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What are bio-identical hormones?

When we discuss our overall health, we cannot stress enough the importance that hormones have on our bodies. Hormones are the chemical messengers that are excreted from various organs in our bodies and have a significant impact on other organ’s and tissue’s function. There are many different types of hormones in our body. As we get older, our body starts decreasing the amount of hormone it makes.

Many women start feeling a change in our hormone levels in their mid thirties and experience a huge change when they hit menopause. During this time, peri-menopause and menopause, symptoms of this decrease in hormones start to surface. These can be mild to downright debilitating.

And let’s not forget our men! Men also have a decline in their hormones as they get older. It is more subtle than women’s sudden decline referred to as menopause. Men’s testosterone starts to decline slowly in their 40’s and causes symptoms of what we refer to as andropause. Symptoms in men can be just as severe as they are in women; just presented in a different way.

We can treat the symptoms of peri-menopause, menopause and andropause with hormone replacement therapy (HRT). HRT is extremely useful for treating peri-menopause, menopause, fertility, PMS in women and andropause in men. It can be life-changing for many women and men who suffer day to day from hormone imbalances. HRT can also protect us from some of the chronic conditions that can arise from from the decline of hormones in our bodies. Osteoporosis is just one example. Unfortunately, HRT has been under scrutiny for a while now due to the WHI study that was halted in 2002 due to finding that women on standard HRT (oral conjugated estrogens and/or medroxyprogesterone) had a significantly higher risk for breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and blood clots.

While there is much to be learned from this study, we will just concentrate on the actual therapy used in the WHI study. The conjugated estrogens and the medroxyprogesterone are hormones that do not match what the human body makes. The most common commercially available estrogen product is conjugated estrogens that are from the urine of pregnant mares. While most of the chemical structure is similar to the human estrogens, the differences in the chemical structure are what cause the unwanted side effects that were seen in the WHI study. Medroxyprogesterone is a synthesized hormone that is not the same as progesterone that is made in the body. Think of it this way, hormones are supposed to fit into their subsequent receptors on the tissues like a “lock and key.” Since the chemical structure is not the same as what the human body makes, these foreign hormones cause unwanted effects in the tissues.

Bio-identical hormones are simply defined as hormones that match exactly the chemical structure that the human body makes. This is not to be confused with the term “natural”. Natural products are anything that comes from nature; technically conjugated estrogens are natural since they come from horses. Bio-identical hormones are from a natural source, derived from soy and Mexican yams. The chemical structure is modified in a lab from the natural source to make the hormone an exact match of the natural human hormone. So while bio-identical hormones are from a natural source, we don’t refer to them as natural. Also note that since they have to be modified, you cannot get the same result from eating soy or Mexican yams.

Bio-identical hormones also should not be confused with compounded hormones. Compounded hormone therapy is making products in customized dosages and/or dosage forms that meet the needs of a individual. While compounded hormones are bio-identical hormones, there are many different type of bio-identical hormone therapies that are available commercially.

Studies have shown that there is not the same type of risks associated with bio-identical hormone replacement therapy as with old traditional hormones used in the WHI study. It is important to understand all aspects of therapy and talk to your health care provider to get all the facts when considering starting on hormone replacement.

Wishing you well….Gail

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