In recent years bio-identical or ‘natural’ hormone replacement therapy has been the topic du jour for breakfast television and talk show hosts, including none other than the queen of TV herself, Oprah Winfrey. None of us like loading up on synthetic drugs so the idea that you can manage the symptoms of a natural thing like menopause in a more natural way was always going to be a popular one.
Synthetic hormone replacement therapy has been routinely prescribed to menopausal women since the 1970s and was, understandably, very popular until a Women’s Health Initiative study found links between long term use and an increased risk of cancer, in particular, breast cancer. In recent years the results of that study have been called into question, however at the time it was the impetus for natural health practitioners to go in search of a more natural alternative.
The result was bio-identical hormone replacement therapy.
What makes bio-identical hormone replacement therapy different?
Despite the picture painted by some, bio-identical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) is not produced in a field of daisies by free-range alternative-lifestylers wielding homeopathy diplomas. BHRT is produced, just like any other medicine, in a strictly regulated laboratory by qualified chemists in lab coats. Not quite as picturesque but arguably a whole lot safer.
There are two key differences between synthetic hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and BHRT:
- BHRT uses pharmaceutical-grade hormones that are chemically identical to those produced naturally in the body. These hormones are usually derived from soy, yams and other plant sources. HRT on the other hand also uses plant-derived hormones however they also include some ingredients that are not chemically identical to those produced by the body. You may have heard that HRT uses the urine of pregnant mares. This is true. It’s safe and some would argue ‘natural’, however it’s not bioidentical to human estrogen.
- Standard HRT is manufactured to a highly-regulated set formula by an overseas drug company. It’s one-size-fits-all and there’s no consideration of individual differences between patients. However BHRT is made up by a compounding chemist who customises medication according to a script provided by your doctor. With BHRT your doctor can adjust the levels of different types of hormones to address your individual and unique health needs. It’s medication tailored to you.
What are hormones and why do they need replacing?
In the past menopause was looked on by some doctors as an illness that was best treated with a regime of synthetic drugs. However just like puberty, menstruation and pregnancy, thankfully today most health professionals recognise menopause, not as an illness to be rectified, but as a natural part of a woman’s life.
Menopause occurs when a woman’s ovaries stop producing the hormone estrogen. Estrogen is responsible for regulating a woman’s reproductive cycle and they also control the dissemination of important information that can effect cellular changes. When the ovaries no longer produce estrogen, reproduction is no longer possible, and in many women it also causes what’s known as a hormonal imbalance.
Menopause usually occurs between the ages of 40 and 60.
Most good health professionals will look at factors in a woman’s lifestyle before prescribing a course of either bio-identical or synthetic hormone replacement therapy. Improvements to a person’s diet and an increase in both exercise and quality sleep can bring about a dramatic reduction in menopausal symptoms.
However no two people are the same and for some woman, lifestyle changes are not enough to address their severe menopausal symptoms. For these women, extra treatment such as bio-identical hormone replacement therapy or synthetic hormone replacement therapy as prescribed by a trained health professional may be required.
What are the symptoms of menopause?
The symptoms of menopause vary from woman to woman, however some of the more common ones include:
- Hot flashes
- Unexplained weight gain
- Irritability/mood swings
- Dry skin and in particular vaginal dryness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Reduced sex drive
- Night sweats.
What are the risks of hormone replacement therapy?
When managed responsibly by a medical professional hormone replacement therapy – either the bio-identical or synthetic kind – can provide many benefits to some menopausal women, however long-term use of estrogen and progestin (a synthetic form of progesterone) has been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases, stroke and blood clots, in clinical trials.
For these reasons it’s crucial to consult your doctor before starting any hormone replacement therapy. Your medical history and current health condition will play a big part in your doctor’s consideration of whether hormone replacement therapy, and what kind, is right for you. Your doctor will carefully consider whether the benefits of hormone replacement therapy out weight the risks in your unique situation and develop a treatment plan appropriate to you.
Proceed with caution
The internet is littered with websites offering cheap BHRT products, ‘natural’ estrogen and vague advice, however you should always consult with your doctor before starting any course of treatment. With any kind of hormone therapy there are health risks so it’s very important to follow the guidance of a health professional.
“But if it’s ‘natural’ it couldn’t possibly harm me, right?”
Wrong. Any kind of hormone replacement therapy, ‘natural’ or not, is potentially harmful if it’s the wrong kind and delivered in doses not suitable for you. When you order off the internet or from someone who isn’t a qualified compounding pharmacist you have no guarantee that you’re getting what you paid for or even that it’s safe to use.
Hormones are like the hard-working bicycle couriers of the body’s endocrine system – they send messages that can cause changes to how cells react and respond to different stimuli. When you interfere with the balance and levels of hormones in the body it can have a snowball effect on your health that can have major repercussions.
National Custom Compounding has been making tailored BHRT therapies for many years using only the highest grade ingredients approved by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. You can contact our friendly staff at anytime for more information on BHRT however we strongly advise that you also consult with an integrative doctor.
To find an integrative doctor in your local area who can provide you with practical advice on BHRT, and advise whether it’s the right treatment for you visit our Find a Doctor page at https://www.customcompounding.com.au/doctor-locator/.
1.The Writing Group for the WHI Investigators. Risks and benefits of estrogen plus progestin in healthy post-menopausal women: Principal results of the Women’s Health Initiative randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2002;288(3):321-333.
- Deborah Grady, MD, MPH; Nanette K. Wenger, MD; David Herrington, et.al.; Postmenopausal Hormone Therapy Increases Risk for Venous Thromboembolic Disease: The Heart and Estrogen/progestin Replacement Study, Annals of Internal Medicine 2002
- Trisha Posner, No Hormones, No Fear: A Natural Journey Through Menopause, Random House Publishing Group, 18 Dec. 2007