The effects of hormone replacement therapy on autoimmune disease: rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus

Climacteric. 2009 Oct;12(5):378-86. doi: 10.1080/13697130903025449.


Autoimmune diseases are generally more common in women than men; however, there is no simple explanation for this. Sex hormones, especially estrogen (but also prolactin and testosterone), play important roles in these diseases. Estrogens are generally considered to enhance autoimmunity and have multiple effects on the immune system through various cell types and molecular pathways. There is much evidence supporting the role of estrogen in the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): the disease occurs much more frequently in women, especially during the years of child-bearing potential, and commonly flares during pregnancy. The relationship between estrogen and the development of SLE is complex, however. Exogenous estrogens have been historically avoided in women with SLE due to the widely held view that they could activate disease and their use remains controversial. Current evidence from prospective trials suggests that there may be a small increased risk of mild/moderate flares in women with SLE taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT), but the risk of major flare does not appear to be increased. In rheumatoid arthritis, HRT does not appear to be associated with an increased risk of disease flare and may actually improve disease activity. In all individuals with autoimmune disease, the risk of venous thrombosis associated with oral HRT is an important factor that should also be considered.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid* / physiopathology
  • Autoimmune Diseases* / etiology
  • Autoimmune Diseases* / physiopathology
  • Estrogen Replacement Therapy / adverse effects*
  • Estrogens / adverse effects
  • Estrogens / physiology
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / adverse effects
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / physiology
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic* / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Receptors, Estrogen / physiology
  • Venous Thrombosis / chemically induced


  • Estrogens
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Receptors, Estrogen