Traditional hormone therapy has been used as a treatment for menopause and general hormonal imbalance for decades. However, bioidentical hormones have been gaining popularity due to their more “natural” sources.
In 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) conducted a study that found prolonged traditional estrogen and progestin (prescription name Premarin and Prempro) therapy was linked to increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke. The results were so startling that the study was ended earlier than planned. Some years later and after further review of the data, the progestin was the main culprit with the risks found in the data in WHI study.
This safety warning contributed to people to looking for alternatives, a major one of which is bioidentical hormone replacement therapy.
In 2009, Oprah Winfrey publicly started using bioidentical hormones, bringing them to the forefront of public conversation.
Winfrey gave her personal testimony on bioidentical hormones, which included improved cognition, focus, and mood. But how much of her personal experience is backed up by clinical trials?
Let’s talk about bioidentical hormones and hormone therapy, as well as the research-backed benefits you can expect.
Bioidentical hormones are mostly derived from plant estrogen, often from yams or soy. These hormones’ chemical and molecular structures, however, are identical to the hormones that our own bodies produce.
This sets them apart from traditional hormone therapy, which uses synthetically crafted versions of hormones. Those searching for a more functional form of medical treatment often turn to these as an effective, more natural therapy for hormone replacement.
When doctors and researchers talk about “bioidentical hormones,” they typically mean these specific forms of estrogen and progesterone.
Below are many of the major brand names of bioidentical hormones available today:
Bioidentical hormones can be found in several forms:
Bioidentical hormones are used as menopausal hormone therapy, but its uses don’t stop there.
Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) is a more natural alternative to traditional hormone therapy, and it is growing in popularity.
Also called “natural hormone therapy,” BHRT uses man-made hormones mainly derived from plant estrogen (also called phytoestrogen). These hormones are bioidentical because they are chemically and molecularly identical to the hormones the human body already produces naturally.
Because bioidentical hormones are, well, identical to our own hormones, advocates say BHRT is a more natural approach to hormone replacement.
The people who need BHRT are those whose hormone levels are low or imbalanced. This is due to a number of factors, mainly age or menopause.
This treatment often replicates estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone. However, there are other hormones that BHRT may effectively replace.
What’s the difference between bioidentical hormone and traditional hormone replacement therapy?
Traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT) uses synthetic hormone preparations like progestin or equine estrogen derived from the urine of pregnant horses.
Bioidentical hormone products are chemically identical (or nearly identical) to the hormones our bodies already produce.
Proponents of BHRT tout the safety and effectiveness of their much more natural approach. Though much of the medical community claims BHRT is not safer than traditional hormone therapy, a few studies find that BHRT is safer.
Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy offers several health benefits for women, particularly postmenopausal women and breast cancer patients.
BHRT use is most common in cases of menopause or perimenopause. Hormone therapy alleviates menopausal symptoms, such as:
BHRT improves the quality of life in women who have a hormone imbalance. One study in particular examined women whose hormone levels were imbalanced because of breast cancer.
The study also showed that BHRT relieved breast cancer treatment-related symptoms, like:
That same study concluded that BHRT did not increase these patients’ risk of recurrence of breast cancer.
Hormone therapy relieves symptoms of osteoporosis, a bone disease more common in women than men.
Recent research has talked about how BHRT can improve your skin health, potentially reversing the aging process on your skin.
Animal studies show that BHRT can even improve insulin sensitivity, a promising sign for diabetic women.
Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy is not just for women. Men may reap the benefits of BHRT if their hormone levels are low or imbalanced.
Lower testosterone levels can be due to several risk factors:
Imbalanced testosterone levels may result in a decline of muscle mass. Hormone therapy promotes healthy muscles and prevents loss of muscle mass.
Low testosterone levels can lead to erectile dysfunction, which hormone therapy can often treat.
1 in 5 men will experience osteoporosis in their lifetime. Fortunately, BHRT has treated the symptoms and causes of osteoporosis, including the loss of bone mass.
It is controversial whether or not all types of hormone replacements may increase your risk of breast cancer, heart disease, blood clots, and gallbladder disease.
Since you’re adjusting to new hormones in your body, BHRT might come with some side effects:
Women may also experience increased facial hair when adjusting to new hormones in their system, even if they are chemically identical to the hormones you naturally produce.
There are two types of bioidentical hormones, one of which has FDA approval. The FDA has been slow to put bioidentical hormone therapy products to the test.
Bioidentical hormones can also be custom-made by a pharmacy, on doctor’s orders. This is called compounding and is offered by some compounding pharmacies (but not all pharmacies in general).
Compounding and prescribing bioidentical hormones requires specialized knowledge from a doctor familiar with this process. I’ve worked with many patients in this area and would love to discuss the possibilities of this therapy with you during a free 15-minute online consultation.
The FDA has yet to approve any compounded bioidentical hormones. BHRT is individualized for each person. However, on their website, the FDA announced that they began testing compounded products last year.
Always consult your healthcare provider and ask if bioidentical hormone replacement therapy is right for you before you start treatment.