Does Menopause Weaken Your Immune System?

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Menopause is a time of many changes. Changing hormone levels can impact everything from your skin to your mood. In fact, they can even affect your immune system. The decrease in estrogen and progesterone, particularly, can result in a reduction in your immune function, according to a 2013 review published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Here are the ways your immune system changes during this phase of life — and what it means for your health.

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How does the immune system work?

Your immune system uses cells, proteins, and chemical reactions to fend off infection and pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi. When the immune system successfully destroys a pathogen, it "remembers" it and can quickly destroy it if it enters the body again. The immune system also includes the lymph nodes, which filter blood and trap microbes that could harm the body. In addition, it regulates our body's thermostat, causing our temperature to rise to help destroy pathogens.

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T-cells can decrease during menopause

So how exactly does your immune system change during menopause, and why? For one, menopause results in a decrease in T-cells, which are a key part of the immune system. These cells help destroy cancer cells, fight off bacteria, and orchestrate the immune response throughout the body.

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Inflammation increases during menopause

Menopause most commonly occurs in women around 48-55 years old. Aging, meanwhile, also increases inflammation and decreases the immune response, causing an increased susceptibility to infections, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), herpes simplex virus (HSV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), and influenza, according to a 2013 review.

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Autoimmune disorders occur more frequently in women

Because women have a higher risk of developing autoimmune disorders, it is thought that estrogen and progesterone play a role. As these hormones decrease, the risk of developing an autoimmune disorder increases, according to a review published in Maturitas, the European Menopause Journal.

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How menopause affects autoimmune disorders

Autoimmune diseases that are most likely to be first diagnosed after menopause are chronic and fibrotic, meaning they are related to an increase in fibrous tissue. This may be a result of the decrease in T-cells during menopause, which, in turn, changes how the immune system operates.

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Increase in urinary tract infections

After menopause, especially after the age of 60, 10 to 15 percent of women have an increase of urinary tract infections, according to a study published in the Korean Journal of Urology. This may be due to the decrease in the immune system defense in the urogenital tract.

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Increased stress can decrease immune function

Menopause affects cortisol levels, which are stress hormones. As the body changes during midlife, cortisol levels can increase, which can in turn affect the immune system. High cortisol levels weaken the immune response, according to a report by Dartmouth College.

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Other factors that affect the immune system after menopause

Many other bodily changes occur during menopause, such as difficulty sleeping, changing appetites, changes in the levels of bacteria in our digestive system, and a decrease in physical activity. All of these factors can negatively influence the immune system, causing an increase in viral and bacterial infections.

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Talk to your doctor

Menopause comes with many changes, including many that negatively impact your immune system. That's why it's key to lead a healthy lifestyle, which can include an immune-boosting diet, and seek treatment for health issues when they arise. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes you can make to boost your immunity.