When we think of hormones, the wild ups and downs of puberty, the competitive spirit of testosterone or the mood swings of waning estrogen are likely what come to mind.
Those are just two of 50 chemical messengers produced by our bodies to regulate our systems throughout our lifetime. Imbalances in any of these hormones can wreak havoc on our physical, emotional and psychological well-being.
“As people age, as they experience certain life conditions, such as stress, pregnancy or menopause, their hormonal balance can be disrupted,” says Dr. Marcela Dominguez, a specialist in integrative and functional medicine at the UCI Health Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute in Costa Mesa.
“We can restore that balance by implementing a hormone restoration program, which may also include hormone supplementation.”
Not only do her patients feel better emotionally after hormone restoration, she says they also may lower their risk of some of the health consequences of aging, such as:
Bioidentical versus synthetic hormones
When prescribing hormone replacement therapy, Dominguez, who uses both Western and alternative therapies in her medical practice, uses only bioidentical hormones. She believes they are safer and more effective than traditional synthetic or animal-derived hormones.
Dominguez acknowledges that there is a long-standing debate over whether bioidentical hormones are better than traditional synthetic versions. Yet based on the available literature, she is convinced that bioidentical is the way to go.
What are bioidentical hormones?
The most common synthetic hormone — Premarin® — is made from the urine of a pregnant horse and progestin, a synthetic form of the hormone progesterone. Both of these hormones are frequently prescribed to reduce the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause.
Bioidentical hormones, by contrast, are molecules that have the same structure as hormones made by the body. They can be made from plant materials or synthesized in a lab, but the end molecule is biologically identical to the body’s hormones.
“When you introduce a foreign molecule into the body, it’s not going to be a perfect fit,” she says. “But I think we should give the body what it’s used to having — so I recommend bioidentical hormones.”
Replacing hormones lost to aging
“Hormones travel in the blood and act as a signaling system to control and coordinate activities throughout our bodies,” says Dominguez. “They regulate many of our functions, from basics such as hunger, to things like sex and emotions. If your hormones are balanced, your body will function more normally.”
Hormones decline with aging
Women typically begin to produce less progesterone in their 30s, then estrogen, then finally testosterone. In men, testicular function starts to decline in their 40s and testosterone production begins to diminish.
“Hormone replacement is very helpful for women going through perimenopause or menopause,” she says. “It can dramatically improve symptoms such as hot flashes, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, mood swings and cognitive changes, like ‘brain fog.’ But hormonal balance is something to strive for throughout our lifetime.”
Risks and benefits of hormone replacement
No two patients are alike, she says, which means that it’s important to develop a treatment plan tailored to each person, one that is focused on advanced testing, nutritional needs, medicines, supplements, natural herbs and hormone replacement as needed to gently restore hormonal balance.
Hormone replacement therapy — while not a panacea — can do a lot to help people feel better and ward off some of the diseases and problems of old age.
It’s not without risk, however. Long-term use of systemic synthetic hormones has been shown to increase the risk of:
Dominguez notes that bioidentical hormones are more commonly used in some other countries and that some of the studies in those countries show a trend toward enhanced safety in their use.
To learn whether hormone replacement may be of benefit, she advises seeking the advice of a physician, especially one with advanced training in the use of bioidentical hormone therapy.