The phenomenon of “man flu” is one which has been discussed and debated for decades, and it seems the debate is very much divided by sexes – with women mostly adamant that man flu is a myth. However, recent studies suggest that there may be fact behind many a man’s front.
Canadian academic, Dr Kyle Sue, a clinical assistant professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland investigated the claim of man flu, which is usually defined as a cold or a minor ailment of that nature experienced by a man who is deemed to be exaggerating the severity of the symptoms he has.
Prior to Dr Sue’s study, despite the high prevalence of seasonal viral respiratory infections, no scientific research team explored the accuracy of the term “man flu”. Therefore, Dr Sue’s team was determined to examine whether the symptoms experienced by men are worse than women and if there is an evolutionary basis for this.
Despite the high prevalence of seasonal viral respiratory infections, no scientific research team explored the accuracy of the term “man flu”
The study revealed a higher risk of hospital admission and rate of influenza-associated deaths amongst adult man compared to that of women in the same age group, regardless of any underlying disease. Furthermore, it was found that men suffer more from viral respiratory infections than women. Evidence suggests the reason for this is that men have a less robust immune system. Yet, despite this, Dr Sue explains that further research is needed to clarify other aspects to man flu. There is still uncertainty over the impact of environmental conditions of the immune response, symptoms, viral quantities, as well as recovery time of the infections.
This new evidence appears to be true in the case of mice and men, with several studies confirming that female mice have higher immune responses than male individuals. It is the evidence from these studies from which the hypothesis that the outcomes of an influenza infection are affected by sex-dependent hormones. Further studies confirmed that oestradiol, a major female hormone, plays a central role in reducing responses associated with immunopathology in mice. The hormone was also found to enhance responses associated with recruitment if innate immunity cells into the lungs – the site of viral respiratory infections.
New evidence appears to be true in the case of mice and men, with several studies confirming that female mice have higher immune responses than male individuals
“Men may not be exaggerating symptoms but have weaker immune responses to viral respiratory viruses” explains Dr Sue, as to provide a potential reason for greater morbidity and mortality amongst men in comparison to women.
However, this may not be all bad news for men, as there may be an evolutionary benefit to a less robust immune system. Dr Sue explains that having a weaker immune system, men were able to invest more energy into other biological processes, such as that of growth and reproduction. Energy conservation during a period of sickness appears to have its benefits. While spending the day recovering in bed or avoiding activities of daily life which can be done by someone else sounds enjoyable already, it may also be the case that these evolutionary behaviours were a method of protection against predators.
Having a weaker immune system, men were able to invest more energy into other biological processes, such as that of growth and reproduction
Dr Sue adds that “perhaps now is the time for male-friendly spaces, equipped with enormous televisions and reclining chairs, to be set up where men can recover from the debilitating effects of man flu in safety and comfort” – the probability of this suggestion becoming reality is probably a small one.
Though it may now seem somewhat unjust to claim that men are exaggerating their ill-feeling given this new evidence, it is almost certain that debate over man flu will continue regardless.