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Sex and Gender: Their Roles in Health and Disease

Scientists are taking a closer look at the links between sex, gender, and health. Many people use the words sex and gender interchangeably, but they're distinct concepts to scientists.

While both sexes are similar in many ways, sex and social factors can make a difference when it comes to your risk for disease, how you respond to medications, and how often you seek care.

Sex is biological. Males have one X and one Y chromosome in every cell of the body. Females have two X chromosomes in every cell. These cells make up tissues and organs, including your skin, heart, stomach, muscles, and brain.

Gender is a social or cultural concept. It refers to the roles, behaviors, and identities that society assigns to girls and boys, women and men, and gender-diverse people. Gender is determined by how we see ourselves and each other and how we act and interact with others.

Scientists are uncovering the influences of both sex and gender in many areas of health.

Women and men can have different symptoms during a heart attack, different responses to pain, and even differences responding to medication. For example, women metabolize nicotine faster than men, so nicotine replacement therapies can be less effective in women.

"NIH now requires scientists to ask: 'What are my research results for males and for females?'" says Dr. Janine Austin Clayton, who heads research on women's health at NIH. "We need to learn more about the roles of sex and gender in health and disease."

Learn more: NIH News in Health – Sex and Gender How Being Male or Female Can Affect Your Health

Healthy Diet May Reduce HBP Risk after Gestational Diabetes

Sticking to a healthy diet in the years after pregnancy may reduce the risk of high blood pressure among women who had pregnancy related (gestational) diabetes, according to a study by researchers at NIH and other institutions. The study was published in Hypertension.

"Our study suggests that women who have had gestational diabetes may indeed benefit from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in red and processed meats," said the study's senior author, Dr. Cuilin Zhang, a senior investigator in the Epidemiology Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The current study is the first to show that adopting a healthy diet—known to reduce high blood pressure risk among the general population—also reduces the risk among women with prior gestational diabetes.

Learn more: MedlinePlus – Diabetes and Pregnancy (Gestational diabetes)

Going Gluten Free? Necessary for Some, Optional for Others

Sidestepping gluten can be a lifestyle choice for many. But for those with a condition known as celiac disease, it's a medical necessity. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats. Some people who may not have celiac disease get gas, diarrhea, or bloating after eating gluten. These symptoms could be caused by intolerance to the protein or a wheat allergy, but celiac disease is different.

When a person with celiac disease eats or drinks anything with gluten, the body's immune system attacks the inside of the small intestine. The damage from this attack keeps the body from absorbing needed nutrients. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, depression, anxiety, anemia, or weakened bones. It can also delay children's growth.

Celiac disease can be hard to spot, because its symptoms can be similar to other disorders. The condition affects about 1 percent of people worldwide; nearly 80 percent of them haven't been diagnosed, says Dr. Alessio Fasano, a celiac disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Celiac disease is a clinical chameleon. This creates tremendous confusion and challenging situations for both health care professionals and people who are trying to understand what's wrong with them," Fasano says.

Going on a strict 100 percent gluten-free diet for life remains the only treatment now for people with celiac disease. "We can't take the genes out, so we remove the environmental trigger," Fasano says. If you suspect you may have celiac disease, talk with your doctor. Waiting too long for a diagnosis might lead to serious problems.

As many as one in 141 Americans has celiac disease. Learn more: NIH News in Health – Going Gluten Free? Necessary for Some, Optional for Others

Summer 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 2 Page 28