Possible underlying mechanisms of sexual dimorphism in the immune response, fact and hypothesis

J Steroid Biochem. 1989;34(1-6):241-51. doi: 10.1016/0022-4731(89)90088-5.


It is a confirmed fact that in females both the humoral and cell mediated immune response is more active than in males. A large amount of information supports the view that hormones of the endocrine system are intimately involved in this immunological dimorphism. Such hormones include the gonadal steroids, the adrenal glucocorticoids, growth hormone (GH) and prolactin (Prl) from the pituitary, thymic hormones, and substances generated by activated lymphocytes. It is suggested that a complex medley of these hormonal interactions effect both developing lymphocytes within the microenvironment and regulate adult effector cells. The most important of these hormonal interactions leading to immunological dimorphism are the effects elicited by estrogen (E) elaborated at elevated levels from the female ovary after puberty. Elevated E leads to basal GH secretion, increased Prl, and increased thymosin release, all of which are hypothesized to effect lymphocyte development and stimulate adult T- and B-cell function in females. Interactions of hormonal regulatory axes involving the hypothalamus, pituitary, gonads, adrenals, and thymus are also thought to be involved. Factors elaborated by activated immune cells including IL-1 and IL-2 may also play a role in down regulation of these responses. Finally, genetic components are also considered pertinent especially under conditions of pathological disequilibrium leading to autoimmune disease. While the benefits provided by immunological dimorphism are still not entirely clarified, since sex hormones are intimately involved in immunological regulation it is quite possible that the increased immune response in females allows them to compensate for the increased physiological stress which accompanies reproduction. The final outcome would thus be the assurance of reproductive success of the species.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Immunity*
  • Male
  • Models, Biological*
  • Sex Factors