Menopause is the time of life when the monthly periods (menstruation) end. The ovaries, the twin organs that produce and release an egg during each monthly cycle, also produce the female hormone estrogen. There are four primary types of estrogen circulating in the blood — estrone, estrone-sulfate, estradiol, and estriol. At an average age of 51, when the ovaries stop producing estrogen, menopause begins.
Menopause can have mild to severe symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness. The severity of symptoms varies from woman to woman and there are a variety of ways to treat them. The most common and effective way is to replace the estrogen the body no longer produces with hormone therapy (HT). Hormone therapy can be estrogen alone or combined estrogen-progestin (a synthetic form of progesterone, which is produced after the release of an egg, or ovulation).
In 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative study of postmenopausal women with an average age of 65 found that taking combination HT slightly increased the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, and blood clots. The results scared women and many stopped taking HT, only to find their symptoms came back. As a result, women and their doctors began looking for alternative ways to treat menopausal symptoms, such as bioidentical hormone therapy. (For more information on the WHI study, see Resources at the end of this fact sheet.)
Bioidentical hormones are sometimes called “natural” hormones—even though they are synthesized in a laboratory— because they are identical to the hormones that women make in their bodies. (Conventional hormone therapy uses estrogens or progestins that differ slightly from the hormones made in the body. Likewise, hormones purified from natural sources are not necessarily bioidentical.) There are two types of bioidentical hormone products:
Both types can be taken by mouth (pills), through the vagina (creams, rings) or through the skin (patch, gel, injection). Because the quality of custommade products can vary, it is probably safer to use pharmaceutical products. This way you’ll know exactly what you’re getting and how much.
You and your doctor will work together to determine the best treatment option for you. This will be based on your medical history; your risk of side effects such as breast cancer, stroke, heart disease and blood clots; and with clear goals for what you want to get out of the therapy (e.g., treatment of hot flashes, vaginal symptoms, or both).
If hormone therapy is prescribed to treat your menopause symptoms, the FDA recommends that treatment should be the lowest possible dose for the shortest time needed to treat your symptoms. The goal is to avoid taking too much medication for too long because all medications have risks.
To date there is no scientific proof to show that bioidentical hormones, whether prepared by a compounding pharmacy or pharmaceutical company, are safer to use than other forms of hormone replacement. All forms of HT may have potential risks, whether compounded or pharmaceutical, bioidentical or not.
The lack of FDA oversight of compounded hormones means that the dose you get may not be the same from refill to refill. For consistent safety and dose, it is best to take FDA-approved hormone preparations, whether they are bioidentical or synthetic.
Menopause is a natural stage in a woman’s life. Some symptoms such as hot flashes can go away in a few years. Others, such as vaginal dryness, do not go away. Today, there also is a wide range of non-hormonal therapies to treat menopause symptoms. Finding the dose and type of treatment that works best for you may take some time. A reproductive endocrinologist (an expert in hormones) can help you choose the best treatment for you and monitor your therapy.
Find-an-Endocrinologist: www.hormone.org or call 1-800-HORMONE (1-800-467-6663)
Hormone Foundation Menopause Information: www.hormone.org
National Women’s Health Resource Center: www.healthywomen.org
Women’s Health Initiative (DHHS): www.nhlbi.nih.gov/whi