When it comes to getting sick, any woman (and probably any honest man) will tell you guys are “wimps” – they just don’t cope with the coughing, sneezing, aches and such that come in fighting disease as well as women do. In fact, surveys have found that as many as 30% of men (vs. 22% of women) miss work because of cold or flu symptoms.
Now a new Canadian study helps to explain why.
It seems that the male immune system is just not as strong as the female – Females inflammatory response, a first line defense against bacteria and viruses, is more robust, quicker and more efficient at getting rid of invaders, all thanks to a naturally produced hormone.
This latest work, out of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, found that the female sex hormone, oestrogen, seems to be able to counter the effect of enzyme Caspase-12, known to block the inflammatory process.
For this study, human Caspase-12 was implanted into mice that didn’t have the gene, which gave them super strong immune systems. Both male and female mice were used, but in the end only the males were more prone to infection, the females were unchanged… immunity just as strong as ever.
The team believes that the oestrogen in the bodies of the female mice somehow protected them, keeping the troublesome, inflammation-blocking Caspase-12 gene from working.
Such a finding came as a bit of a surprise, so the team took the work to the next step, locating the place where the hormone binds to the gene and blocks its action.
“These results demonstrate that women have a more powerful inflammatory response than men,” explains lead researcher Dr. Maya Saleh of McGill University. “We were also able to locate where the oestrogen receptor binds on the gene in order to block its expression, which indicates that the hormone exerts direct action in this case.”
The newest Canadian research builds on a solid body of evidence that points to females being better at fighting infection, though most guys don’t like to admit it.
Men have repeatedly been found to be more vulnerable to infection by bacteria, viruses, fungi and even… worms.
This makes evolutionary sense, healthy women are necessary to produce and nurture the next generation – rather vital if humans are to survive.
The stronger immune response of women may simply be Mother Nature’s way of ensuring the continuation of our species.
The hope is that this work helps uncover ways to reinforce our immunity by making changes to the genes themselves. Perhaps oestrogen-based medications could also be used to build up a man’s immunity – though how willing men would be to use the therapy is certainly in question.
In the meantime, we can all take comfort in the fact that “man flu” has a basis in fact, and shows why women in fighting disease handle illness better and men struggle so.