Do You Really Know What Hormones Do?
As Sue thought about her upcoming anniversary celebration, it was with mixed emotions. She was really looking forward to an evening out with her husband alone but was dreading what she knew would come after – SEX! It was hard for her to believe how her once robust libido had taken a sharp nose dive shortly after the birth of her children. Funny how nature works, but no it wasn’t funny at all especially now that her sex drive was virtually nonexistent. Sexual intimacy was something she had once enjoyed immensely in the early years of her marriage but now it had become a chore, a responsibility, an obligation, something she felt she had to do to keep her marriage alive. Could Mother Nature really be that cruel? Could she ever rediscover the passion and even a glimmer of those physical sensations she once felt?
Later that day, while at the Apple Store picking out a new IPod phone to give her husband for their anniversary celebration, she ran into a friend she hadn’t seen in quite a while.
“Wow, Mary! You look great! What have you been doing with yourself?” asked Sue. Mary informed her that she had been to see a Functional Medicine Doctor in West Hartford, who had put her on a new dietary program, addressed some of her nutritional deficiencies with nutritional supplementation and started her on Bioidentical Hormone Replacement Therapy (BHRT) and it had helped her immensely.
“Can you tell me a little more about it?” asked Sue. “Truthfully, I do not even really know what hormones do and why they are so important to us.”
Mary began by explaining that hormones are chemical messengers that carry information between cells or groups of cells via the bloodstream. They work to regulate the function and metabolic activity of the target tissue. Our bodies have hundreds of receptors for hormones located on various tissues throughout the body so hormones are not just related to sex and reproduction. They have much more far-reaching effects and are important in the proper functioning of the brain, nerves, muscles (including the heart muscle) as well as bone and connective tissue. The bottom line is all of our bodies’ systems are interrelated and an imbalance in one system can create an imbalance in other systems. When our hormones are in balance we look and feel great, have lots of energy, sleep like a baby, have a strong sex drive, are better able to manage our stress and all of the other systems in our body function well such as the digestive and immune systems.
“When we speak of BHRT, “bio” means body and “identical” means the same, so BHRT simply means that you are using hormones that have the same exact biochemical structure to the hormones that are produced in and that circulate naturally in our bodies,” Mary explained. “Because of this biochemical synergy, the body knows exactly what to do with the hormone when it is presented with it. Any biochemistry student will tell you that if you begin with the same chemical substrate in a given chemical reaction you will always end up with the same end product. When synthetic hormones, which do not have the identical biochemical structure to our bodies, are added to that same chemical reaction the end products cannot possibly be the same. This is one reason why we see side effects with the synthetic hormones.”
“So, where do these Bioidentical hormones come from?” asked Sue. Mary informed her that they are derived from plants, yams and soybeans to be exact, but that they are synthesized in labs. “So how can they be natural if they are synthesized in labs?” asked Sue.
“Do you consider the supplements you take to be natural?” asked Mary.
“Well, I guess so,” said Sue. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I guess they are synthesized in labs as well. Is that what you’re getting at?”
“Precisely,” said Mary.
“I still feel pretty confused,” said Sue. “Everything I have heard says that hormones are dangerous and we should stay away from them. Aren’t you afraid that you could be harming your body in some way?
“Let me explain a few things to you Sue,” said Mary. “The way my functional medicine physician explained it made so much sense. These synthetic hormones are just that, synthetic, which means that they are artificial, fake, copied, unreal and imitation. Do you really want to put something synthetic in your mouth? This leads me to another point the doctor made. These synthetic hormones are given orally and last I heard our hormones don’t normally go into our GI tracts. They are secreted from the sex glands or adrenal glands and circulate in the blood until they reach their target tissue where they then exert their effects. Also, because they are given orally a much larger dose of the hormone has to be given. The reason being that a sizeable proportion of that hormone is delivered to the liver where it is broken down leaving only a small percentage left to get into circulation. So, there you have it, the 3 major reasons why synthetic hormones cause all sorts of problems in the body. They are not the same biochemical structure as what is in our bodies, they are given orally where our hormones never go and lastly they are given in large doses because of the first pass effect through the liver.
Mary continued to explain to Sue that these bioidentical hormones are formulated to be given transdermally, via the skin, to mimic, as best we can, what the body does naturally. Our hormones are naturally released from glands and then circulate in blood to the target tissues where they exert their effects. The bioidentical hormones are alternately applied to the non-fatty tissue of the wrist, inside the elbow and behind the knee so that they are absorbed directly into circulation where they travel to the target tissues. Hormones are lipophilic (fat loving) substances so if we were to apply them to fatty tissue they would go directly into the fat where it is stored and then released into circulation much more haphazardly. As Mary implied above, the other advantage to giving the hormones via the skin is that we are often able to give substantially lower doses than those given orally when we bypass the liver.
“All I can tell you Sue is that since I started taking the bioidentical hormones I have noticed amazing results. My energy has improved along with my moods which used to be quite up and down and for my kids and husband to have noticed is definitely saying something. I am much better able to handle my stress much like when I was in my twenties when I could deal with a lot of things coming at me at once. I just don’t get as overwhelmed by life anymore. I feel I am able to stay on task and stay more focused when doing things and my memory for things has absolutely improved. I don’t feel like I am chasing my tail looking for things and trying to remember things. It is just incredible. I guess I should also mention that my hot flashes and night sweats which would often wake me from sleep are gone so I am now sleeping through the night. I feel like my old self again, for the most part and it feels great!” Mary said excitedly.
“I do need to tell you though that these effects do not occur overnight, I have been on the hormones for about a year now and it has been a slow and gradual process. Some things improved quickly and others were not so swift to change. Each of us is different so it is never quite the same progression for any two individuals,” said Mary.
“So besides my poor libido how would I know if BHRT is right for me?” asked Sue.
“The key to hormone balance is lifestyle, so the way that we eat, sleep, exercise and manage our stress and our exposure to environmental toxins is what determines if we develop hormone imbalance or not. So unless you get proper nutrition, the right amount of rest and exercise for you and are stress-free with minimal exposure to environmental toxins you are likely to have hormone imbalance.” said Mary.
“I think I eat pretty well and I exercise every day and sleep like a log every night,” said Sue. “I guess I am guilty when it comes to the stress part but who isn’t these days? And environmental toxins, I’ve heard about them but I really don’t understand how they relate to me.”
“Environmental toxins are everywhere. In fact, many of the toxins that are present in our world today didn’t even exist thirty years ago. As we continue to produce more man-made synthetic chemicals to “improve” our way of living we are actually damaging our bodies and our planet in the process. Many of the personal care products we use every day such as cosmetics, sunscreens, lotions, soaps, shampoos and perfumes have not been thoroughly tested to determine their overall safety with regard to our health and the health of our environment. Not to mention the food additives, preservatives and dyes, lawn chemicals, household cleaners, pharmaceuticals, over the counter medications, sealants, adhesives, paints, solvents, plastics and pesticides. Frankly, the list is endless and when you think about it pretty scary. Another frightening point to consider is that the combination of one or more of these chemicals can have a cumulative effect in the body greatly increasing the toxicity many times above the toxicity levels seen when exposed to these chemicals individually. Like the hormones that they mimic, environmental toxins are lipophilic (fat loving) substances, which mean that they have a propensity to accumulate in fatty tissue. This fact along with the sheer number of chemicals we are exposed to each day makes it almost impossible for the body to effectively detoxify these chemicals. The bottom line is some of us are better at detoxifying than others,” said Mary.
“Alright, you’ve convinced me that I probably have hormone imbalances in my body, but explain to me how they come up with this “magic” formula that is just right for me?” asked Sue. “Well,” said Mary, “the first thing you have to do is to have your hormone levels tested.”
“How do I get that done? Is it some sort of blood test?” asked Sue.
“No, in fact, your hormone levels are measured in saliva,” explained Mary.
“Why does she use saliva?” asked Sue.
“Blood tests actually measure the amount of the hormone in serum or plasma which only contains water soluble substances. As I mentioned above, hormones are lipophilic substances so when they circulate via the bloodstream they are made hydrophilic (water-soluble) by being attached to proteins. When hormone levels are measured in blood, it’s not measuring the amount of hormone that is bioavailable, it’s actually measuring the amount of hormone that is being removed from circulation because this hormone is going to the liver where it will be broken down and excreted from the body,” explained Mary.
“So Sue, now that I have completely overwhelmed you with my knowledge, what are your thoughts on BHRT?” asked Mary.
“Mary, you certainly have given me a much better understanding of how these hormones differ from the hormones made by pharmaceutical companies, how one develops hormone imbalances and how BHRT can help overcome these hormone imbalances. I just have one more question? If I decide to go on hormones do I have to be on them forever?” asked Sue.
“The decision to stay on the hormones is very personal. I can tell you that if you clean up your lifestyle you may be able to get by on fewer hormones than you would if you were to continue on your same path. Stress is here to stay so we have to learn how to manage it instead of letting it manage us. Environmental toxins are also something which we do not have a lot of control over but we can do our bit by eating more whole foods, consuming and using less in all aspects of our lives, being mindful of the personal care products that we use, trying to use those that are more “natural” and environmentally friendly. We can buy fresh organic animal products to reduce our exposure to more hormones (rBGH = recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) and antibiotics, eat more organic fruits and vegetables since animals tend to accumulate and concentrate more environmental toxins in their flesh and fat, avoid all hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats and other processed “toxic” foods and buy local and eat in season as much as possible. I can tell you that my life has totally changed for the better!” exclaimed Mary.
Dr. Deanna Cherrone, founder of Natural Health & Healing, is a board certified Internal Medicine physician who now practices Functional Medicine. For more information, please visit www.naturalhealthandhealing.net or call (860) 677-4600. See ad on back cover