Molly Greacen, Licensed Acupuncturist, Chinese Herbalist, Boulder Colorado specilizing in Women's Health

Natural Alternatives to Hormone Replacement Therapy

“Molly”Amelia Greacen Registered Acupuncturist Dipl. Ac.,Dip. C.H. (NCCAOM)

Hormonal support at mid-life and beyond is a good choice for slowing down the aging process. There are hormone receptors on nearly every cell in our bodies, which would indicate that hormonal support can improve many functions of our bodies. Most doctors in the US believe that all women should go on synthetic Hormone Replacement Therapy in order to avoid osteoporosis, heart disease and even Alzheimer’s Disease. Synthetic hormones have serious side effects for many women, including an increase in the chance of getting breast cancer. If we use natural hormone replacement, which has hormone molecules identical to our bodies, we are much less likely to cause side effects and injury to our bodies. In this article we will explore the process of menopause and look at natural sources of hormones which are safe and effective for many women.

Perimenopause is the transition period leading up to menopause and can last for 1 to 5 years. Menopause, the cessation of menstrual bleeding, occurs when there is significant decrease in the ovarian production of progesterone and estrogen. Common symptoms include hot flashes, night sweats, palpitations, irregular cycles, memory loss, insomnia, emotional fragility, vaginal dryness, dry skin, back pain, headaches, PMS, excessive bleeding, reduced libido, and depression. Most symptoms will diminish after menopause, as the body re-establishes a new order of things. Many American women continue to have problems with vaginal thinning and begin to develop osteoporosis.

The good news is that our bodies have a back-up system. Estrogen and progesterone continue to be produced by the adrenals and fat cells (and to a much lesser degree by the ovaries) following menopause. When this back-up system is working properly, women have few or no symptoms. Women in non-Western cultures manage to escape our high rate of menopausal symptoms, cancer and hip fractures, even though they have much lower calcium intake. They eat less animal protein, (which causes our bodies to excrete calcium, eat more potassium rich foods, (fresh fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes), and have more physically active lives. Japanese women have much fewer menopausal complaints and have 1/5 our breast cancer rate. This is attributed to their high intake of soy products (which are naturally high in estrogen) and low use of animal fats. American women suffer from chronic stress, sdedentary lifestyyles, ppor diet, chemical pollutants, cultural fears around aging, over-exercising and the loss of body fat; anorexia and bulimia; hysterectomy (the #1 surgical procedure in the US); tubal ligation; abortions; and drug therapies that can interfere with hormone levels.

Most women in the US are prescribed Premarin (synthetic estradiol-the strongest form of estrogen produced by the body). It has many side effects, including breast and endometrial cancer, blood clots, damage to the liver and the gall bladder, growth of uterine fibroids, fluid retention, weight gain, fibrocystic breasts, depression, a return of monthly periods, nausea and migraines. Provera (a synthetic progesterone) is prescribed along with estrogen to reduce the risk of edometrial cancer, and it too has a long list of side effects. Some doctors are prescribing the estrogen patch or vaginal estrogen cream for vaginal dryness, both of which have fewer side effects.

Natural Sources of Hormone Replacement
The message seems to be - “Don’t take powerful drugs indefinitely and avoid them if possible”. What are some alternatives? There are many natural sources of hormone. I will discuss them in the order of mildest to strongest.

Diet is an extremely important factor. When we highly process our food, eat a diet rich in animal protein and fat, it reduces our body’s supply of sex hormones. Other factors to be aware of in order optimize our health and the strength of our bones include the following: avoid cigarettes, avoid losing too much body fat, reduce alcohol, caffeine, red meat and soft drinks, increase intake of leafy green vegetables, low fat yogurt, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes, avoid the use of cortisone, diuretics, anti-convulsant drugs and anti-acids., engage in weight-bearing exercise, at least 30 minutes 4 times per week, and supplement your diet with calcium/magnesium complex, vitamin/mineral complex, Vitamins E,B,C,A and Evening Primrose, flax seed or fish oil for their essential fatty acids.

Chinese herbs have been used for centuries for menopausal symptoms and to protect the bones.They work by improving the function of aging organs and glands. This makes Chinese herbs a good choice for women who have milder symptoms, have had cancer or are at a high risk for developing it, or women who have uterine fibroids or endometriosis and who need to avoid stronger forms of estrogen. Even if a women is already using hormones, she can benefit from using Chinese herbs for the symptoms which don’t respond to HRT, or to help her get off of HRT. The strength of Chinese medicine is that it addresses the whole body. We can diagnose which organ systems are not functioning properly, and work to restore strength and balance to the whole system. For example, if your liver is toxic and stagnant, you will not be able to utilize any of the hormonal produce very well.

There are natural sources of progesterone and estrogen which are on the market now which are made from Mexican wild yam root, soy and licorice. They come in cream form, as well as crystallized pill form and vaginal cream.. For many women, natural progesterone in cream or pill form alone can help with all menopausal type symptoms, including PMS, insomnia, fibrocystic breasts and osteoporosis. Natural estrogen from soy or licorice can be prescribed for women who don’t get enough improvement with the progesterone alone, especially for hot flashes and vaginal thinning or atrophy. Some women are trying pregnenalone and DHEA as adjunct therapies. These can be very helpful for such symptoms as memory loss, arthritis, fatigue, weight gain, low sex drive and bone loss. A blood or saliva test can be done to determine if you are low in any of these important hormones. Most of these products are available in health food stores.

Estriol is the mildest type of estrogen produced by the body and is used more commonly in Europe. It is made from wild yam root and cannot be patented, so is not pushed commercially to doctors here in the US. It is a weaker and safer source than estradiol and is reported to help shrink estrogen dependent tumors and protect against cancer. Another variation on this theme, is a formula call Tri-estrogen.. This contains 80% estriol, 10% estrone and 10% estradiol. Testosterone cream can be added for low sex drive, weak bones and muscles. These products can be ordered for you by your doctor or nurse practitioner.

Recommend reading: Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, MD; Wise Women’s Guide to the Menopausal Years, by Susan Weed; Breezing Through the Change, by Ellen Brown and Lynne Walker; and Natural Progesterone, What your Doctor Won’t Tell You, by John Lee, MD, Natural Hormone Replacement by Jonathan Wright, MD and John Morrgenthaler, The Super Hormone Promise, by William Regelson, MD