and progestins.
Most experts agree that the hormone estrogen has an impact on lupus, however there is not the be~al~end~all explanation for lupus flares. It is known that increased levels of estrogen can cause lupus flares, but it does not always do so for every patient. In fact, in pregnant lupus patients – when estrogen increases 100 fold beyond menstrual estrogen levels, flares are actually uncommon. Still, during menopause estrogen levels fall to immeasurable levels, and lupus activity becomes milder.
Many women with lupus have low levels of progesterone and androgen, which can then compound the effect estrogen has on immune system cells. Also, prolactin levels are often seen in men with SLE and also in some women. Prolactin, the hormone that triggers the production of breast milk, can stimulate the immune system, and increased levels of prolactin are found in about 20 percent of people with lupus5.
The University of Missouri School of Biological Sciences recently completed some studies regarding the effect of estrogen in the immune cells of patients with lupus. They found that estrogen binds to the receptor on the immune cell, activating a signal that increases autoimmune cell activity. It is this activity that increases the production of more autoantibodies that can cause damage to organs and other tissues.
While estrogen is highly linked to lupus flares, it should be noted that men do get lupus, too. Androgens and progestins are often higher in men, and they act as immune system suppressants. Therefore, it is theorized that men who have lupus also have an imbalance of the estrogen~to~androgen ratio. However, more study is needed to determine the hormonal relationship in men with lupus.
There is some concern that taking HRT during menopause can cause memory loss. However, estrogen impacts the activity and connectivity of certain neurons in the brain. The hormone can effect behavior and mood. A recent study by Columbia University demonstrated that some women who take estrogen during post-menopause my experience a delay in Alzheimer’s disease onset or decrease their risk of developing the disease.
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