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Is the "Man Flu" a real thing? Science says yes

Man flu

Man flu Okay, so have you heard of a thing called the flu? That’s a form of being sick, in case you didn’t know. There are other kinds, but the flu is actually short for influenza. Which is a kind of virus. Which is a little bug thing that floats around inside your body and can damage what are called your body’s cells. Your body’s cells are actually really small in size.

And on it goes from there.

With this year’s flu season is already showing signs of being particularly damaging (Alberta Health Services reports a “massive spike” in influenza-based visits to Calgary emergency rooms), it’s high time we talk about the man flu.

Typically, mansplaining will get you no brownie points with your partner, but neither will complaining about being deathly ill when all you’ve really got is a case of the sniffles.

As per the common parlance, the man flu usually involves a lot of whining and whinging, accompanied by constant imploring that said illness should be acknowledged for the great burden it truly isn’t. While not contagious in itself, the man flu does cause profuse eye-rolling in any women within earshot, all of whom stand safe in their knowledge that although guys may be tough in a variety of contexts (chopping wood, eating hot peppers), they are definitely wimps when it comes to the common cold.

But recent studies may be coming to the aid of man flu victims everywhere, as research suggests that hormonal differences between the sexes can entail differing immune responses to colds and flus.

The female sex hormone progesterone, found in most hormone-based birth control, has been shown to have a protective effect against the influenza virus. In one study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers infected two groups of mice with the influenza A virus, with one group given progesterone implants and the other none. While the mice in both groups became ill, those with the implants had less pulmonary inflammation, better lung function and whose lung cells recovered more quickly from the infection. Scientists speculate that the difference is in part caused by the ability of progesterone to increase the production of the protein amphiregulin in the cells lining the lungs.

Another study earlier this year from John Hopkins University looked at the relationship between estrogen and influenza and found a similar result. Researchers gathered nasal cells from male and female donors and exposed them to cultures of influenza virus along with hormonal estrogen and found that the estrogen impeded the replication of the virus within the nasal cells. The result may lead to the use of so-called therapeutic estrogens to prevent the spread of the flu, says Dr. Sabra Klein, lead author of the study. “We see clinical potential in the finding that therapeutic estrogens that are used for treating infertility and menopause may also protect against the flu,” says Dr. Klein.

Even testosterone has been studied for its relationship to the flu, in this case with the conclusion that high levels of the hormone might actually hamper the immune system. A 2013 study from Stanford University looked at male and female responses to shots of the flu vaccine (not whether or not they cried, mind you) and found that women and men with lower levels of testosterone had a stronger antibody response to the shot than men with higher testosterone. Researchers attribute the connection to the anti-inflammatory properties of testosterone which may interfere with the immune system’s response.

The upshot? Mansplained? Well, hun, if you look at the history of medicine –that’s the science of being sick, right? You find that maybe men complain more when they’re sick because, in fact, the flu virus, which I told you about earlier, actually affects men a lot harder than it affects women. You see, it’s all due to these little things called hormones. Which I will tell you about another time. Right now, pass me that box of tissues, okay?

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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