Whiny men might be excited by recent news stories that claim “man flu” — the trope that men turn into bedridden drama kings at the slightest hint of a sniffle — is real and totally justified because men have a harder time fighting off the flu.
These headlines are based on a recent study that suggests estrogen could play a role in flu resistance. But the lead researcher said it’s a huge “leap in logic” to say this proves anything about “man flu,” and she emphasized that her study really doesn’t have much to do with guys, whiny or otherwise.
“I find it so interesting that [my research] got misrepresented to be all about men,” said Sabra Klein, associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
What Klein and her team did find is that adding estrogen to nasal cells — the cells typically infected by influenza — helped stop the virus from replicating in cells from women, but not cells from men.
That’s because only the female cells express estrogen receptors, which estrogen needs to bind to.
It’s easy to understand why some journalists took this to mean that women, as a whole, must be better equipped to fight off the flu. After all, if women have more estrogen, and estrogen fights the flu, they must have an advantage, right?
But Klein said it’s not that simple.
Her team’s study looked at the effects of a constant, consistent level of estrogen, comparable to what women taking hormone replacement therapy or some forms of hormonal birth control would experience. But women who are not on such treatments have estrogen levels that cycle up and down.
“Women are not just a constant bag of estrogen,” Klein explained. “The concentrations of these hormones are changing.”
Plus, since researchers were only working with cells, not living human beings, they can’t even say for sure whether women taking birth control or hormone therapy have increased flu resistance.
That doesn’t mean it’s not an exciting finding, though. Klein said the study shows why researching estrogen’s effect on the whole body, and not just the reproductive system, is an important women’s health issue.
“Estrogens are affecting more than just reproduction,” she said.
Estrogen’s flu-fighting potential could be especially crucial for older, post-menopausal women who are considering taking hormone replacement therapy. Elderly women are more susceptible to the flu, and vaccines tend to be less effective for them, said Klein.
She added that she didn’t foresee a future in which women would take estrogen solely for flu protection, but said it could be a factor when they weigh their options.
“I view it more that these are added benefits, as opposed to … encouraging everybody to take these hormones,” Klein said.