Not All Hormones Are Created Equal: Bio-Identical Hormones Vs. Synthetic Hormones
Although not all hormones are created equal, you may find that when speaking to your doctor about hormone therapy, the names are used interchangeably and without regard for source or structure. That’s why it’s important for you to know the disparities in hormonal therapy and how those variations can make a huge difference in how you feel and your overall, long-term health.
What’s the confusion?
Although some people may term hormones as natural or synthetic, all hormones we take are derived or synthesized in a laboratory. The differences, however, are found in their exactness and structure. For the sake of understanding in this article, we’ll refer to hormones as either bio-identical (having the same structure and response to the hormones found in our bodies) and synthetic (hormones created to somewhat mimic hormonal responses, yet not exact replicas of the hormones the body naturally creates).
What Are Hormones?
Transported through our blood, hormones are our body’s signalers and stimulate specific cells or tissues into action. Hormones are responsible for such critical processes as growth and development, metabolism, sexual function, reproduction, and mood. They are vital to your overall health and well-being and once they decline or become imbalanced, these vital processes also decline or become imbalanced, which can lead to issues like weight gain, bone loss, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, thyroid disorders, and reproductive challenges. A hormone imbalance can also have serious ramifications to the aging process.
When hormones are replaced to optimal levels, patients often feel better and experience beneficial outcomes like stronger bones, thicker skin, and higher muscle mass.
Synthetic vs. Bio-Identical
Synthetic: Since 1941, various forms of hormones have been used to help women combat the side-effects of menopause. The most popular are Premarin®, which is synthesized from the urine of pregnant mares (contains a mix of estrogens (some unique to horses), steroids, and various other substances) and progestin, a drug that loosely resembles progesterone, but because of its chemical differences, often translates very differently in the human body.
Over the years of research, through studies and patient responses, these two hormones have been found to do more harm than good. In a series of studies in 2002, researchers found that by inciting an increase in estrogen-related breast cell mitosis, synthetic progestins increased risk of developing breast cancer. Synthetic hormones have also been shown to convert endogenous (your body’s) estrogens into stronger variants (16-hydroxyestrone). These stronger, even toxic versions of estrogen can stimulate cancer formation.
Bio-Identical: The Endocrine Society defines bioidentical hormones as “compounds that have exactly the same chemical and molecular structure as hormones that are produced in the human body.” This exactness allows the hormone receptors on cells to effectively bind and identify with the bio-identical hormone, similar to a lock and key mechanism.
In the previous studies cited above, bioidentical hormones, like progesterone, actually inhibit breast cell division. In fact, bio-identical progesterone has been described as having a protective role in the female body by preventing breast cancer.
Pharmaceutical companies pride themselves on speed to market. Although this has its benefits, the one-size-fits-all approach to patient care can be confining at best, and suboptimal at worst. As stated before, many of the hormones produced by pharmaceutical companies are not created to mimic the hormones the body naturally produces. On top of this, their hormones are created in specified dosages that do not always fit the patient’s symptom requirements.
Dosage and each patient’s exacting needs matter when trying to achieve short-term and long-term optimal health. Unlike hormones produced by pharmaceutical companies, bio-identical hormones are created to a patient’s specific needs and symptom conditions. Bio-identical hormone physicians take into account patient’s blood test results as well as their symptoms and prescribe bio-identical formulations to the patient’s exacting needs. These formulations can be titrated and modified with the patient’s changing needs and symptoms.
Source: Hormones, Bioidentical. “A comprehensive review of the safety and efficacy of bioidentical hormones for the management of menopause and related health risks.” Altern Med Rev 11.3 (2006): 208-223.