Estrogens and autoimmune diseases

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2006 Nov:1089:538-47. doi: 10.1196/annals.1386.043.


Sex hormones are implicated in the immune response, with estrogens as enhancers at least of the humoral immunity and androgens and progesterone (and glucocorticoids) as natural immune-suppressors . Several physiological, pathological, and therapeutic conditions may change the serum estrogen milieu and/or peripheral conversion rate, including the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, postpartum period, menopause, being elderly, chronic stress, altered circadian rhythms, inflammatory cytokines, and use of corticosteroids, oral contraceptives, and steroid hormonal replacements, inducing altered androgen/estrogen ratios and related effects. In particular, cortisol and melatonin circadian rhythms are altered, at least in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and partially involve sex hormone circadian synthesis and levels as well. Abnormal regulation of aromatase activity (i.e., increased activity) by inflammatory cytokine production (i.e., TNF-alpha, IL-1, and IL-6) may partially explain the abnormalities of peripheral estrogen synthesis in RA (i.e., increased availability of 17-beta estradiol and possible metabolites in synovial fluids) and in systemic lupus erythematosus, as well as the altered serum sex-hormone levels and ratio (i.e., decreased androgens and DHEAS). In the synovial fluids of RA patients, the increased estrogen concentration is observed in both sexes and is more specifically characterized by the hydroxylated forms, in particular 16alpha-hydroxyestrone, which is a mitogenic and cell proliferative endogenous hormone. Local effects of sex hormones in autoimmune rheumatic diseases seems to consist mainly in modulation of cell proliferation and cytokine production (i.e., TNF-alpha, Il-1, IL-12). In this respect, it is interesting that male patients with RA seem to profit more from anti-TNFalpha strategies than do female patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autoimmune Diseases / drug therapy*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / etiology*
  • Estrogens / blood
  • Estrogens / metabolism*
  • Estrogens / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / analysis
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism*
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Factors / metabolism
  • Immunologic Factors / therapeutic use
  • Male


  • Estrogens
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Immunologic Factors