By Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP
Few areas of health care are as plagued by competing claims and confusion as hormone therapy, but when approached with a holistic perspective under medical supervision, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy can be life-changing.
Conventional hormone therapy has been the subject of several high-profile news stories, and more research needs to be done on its long-term effects. Bioidentical hormones offer an alternative to conventional hormone therapy. But, because our body’s responses to hormones vary widely, it’s important to always work with a healthcare practitioner to determine the right treatment for you.
Here are some answers to common questions about bioidentical hormone therapy (BHRT).
The chemical structure of bioidentical hormones is identical to that of the hormones your body produces naturally – hence their name. The hormones are derived from plants and can be produced in a factory or by a compounding pharmacist.
The most commonly prescribed types of bioidentical hormones are testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. These hormones are delivered to the body in many forms, including creams, suppositories, sprays, injections, gels, and pills.
Both men and women may benefit from bioidentical hormone therapy. Women often start when they enter the perimenopause years to help maintain hormonal balance. Up to 2.5 million women in the US use BHRT, by some estimates two-thirds of all women taking hormonal therapy, to help with menopausal symptoms.
Men often start in their 40s, when testosterone levels start to decline.
As we age the production of several important hormones declines. The effects of these dropping hormone levels can be profound. Women can experience:
- Weight gain
- Brain fog
- Hair loss
- Hot flashes
- Foggy thinking
- Loss of libido
- Vaginal dryness
For men, a decline in testosterone levels results in very similar symptoms:
- Loss of libido
- Weight gain
- Men can even experience hot flashes!
BHRT can reduce the systems of declining hormone levels. It can also provide some preventative protection against conditions like diabetes and osteoporosis.
Although many people experience a relief from a myriad of symptoms thanks to BHRT, studies also point to possible health risks, including increased incidents of:
- Blood clots
- Mood problems
- Heart disease
- Breast cancer
When assessing the risks of BHRT, it’s important to consider your overall health. Smokers, for example, have a higher risk of blood clots. Anyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer in the past should avoid BHRT. The risk of heart disease or cancer may increase with age, or the longer you take BHRT.
This makes the decision whether or not to take hormones highly personal. Research shows that menopausal women benefit from an overall examination of their health when they’re prescribed BHRT. Typically, they experience more in depth, personal care during the process than they do with conventional hormone treatment – and you shouldn’t expect anything less if you consider any time of hormone therapy.
As well, compounded bioidentical hormone therapy isn’t regulated by the FDA, so it’s important to work with a reputable provider. It’s generally smart to start with a low dose and see how your body responds.
Anyone concerned about the long-term effects of BHRT, or anyone in a high-risk group, may want to explore natural alternatives for hormone support instead. Here are some effective strategies.
- Include phytoestrogens in your diet. Phytoestrogens are plants that naturally contain estrogen. Good sources include:
- Flax seed
- Soy products
- Green tea
- Eat plenty of protein and enjoy a balanced diet. Crash diets can slow testosterone production.
- Supplement smartly. Some natural supplements have been shown to support hormone levels. As always, work with your healthcare provider.
- Black cohosh can help ease hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms
- Vitamin D and zinc have positive effects on testosterone.
- Watch your alcohol intake. Alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of hormone imbalances, such as hot flashes.
- Include strength training. Lifting weights can improve testosterone in men. Although this is less of an impact in women, strength training can improve symptoms of menopause and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
- Get enough sleep Hormonal imbalances can wreak havoc on sleep, but at the same time, lack of sleep can affect hormone production. Work on creating a restful evening routine to encourage sleep.
- Watch your stress levels. Stress increases production of cortisol, and cortisol and testosterone can contradict each other – as your levels of one rise the other decreases. If it’s hard to reduce situational stress in your life, try stress-reducing activities like time in nature and meditation.
Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy can help both men and women experiencing declines in hormone production. It’s best used as part of a holistic health program to support hormones.
It’s important to work closely with an experienced healthcare provider – like us! We can review treatment protocols with you, answer any questions, and develop a personalized plan tailored to you if you are seeking help with your female hormone issues (we don’t treat men at our clinic).. Just give us a call!
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