Your A-Game, Part II: Hormone Myths Debunked

Dr. McLean Sheperd

In my last blog, I told you about how, in my mid-30s, I was energy deficient and moody, losing hair and losing sleep. I got some good advice from my doctor about taking a closer look at my nutrient and hormone levels (which change as you get older, as your body changes), and it made a world of difference. Now: what kind of hormones should you be using, if you choose to? To understand what should go in and why—particularly as words like "natural," "bioidentical," and "synthetic" are being floated around health news without much explanation—let's debunk a few key myths about the difference.


Myth #1: “Natural” and “bio-identical” mean the same thing.

In the realm of hormones, this is a source of confusion. Bioidentical refers to the shape of the molecule, rather than the source of the hormone. They're either extracted and modified from natural sources or created from scratch in a laboratory to exactly match the hormones your body produces. They are what your body naturally recognizes and uses during your life to promote vitality and optimal function. 


Hormones can also be marketed as "natural" or "plant-based," yet not be "bioidentical" to native human hormones or perform as such in the body. We have receptors on every cell in our body for hormones, and these receptors are very specific (like a lock-and-key mechanism). Non-bioidenticals jam into that lock, but they don’t turn the mechanism and open the door to unlock the profound downstream benefits of hormones that are shaped exactly right. And unfortunately, the metabolism of an imperfectly fitting hormone can have damaging effects. 


Bottom line: "Natural" doesn't make a hormone a better fit with your body; whereas, "bioidentical" are designed to be exactly that.


Myth #2: Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) causes cancer and strokes.

Not quite. Think about it this way: we know that premenopausal women have fewer incidences of strokes and cancer than men and post-menopausal women. Why? Estrogen and progesterone have protective qualities against strokes, heart disease, cancer, and clotting. We also know that birth control pills are risky in women who are over 35, smoke, or have a history of blood clots. In other words, birth control pills, like synthetic (non-bioidentical) hormone replacement therapy, are not an exact fit for our bodies. 


In 2003, a Women's Health Initiative study demonstrated an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke in women who were treated with HRT, and many physicians turned against the use of female hormones. But the therapy of the study participants was, for the vast majority of users, the synthetic hormone combination of Premarin® and Provera®. What is important to know (and what many women already know) is that Premarin and Provera are not bioidentical hormones. The patented molecular structures of these hormones are different from what your body makes naturally. That means they are metabolized differently and have side effects related to their foreign molecular structure. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association recently noted that Premarin contains 10 estrogens not found in the human body (it is extracted from the urine of pregnant mares). Three recent studies have demonstrated an eight-fold increased risk of cancer when Provera was added to estrogen.


On the other hand, bioidentical estrogen-progesterone treatment (in a proper ratio, and with estrogen applied topically, not orally) protects against general health decline and has a neutral or slightly beneficial effect on breast cancer rates when compared to non-hormone users, as shown by the French Cohort study in 2002. In addition, they significantly reduce the risk of all other types of cancers.


More next week on the key players of hormone replacement for women and men.