The flu, or influenza, is a virus that in no way discriminates in women’s favour. While women contract the same viruses as men, why is it that they generally content themselves with slowing down a little and taking a few naps, whereas men allow themselves to be knocked out by the virus and become complete messes? Could it be that menstrual cramps and giving birth have increased women’s pain threshold to the point that they can ignore viruses? Many women like to say that they’re just tougher than men, but it’s not true! Then again, it’s not untrue either!
Women are equipped with extra antiviral protection
Women are equipped with extra antiviral protection—it’s called estrogen. Men also produce it, but in much smaller quantities. Estrogen plays a role in the menstrual cycle, breasts and PMS symptoms, so you probably don’t want too much of it. But estrogen also helps protect blood vessels, which in turn protects you from heart disease. What’s really remarkable is that estrogen slows the replication of viruses that infect the respiratory tract, including the flu. The reason is estrogen’s ability to slow cellular metabolism, including that of viruses. The result: a smaller viral load to fight off and fewer symptoms.
Testosterone puts you at a disadvantage
What’s more, testosterone puts you at a disadvantage. That’s right, the ultimate male hormone—the one responsible for facial and body hair, big biceps and the tendency to take risks—also puts men at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting infections. Compared to men with a low testosterone level and to women in general, men with a high testosterone level produce fewer antibodies. The result: the flu spreads like wildfire in gym locker rooms. Some researchers are speculating about why men evolved to be at such a big disadvantage when it comes to their immune system.
You’d think that with age, as testosterone levels drop, the immune system would start working at full capacity, but that’s not the case. Women have yet another immune advantage: the immune system ages faster in men.
- The number of white blood cells and in particular B and T lymphocytes, the main actors in the immune response, declines faster in men.
- The levels of anti-inflammatory agents (interleukins 6 and 10, thanks for asking) involved in fighting viruses also drop faster in men.
The rather annoying outcome is that men are at greater risk of catching an infection and experiencing inflammatory symptoms during the infection.
Fighting like a woman, but without the hormones
To stave off infections as much as possible and tackle the flu virus in a more dignified way, you need to take care of your immune system. It’s not all that complicated to do. You just need to:
- Eat a healthy diet – include a lot of vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables and cut down on white flour and sugar.
- Get moving, especially outdoors.
- Avoid stress or do what it takes to manage it better to reduce its effect on your health.
- Take care of your digestion – the link between digestion and the flu is closer than you think: immunity starts with good bacteria in your intestinal flora.
- Take echinacea during flu season. This plant optimizes the immune system’s ability to fight the flu virus. And if you catch it anyway, echinacea will help reduce the intensity and duration of the symptoms.
The days you spent weighed down by the flu, curled up on the couch in a blanket with a steaming bowl of chicken soup at your side were perfectly justified. Your immune system is weaker than women’s—no, not you, just your immune system. But by taking a few steps, you can turn it into a virus-fighting Rocky Balboa. In the end, your next bout with the flu might be a little less of a burden… for everyone!