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Bioidentical Hormones: A Viable Alternative for Women in Menopause?

We women are complex creatures aren’t we? Apart from the organs we share in common with our male counterparts, we get to have a whole different set that men neither needn’t deal with nor understand fully – unless and until ours get the better of us. During those times, men either choose to avoid us or try their best to be as soothing and comforting as possible.

As complex as we are, so too are we varied in chemical composition from one another; no two women are alike. In the same way that some women went through their reproductive years with relatively pain free menses, others of us lived on NSAIDs (or sometimes prescription pain killers) and as we got older, discovered that a glass of wine (or a shot of something) made life a little more bearable. Apart from pain, heavy periods and discomfort, many women found themselves ‘blessed’ with the added benefit of dealing with fibroids, endometriosis, functional cysts and other conditions unique to women.

Indeed there are many things that factor into why some women skated through their reproductive years, while others quite literally suffered through them. Diet, weight, estrogen production, heredity and environment all seem to play a part in this.

Menopause and All Its Shenanigans

In the same manner that some women literally walk through their reproductive years with little memory of bad days, some women report few problems with menopause. In fact, I worked with a woman who got married for the first time when she was 43 and immediately, she and Roger started trying to have kids. Unable to, her gynecologist ran the usual battery of tests to determine why and it turned out that at 43 she was completely through menopause. In retrospect, she could recall missing a few periods and assumed it was her stressful job that was to blame. She couldn’t recount a single hot flash or bad day.

Then there are the rest of us.

The most notable symptom in menopause is the hot flash. Hot flashes may start with an aura or a strange sensation prior to the onset, which is quickly followed by a feeling of mild to intense heat moving toward the head. The face becomes red and the body breaks out in a sweat that is sometimes followed by a chill and finally, exhaustion.

The hot flashes might not be so bad if it weren’t for the night sweats that require some women to change the sheets two or three times a night. Then there’s the pain – in the joints, muscles, breasts, reproductive area – oy the pain! Many women experience weight gain, especially in the belly. Inevitably, however, many report (despite an increase in exercise), that the weight keeps coming.

There appears no obvious reason why, for some, menopause lasts only a few months, with only mild discomfort and for others it’s called a living hell that goes on for several years. The assumption that the severity of symptoms is connected solely to one’s diet and overall health is a fallacy. Again, there are myriad factors that go into who will have a walk in the park vs. a seemingly unending nightmare.

For women whose symptoms are pretty extreme, most would consider anything for relief. Both with my own experience and from talking with my girlfriends and relatives, although many of us start out adamantly opposed to the idea of taking hormones and swear we can tough it out, for some, it’s just a very, very difficult fight.

Hormones and Are They the Answer?

A hormone is a substance released by glands in the body that sends out messages, which stimulate cells in other parts of the body to either increase functional activity or the secretion of another hormone. There are many hormones in the body – for instance, the pancreas secretes insulin, which controls blood sugar, the thyroid controls metabolism, and of course the sex glands, the testes and ovaries, secrete testosterone and estrogen, respectively, which are responsible for the development and maintenance of our male and female characteristics.

Female reproduction depends on hormones secreted by the ovaries, estrogen, and progesterone. A natural, progressive decline in these hormones will cause the ovaries to gradually stop producing eggs, which in turn leads to the complete cessation of menstruation called menopause.

Hormone Replacement Therapy

Traditionally, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been the treatment of choice for menopause. Hormone levels are checked by a blood test to confirm the woman is in fact, in menopause. Then, the lowest possible dose necessary to alleviate menopausal symptoms is prescribed.

Synthetic hormones are FDA approved and commercially produced. They can be a pill taken orally, applied intra-vaginally in the form of a cream or gel, or delivered via a patch. Most are covered by health insurance.

Synthetic estrogen, or estradiol, derived from pregnant mare’s urine and synthetic progesterone or progestin obtained from the dioscorea, can cause severe side effects and an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, and blood clots. In 2002, a study from the Women’s Health Initiative was halted when the trial of a drug, which combined estrogen and progesterone, confirmed these risks. Most women stopped taking HRT at once only to see their bothersome symptoms return a short time later.

It was about this time that Suzanne Somers published her book, The Sexy Years: Discover the Hormone Connection – The Secret to Fabulous Sex, Great Health, and Vitality, for Women and Men, Crown Publishing Group, (2004)

In it, she talks about her experience with Bioidentical Hormone Replacement Therapy (bHRT). At the time, they were largely unknown to the majority of women, despite having been around nearly 20 years.

So, What are bHRT and More Importantly, Do They Work and Are They Safe?

To answer in reverse, it appears as though not only do bHRT work, but that they are also safe to use. Here’s how:

Biodidentical hormones are plant derived and like traditional hormones, once extracted, they are manufactured in a lab. What Somers and hundreds (and likely thousands of women worldwide have discovered) is that unlike conventional HRT, bHRT are custom blended – so to speak – to address each woman’s specific needs. Recalling that every woman’s chemical makeup is different (despite Big Pharma’s continued practice of creating a single solution to address our symptoms), it doesn’t work that way. Through all the factors addressed earlier, what works for me, won’t necessarily work for you. Molecule for molecule, based on your chemical composition, bHRT supplements specifically provide what each woman lacks. Women on bHRT report feeling better than ever, report no hot flashes, no pain and even better than when they were on HRT.

Separating Fact From Fiction

A simple Google search will net you thousands of hits on bHRT. Some of what you will read isn’t so favorable, in fact. There are many doctors and researchers who will tell you that bHRT is the following:

  • Unsafe
  • Ineffective
  • Causes more incidences of breast cancer than HRT
  • Not FDA approved
  • No Clinical Studies

Fiction: Myriad papers published in peer reviewed journals have gone so far as to suggest that bHRTs are not FDA approved, that they are dangerous and have no effect on menopausal symptoms. One such paper, perhaps the most outspoken is the Endocrine Society Position Statement.

Fact: There are 20 varieties of bHRT that are FDA approved. In the 25 years since women began using bHRT, the FDA – who keeps a log of all adverse events associated with all drugs – reports no events associated with bHRT. As to the claim that there have been no clinical studies done to prove that bHRT is safe and efficacious, 200 women participated in a study sponsored by the Holtorf Medical Group in Torrance, California. The study looked at these women, broken into three groups: 1/3 were taking HRT, 1/3 bHRT and 1/3 placebo. The results not only challenged the Endocrine Society Position Statement, they certainly had me rethinking bHRT. And I am not alone. Dozens of women’s wellness centers around the country and the world now strongly advocate for bHRT over HRT.

The Results of the Study of bHRT

Safe and Efficacious – It’s a draw! Neither HRT nor bHRT turned out to be more safe and efficacious over the other. Both addressed menopausal symptoms equally and made the recipients feel better – many significantly so.

However, the surprising result has to do with breast cancer risk. Of those who used bHRT to treat menopausal symptoms, they were less at risk for developing breast cancer than those on traditional HRT.

The bottom line: Clearly bHRT works, and not just for Suzanne Somers but for probably hundreds of thousands of women worldwide. They are FDA approved and women report feeling better than ever. It certainly seems worth looking into.

If you are a woman who is going through menopause, I personally would love to read your comments about this article. Are you using anything to combat the symptoms? Are you toughing it out? Are you taking HRT or even bHRT? Do you have any experience that refutes or confirms these women’s experiences? And if you are on HRT, would you consider taking bHRT?

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