Regulatory T Cell Proportion and Phenotype Are Altered in Women Using Oral Contraception

Endocrinology. 2022 Sep 1;163(9):bqac098. doi: 10.1210/endocr/bqac098.


Regulatory T (Treg) cells are a specialized CD4+ T cell subpopulation that are essential for immune homeostasis, immune tolerance, and protection against autoimmunity. There is evidence that sex-steroid hormones estrogen and progesterone modulate Treg cell abundance and phenotype in women. Since natural oscillations in these hormones are modified by hormonal contraceptives, we examined whether oral contraception (OC) use impacts Treg cells and related T cell populations. T cells were analyzed by multiparameter flow cytometry in peripheral blood collected across the menstrual cycle from healthy women either using OC or without hormonal contraception and from age-matched men. Compared to naturally cycling women, women using OC had fewer Treg cells and an altered Treg cell phenotype. Notably, Treg cells exhibiting a strongly suppressive phenotype, defined by high FOXP3, CD25, Helios, HLADR, CTLA4, and Ki67, comprised a lower proportion of total Treg cells, particularly in the early- and mid-cycle phases. The changes were moderate compared to more substantial differences in Treg cells between women and men, wherein women had fewer Treg cells-especially of the effector memory Treg cell subset-associated with more T helper type 1 (Th1) cells and CD8+ T cells and lower Treg:Th1 cell and Treg:CD8+ T cell ratios than men. These findings imply that OC can modulate the number and phenotype of peripheral blood Treg cells and raise the possibility that Treg cells contribute to the physiological changes and altered disease susceptibility linked with OC use.

Keywords: T cells; autoimmunity; regulatory T cells; sex hormones; tolerance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Contraception
  • Female
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors* / metabolism
  • Hormones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Phenotype
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory* / metabolism


  • Forkhead Transcription Factors
  • Hormones