How Safe Is Hormone Replacement Therapy?

Some women benefit from hormone replacement therapy, but most women would be better off using natural alternatives

Woman thinking

Forty-seven-year-old Joyce, an art director, had been experiencing hot flashes. After a trip to her gynecologist, she was told that she was experiencing symptoms of menopause. “My gynecologist started telling me what would happen to me next,” Joyce said. “The menstrual decline that would occur; the bone loss, heart disease, and sexual dysfunction. She wanted to start me on hormone replacement therapy right away.”

Joyce first came to me looking for an alternative. She had heard of treatments for a variety of ailments, from cancer to diabetes and asthma. She was glad to learn that there are a number of alternative choices for women seeking to avoid prescription medication for post-menopausal syndrome [PMS]. In fact, natural estrogen alternatives are beneficial for a host of conditions, including PMS and irregular menstrual cycles.

When I put Joyce on natural estrogen program, she was skeptical. But, a change in her diet, along with a supplement program, did the trick.

After six weeks she was relieved of her hot flashes and most of her other symptoms. “Why doesn’t anyone know about this treatment?” she asked.

Good v/s Bad Estrogens

You’ve heard of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. Just as there is good and bad cholesterol, there are “good” and “bad” estrogens. Bad estrogens are responsible for the promotion of tumors, and are found in high proportions in synthetic estrogen used in birth control pills, or prescribed for the “treatment” of menopause. Bad estrogens contain low amounts of a substance called estriol, and a higher amount of estradiol. The ratio of estriol to estradiol determines whether estrogen is harmful or not.

Good estrogens, containing a high amount of estriol, are found in a wide variety of foods, including raspberries, strawberries, soybeans, sweet potatoes, yams, and eggplants.

Isoflavones, for example, are one of the good natural estrogens, found in soy, a staple of Japanese diet.

Incidentally, Japanese women have one-fifth the risk of breast cancer as do their Western counterparts.

Isoflavones appear to block angiogenesis – the process by which new blood vessels are formed. The blockage of angiogenesis hinders the growth and spread of tumor cells.

Japanese women also experience very few menopausal syndromes. At one time, this was believed to be due to the stoical nature of the Japanese. That view has now changed, and the absence of symptoms is attributed to the Japanese diet, where the main ingredient is soy. A cup of soy contains approximately the same amount of plant estrogen as the body produces in one day. Different types of soy products, such as soy milk and tofu, have different amounts of natural estrogens, tofu being the highest.

Other weapons in the fight are IC3s. IC3s, or, Indole-3 carbinols, present in broccoli and cabbage are subject of intense research. IC3s in low doses appear to prohibit estrogen from breaking down into harmful metabolites. Natural estrogens are “weak” estrogens, meaning they bind to receptors but produce minimal side-effects. Unlike what is commonly believed, weak estrogens are not beneficial to women alone; it appears to serve both sexes.

Studies in Japan, where plant estrogens are consumed extensively, indicate that prostate cancer is nearly non-existent among Japanese men, and that the incidence of breast cancer in Japan is among the lowest in the world. The same goes for heart disease, since natural estrogens present in many plant foods appear to act as powerful anti-oxidants, preventing free radical damage to lipids. They, therefore, help in preserving the lining of the arteries. Natural estrogens are present not only in plant food, but in supplements as well, offered by many pharma companies.

Nature Is Still the Best Healer

Estrogen replacement therapy is now prescribed only for women who have had hysterectomies, since estrogen alone has been shown to increase the risk of cancer of the uterine lining. Progestin, a synthetic that acts as progesterone, is added to prevent endometrial cancer. However this may be, synthetic progesterone can cause adverse side-effects, including breast tenderness, and skin sensitivity. Progesterones are present in many foods containing natural eestrogens, so alternatives need to be considered.

Natural progesterone has shown to raise HDL cholesterol – the good cholesterol – more than synthetic progesterone. Natural progesterones are available in some pharmacies.

Experts suggest the possibility that plant estrogens, and possibly progesterones, might be reasonable alternatives to synthetic derivatives, currently in vogue.

Most women can avoid estrogen replacement therapy by following a regimen that includes high calcium intake, regular exercise, and diet rich in foods containing natural plant estrogen and progesterone.

[Note: Estrogens, whether synthetic or natural, may promote the growth of hormone sensitive tumors. Women are strongly advised to seek medical advice prior to beginning any treatment].

How Safe Is Hormone Replacement Therapy?

Hormone replacement therapy [HRT] became popular in the early 1990s after numerous studies showed that it could prevent osteoporosis and reduce the risk of heart disease in women. Estrogen replacement therapy has been sold to the public as an elixir of youth, making synthetic estrogen the #1 drug sold in the US [Estrogen replacement therapy uses estrogen alone; hormone replacement therapy is estrogen combined with progestin — a synthetic that acts like progesterone]. However, synthetic hormones come in a package along with potential risks.

A landmark study of over 70,000 nurses published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that women taking estrogen replacement therapy for longer than five years had a 40 per cent increased risk of breast cancer, a percentage that increased steadily the longer estrogen was taken.

There is much debate in the medical, or healthcare, community on whether every post-menopausal woman should take estrogen replacement, or hormone replacement. While there are some women who may benefit from synthetic estrogens, most women would be much better off using natural plant alternatives.

Menopause typically begins by the age of 50. However, it can start as early as 30s. When the body’s production of estrogen and progesterone decreases, menstruation stops. After one year without a period, a woman is said to be going through menopause. This can be confirmed through laboratory tests. It should, however, not be confused with other syndromes where a normal cycle ceases. Symptoms of menopause often include hot flashes, sexual dysfunction, as well as impaired daily functioning due to pronounced vasomotor reactions.

One of the most subtle messages that women receive is that menopause is a medical condition. This classification has allowed “treatment” protocols to be developed. These treatments, as already cited, may be harmful. Most women should avoid estrogen replacement therapy altogether if they take certain appropriate measures, in consultation with their therapist.

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Richard Firshein
Dr Richard Firshein, DO, is Medical Director of the Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City. A leading authority in the field of preventive medicine and medical nutrition, and Board Certified in Family Medicine and authorised medical acupuncturist, Firshein’s groundbreaking books include: Reversing Asthma, The Nutraceutical Revolution, and Dr Richard Firshein’s ‘Breath of Life’ Program: 7 Steps Towards an Asthma Free Child.


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