Bio-identical Hormones 101 -
An Introduction to BHRT for Women
Oprah Winfrey admits that entering menopause left her feeling "out of kilter" as she dealt with symptoms that she suspected were hormonal. She asked a friend for advice and then, like so many other women, turned to Suzanne Somers' books, Ageless and Breakthrough to learn more about hormone imbalance and recommended doctors who focus on natural hormone treatments. Oprah visited with one of these specialists and, after being told her "hormonal tank was empty", received a prescription for bio-identical estrogen.
"After one day on bio-identical estrogen, I felt the veil lift," Winfrey wrote in an O magazine piece that tackled the topic of hormones and women’s health. "After three days, the sky was bluer, my brain was no longer fuzzy, my memory was sharper. I was literally singing and had a skip in my step." Oprah invited Suzanne Somers on her show to talk about these natural treatments and the doctors willing to prescribe them, stating, "If you and I, as famous women, have had such difficulty finding a doctor to take us seriously and who understands how to give us back our quality of life, imagine what is happening with the average American woman?"
Just what is it that Suzanne and Oprah want women to know? Leading holistic physician and author of one of Smart Publications' most popular books, Stay Young & Sexy with Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement, Dr. Jonathan Wright is one of Suzanne's favorites for discussing non-chemical, non-drug approaches for taking care of the body. He, along with co-author Dr. Lane Lenard, are here to explain the basics of bioidentical hormone replacement therapy and how a better understanding of different hormone options can empower women to make the right decisions concerning their health.
What are Bio-identical Hormones?
Bio-identical hormones are an exact chemical and molecular match to those hormones made naturally by humans. Derived from natural plant sources such as soy and wild yam extracts, bio-identical hormone therapy (BHRT) is often called “natural hormone therapy” because bio-identicals act in the body just like the hormones we produce.
Synthetic vs. Bio-identical Hormones
For decades, women who complained to their doctor about menopausal symptoms were typically prescribed conventional hormone replacement therapy (HRT). The key difference between HRT and BHRT? HRT uses synthetic hormones, most commonly Premarin (estrogen synthesized from pregnant mares' urine), Provera (a chemical progesterone substitute) or Prempro, which is a combination of the two.
Over time, studies have shown that synthetic hormones are not compatible with the human body because they don't always react the same way in human cell receptors. In 2002, a major study on HRT, called the Women’s Health Initiative, revealed that use of synthetic hormones raises the risk of breast cancer, blood clots, stroke, and heart disease. The results were so alarming that the study had to be discontinued and, as news spread across the country, millions of women stopped using HRT.
Because bio-identical hormones are identical in molecular structure to the hormones women make in their bodies, they respond and act just like your own hormone and form the same type of estrogen (estradiol) and progesterone you have in your body right now. This makes it much easier to measure and keep track of hormone levels, ensuring you receive the dosage of hormones that best matches your needs.
BHRT for Anti-Aging
Replacing depleted hormone levels through BHRT can safely and significantly reduce symptoms of menopause... and much more. Research is constantly emerging that shows BHRT helps to:
- Reduce hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness and thinning
- Prevent osteoporosis
- Maintain greater muscle mass and strength
- Protect against heart attacks and strokes
- Improve blood cholesterol levels
- Reduce the risks of uterine and breast cancer
- Reduce the risk of depression
- Improve sleep, mood, concentration, and memory
- Prevent senility and Alzheimer's disease
- Enhance libido/sex drive
When it comes to slowing down the aging process, bioidenticals may be especially helpful. According to Dr. Wright, BHRT can noticeably improve the physical appearance of aging for any woman who uses it properly and regularly. As he writes, “Nearly any woman who’s used BHRT for 5 to 10 years notices herself and hears from others that she ‘doesn't look her age.’ ” This is likely due to estrogen’s beneficial “fountain of youth” effects on skin.
And don’t think BHRT is for women only. Dr. Wright also touts bioidentical testosterone replacement for men as a way to retain health and virility well into a man’s senior years. The same doctors who prescribe BHRT for women are also able to help men determine their needs.
How Do I Find Bioidentical Hormones?
Bioidentical estrogens and progesterone have been made into a number of FDA-approved formulations. Prescribed hormones, BHRT forms, are available through your doctor and easily filled at your local pharmacy. Bioidentical estrogen comes in several standard forms, including pill, transdermal patch, and creams. Bioidentical progesterone typically comes in a capsule or as a gel.
Other bioidentical hormone preparations are made at special pharmacies called compounding pharmacies. This type of pharmacy if often preferred because it allows a woman and her doctor to create a uniquely tailored dose and combination of bioidentical hormones. Compounding pharmacies can also add hormones to non-standard preparations such as lozenges or vaginal suppositories for more direct application.
Is BHRT Right for Me?
Working with your doctor or practitioner, you will first need to determine your current hormone levels to see if hormone therapy is truly needed. Don’t take extra hormones if you don’t need them! In addition to a standard hormone panel to show levels of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and DHEA (a precursor hormone to estrogen and testosterone), a few extra tests may be run to verify that you are nearing menopause. One common test checks levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). High FSH, combined with irregular periods, is a good indicator of perimenopause.
Before taking BHRT, you will also need to consider the risks that accompany taking any medication. There is a large body of research that backs up bioidentical hormone therapy as safer and more effective than conventionally prescribed synthetic HRT. It is important, however, to remember that no drug or supplement is 100 percent safe. Consulting with a hormone specialist before beginning any hormone therapy regimen is the best way to ensure correct dosing and safe-guard yourself against side effects.
For additional information on BHRT and drugs used in conventional HRT, please see our articles found here: