Men have deeper voices and tons more facial and body hair than women. They are (usually) bigger, stronger, and much more likely to risk their lives on a whim. I, for example, have been known to bite a full-sized salami in half with a single snap of my jaws when hungry, angry or threatened. Or just for the hell of it.
But when it comes to immune response, men are wimps. It’s well documented that, for reasons that aren’t clear, men are more susceptible to bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic infection than women are and that men’s immune systems don’t respond as strongly as women’s to vaccinations against influenza, yellow fever, measles, hepatitis and many other infectious diseases.
A new study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by immunologist Mark Davis, PhD, who directs Stanford’s Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection, and his colleagues may explain why. The same steroid hormone that makes a man’s beard, bones and muscles grow operates – albeit it in a slightly indirect way – to shrink immune responsiveness. Yep, we’re talking about (sigh…) that much-maligned male molecule, testosterone. In a nutshell, high circulating testosterone levels boost the activity of a clutch of genes that, among other things, dial down the aggressiveness with which our immune systems fight back against invading pathogens.
Now why, we ask ourselves, would evolution be so perverse as to have designed a hormone that on the one hand enhances classic male secondary sexual characteristics such as muscle strength, beard growth (or antler size, as the case may be) and risk-taking propensity – the very hallmarks of the alpha male – but on the other hand wussifies men’s immune systems?
Here’s what I got from talking at length (and, I admit, in an uncharacteristically high-pitched voice) to Davis in preparation for the news release I wrote about the study:
The evolutionary selection pressure for male characteristics ranging from peacocks’ plumage to deer’s antlers to fighter pilots’ heroism is pretty obvious: Females, especially at mating-cycle peaks, prefer males with prodigious testosterone-driven traits. Davis speculates that high testosterone may provide another, less obvious evolutionary advantage… Men are prone to suffer wounds from their competitive encounters, not to mention from their traditional roles in hunting, defending kin and hauling things around, increasing their infection risk. While it’s good to have a decent immune response to pathogens, an overreaction to them — as occurs in highly virulent influenza strains, SARS, dengue and many other diseases — can be more damaging than the pathogen itself. Women, with their robust immune responses, are twice as susceptible as men to death from the systemic inflammatory overdrive called sepsis. So perhaps, Davis suggests, having a somewhat weakened (but not too weak) immune system can prove more lifesaving than life-threatening for a dominant male in the prime of life.
Previously: Best thing since sliced bread? A (potential) new diagnostic for celiac disease, Deja Vu: Adults’ immune systems “remember” microscopic monsters they’ve seen before, Immunology escapes from the mouse trap and Immunology meets infotech
Photo by Craig Sunter *Click-64*