Bioidentical Hormones for Women
If you were to go back in time when the average life expectancy was below 40, hormonal decline would not be as much of a concern as it is today, because most women would not live long enough to experience it. However, over time the average life expectancy has nearly doubled, forcing our bodies to work harder and longer than ever before. As a result, the glands that we rely on to produce hormones become overworked and eventually stop producing hormones at adequate levels. This decline in hormone production leads to a constellation of symptoms that women today know as symptoms of hormonal imbalance. Hormonal decline is different for every woman, so the resulting symptoms vary greatly in terms of the intensity, frequency and duration. Fortunately, women can find relief from symptoms of hormonal imbalance through the use of bioidentical hormones.
Perimenopause or “pre-menopause” is the stage in a woman’s life when the ovaries begin producing less estrogen and progesterone, and usually occurs several years prior to menopause. The average duration of perimenopause is four years, but the transition can last as little as a few months or as many as 10 years. Technically speaking, perimenopause ends when a woman goes at least 12 months without having her period. Some symptoms that may indicate that a woman is perimenopausal include heavy periods (sometimes accompanied by blood clots), periods becoming more frequent and/or lasting longer than usual and spotting between periods and after sex. Most hormonal imbalances can be detected with a simple blood test, but being that hormone levels fluctuate erratically during perimenopause, it’s sometimes difficult for a doctor to get a good baseline of a woman’s hormones to determine whether or not she is perimenopausal.
Menopause is not a disease, but rather a natural condition that all women will eventually experience. The term “menopause” is used to describe a constellation of changes that take place during midlife. The ovaries stop producing eggs, menstrual cycles become less frequent and eventually stop, and the hormones estrogen and progesterone begin to decline.
Menopause typically begins in a woman’s 40’s – this is referred to as “natural menopause.” However, there times when women may experience premature menopause, either due to premature ovarian failure (POF) or an underlying hormonal imbalance. Being that menopause begins 12 months after a woman’s last period, it’s very possible for women to experience symptoms of hormonal imbalance several years before they are officially menopausal. By the time a woman reaches menopause, her estrogen and progesterone levels are a mere fraction of what they once were. This is why symptoms are oftentimes more severe during and after menopause, than they are in the months and years leading up to it.
The thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck, just below your voice box, at the front base of your neck, resembling the shape of a butterfly – a thin bridge flanked by two lobes. Within each lobe, is another set of glands, known as the parathyroid glands. These glands are primarily responsible for regulating calcium and phosphorous metabolism. The tiny little thyroid gland secretes hormones that regulate every cell in the body and play a significant role in controlling your metabolism. Under normal conditions, your brain and your thyroid communicate with your body to sustain the delicate balance of four hormones: thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), T4 (thyroxine) and T3 and (triiodothyronine).
If you have been feeling fatigued, had trouble sleeping, your hair is thinning or falling out or you have had significant changes in the frequency of your bowel movements—you may have a thyroid disorder. Thyroid disorders fall into two categories: hypothyroidism (underactive) and hyperthyroidism (overactive.) Both can significantly impact your quality of life – too much or too little of any hormone coming from the thyroid can result in serious changes to your health and well-being.
Many practitioners will run a single lab test to determine your thyroid level; however, you should be aware that most healthcare providers recognize a broad range of normal when it comes to this thyroid test, and even fewer go on to test the other hormones affected by thyroid disorder. For example, by traditional methods, doctors are trained to read TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels as “normal” if they are in the range of 0.35 to 5.0. Physicians specializing in hormones are trained to examine lab results in terms of optimal functioning. For TSH, this range is 0.5 to 2.5—a more narrow, defined range. Additionally, hormone experts not only test TSH levels, they also examine T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine), and cortisol levels.
Women also need to be aware that hypothyroidism often mimics the symptoms of menopause. It is not uncommon for a woman to be misdiagnosed as pre- or peri-menopausal, when she actually has a thyroid disorder. This makes effective communication about your symptoms crucial. Request additional testing or seek an expert second opinion to ensure you are properly diagnosed.
Adrenal fatigue is an emerging condition that is a byproduct of life in modern day. In 1998, Dr. James Wilson noticed a correlation between increased stress levels and reduced function of the adrenal system. After much research, he coined the term, adrenal fatigue, to describe the chronic fatigue commonly affecting millions of men and women worldwide. Conventional medicine does not yet recognize it as a distinct syndrome, but substantial evidence found through ongoing research suggests a proposal to establish diagnostic criteria is on the horizon. This syndrome has been known by many other names throughout the past century, such as non-Addison’s hypoadrenia, sub-clinical hypoadrenia, neurasthenia, adrenal neurasthenia, adrenal apathy and adrenal fatigue.
The adrenal glands rest on top of each kidney, secreting hormones and neurotransmitters, such as estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, adrenaline (epinephrine), norepinephrine and dopamine. These chemical messengers are vital to stress management, immune function and many functions of daily living. An imbalance of any of these hormones, chronic stress, life-altering changes, like menopause or thyroid disorders may be attributed to the occurrence of adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue is often associated with intense or prolonged stress. It may arise from a chronic infection or be the result of an incessant borage of too much work and not enough rest. The dominating symptom is fatigue – a fatigue that cannot be relieved by prolonged rest or even sufficient amounts of sleep. It is a difficult condition to diagnose because the signs and symptoms are less tangible than a cough or odd growth. In fact, you can manage what you interpret to be a “normal” life with adrenal fatigue. Of course, your day may consist of multiple cups of coffee, colas, energy drinks or other stimulants that never make you feel quite alert enough. You may experience a consistent, generalized discomfort in your well-being, weariness and indifference. Additional symptoms may include lack of motivation, mood swings, anxiety, depression or insomnia.
Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalance in Women
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance in women can vary in terms of frequency, intensity and duration; however, in most cases, once hormonal balance is restored, symptoms can be mitigated and quality of life can be greatly improved.
Choose from one of the symptoms below to learn more:
Hot Flashes and Night Sweats – Hot flashes or “hot flushes” are one of the most common symptoms of menopause and perimenopause. Hot flashes can range in severity, frequency and duration, but are typically characterized by erratic heat sensations that can cause flushing of the face and body, sweating, increased heart rate, headache, dizziness, nausea and anxiety. Fluctuating estrogen levels, caused by menopause or perimenopause, confuse the hypothalamus portion of the brain, which helps regulate body temperature. As a result, the hypothalamus sends false signals to the brain that the body is overheating, when in reality it is not. In an effort to cool the body down, blood vessels dilate to let the heat escape. When hot flashes occur in the middle of the night while you are asleep, they are considered night sweats. Night sweats are similar to hot flashes, however the sweating is oftentimes much more profuse.
Low Sex Drive – A waning sex drive can be brought on by a variety of different factors, but hormonal imbalance is typically the root cause. As progesterone levels decline, women are more prone to symptoms of estrogen dominance – an imbalance of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. When this occurs, women may experience vaginal dryness, vaginal atrophy and decreased clitoral sensitivity. Additionally, estrogen dominance can also lead to mood swings, weight gain and fatigue – all of which may contribute to a diminished libido. Another common culprit is testosterone decline. Although it’s oftentimes considered a male hormones, women rely on testosterone for a healthy sex drive. Being that menopause is multifaceted in terms of hormonal decline, an imbalance of progesterone and estrogen may in fact contribute to a decrease in testosterone.
Mood Swings – Hormones and mood are closely related. Even marginal hormonal fluctuations can drastically impact our overall mood. Estrogen has a strong influence on the production of serotonin – a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. As estrogen levels fluctuate during menopause and perimenopause, and serotonin production increases, women become more sensitive to emotional stimuli. Additionally, elevated levels of the male hormone, testosterone, can make women more irritable than usual.
Insomnia – Sleeplessness and insomnia are common symptoms of menopause and perimenopause. Chronic stress can lead to an imbalance of cortisol – the stress hormone. Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone and it puts us on a constant state of high alert. This makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. On the other hand, progesterone helps women sustain sleep. As progesterone and estrogen levels fluctuate during after menopause, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Hormonal imbalances can also disrupt the production of melatonin – a neurotransmitter that plays a critical role in sleep cycle. Other symptoms of hormonal imbalance, such as night sweats can also make sleep difficult.
Weight Gain – Statistics show that approximately 90 percent of all women will gain weight between the ages of 35 and 55. And it is no coincidence that this is the typical age range for women going though perimenopause and menopause. The hormonal imbalances seen in menopause and perimenopause directly impact appetite, fat storage and metabolism. Declining estrogen levels cause the body to start converting more calories into fat. While waning levels of progesterone can lead to water retention and subsequently, bloating. Declining testosterone levels slow the body’s metabolism and reduce lean muscle mass. And as if that weren’t enough, elevated cortisol levels caused by chronic stress can also impact the metabolism and lead to additional weight gain. When you put it all together, it all leads to one thing: weight gain.
Depression – It’s estimated that between 8 and 5 percent of women experience depression during menopause or perimenoapuse. Symptoms of depression include depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure in life, abnormal changes in sleep patterns, chronic fatigue, becoming indecisive or easily overwhelmed and thoughts of death or suicide. Many different hormones can play a role in depression. Estrogen causes serotonin levels to plummet, which can result in feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Progesterone deficiencies can make women feel irritable or on-edge. And high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, can lead to agitation and irritability as well.
Fatigue – Fatigue is very common among women going through menopause and perimenopause. While fatigue is not always a direct result of hormonal imbalance, other symptoms of hormonal imbalance may contribute to waning energy levels and chronic fatigue. These symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, depression, night sweats, chronic stress, adrenal insufficiency and malnutrition. The resulting symptoms from erratic estrogen and progesterone fluctuations can be taxing and their effects are oftentimes compounded, which is why many women feel overwhelmed with general fatigue and lethargy.
How BHRT Can Help
By balancing hormones naturally with bioidentical hormones, women can restore their hormone levels to a more optimal range. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) replaces the hormones that women lose over time. This decline in hormones is at the root of many of the symptoms that women associate with getting older. And although there is no such thing as a magic bullet to stop aging in its tracks, there is a lot that can be done to help women regain the energy and vitality that they had in their 20′s and 30′s.
The first step to balancing hormones naturally is to have your hormone levels tested and evaluated by a physician who specializes in hormone replacement therapy. Based on your current levels, a physician can then tailor a customized treatment regimen, specifically designed to meet your individual needs.
To find a highly trained bioidentical hormones physician in your area, visit our Physician Directory.