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You may have heard about a menopausal treatment known as natural estrogen replacement or bioidentical estrogen treatment. You may feel you need more estrogen and wonder if phytoestrogens will help. The good news is that you can get help from symptoms with a safer form of treatment than your maybe your mother or grandmother had available.
What is Natural Estrogen Replacement?
Estrogen is the name for a group of three hormones that are naturally produced in your body: estradiol, estriol and estrone. Estrogen is necessary in the development of female sexual characteristics such as the maturation of your vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes and other female organs.
Symptoms of Low Estrogen
Estradiol has about 400 functions in the body. Estradiol is produced in the ovaries. During peri menopause, when the ovaries begin to produce less and less eggs, estradiol begins to decline. As estrogens decline, your mood, sleep, energy level, memory, digestive tract, body composition, and many other areas of your body are affected. Estradiol helps protect your bones, heart, nerves and brain. These are some of the benefits of estrogen.
Natural estrogen replacement is the use of one or more of the bioidentical estrogens to replace the estrogen lost in your body at pre menopause and menopause. Bioidentical hormones are identical in molecular structure to the estrogen molecules your body makes.
This is different from what is usually referred to as synthetic or traditional estrogen replacement (Also known as conjugated equine estrogens. In fact, both forms are synthetic, they are just different in molecular structure – which makes all the difference). Natural estrogen replacement, along with BHRT or bioidentical hormone therapy has been more widely available since the early 1980s.
How is Natural Estrogen Replacement, or BHRT (bioidentical hormone replacement therapy) different from HRT?
Natural estrogen replacement or bioidentical estrogen has a molecular structure that is identical to the natural estrogen that is produced by your body. Traditional hormone therapy, known as HRT, uses forms of hormones that are not similar to your body's natural hormones. Pregnant horse urine is used for estrogen (one popular brand is Premarin). Because of the dissimilarity, side effects are abundant. For side effects of Premarin, formerly widely prescribed to menopausal women, see black cohosh.
According to Elizabeth Lee Vliet, M.D., in her book Screaming to Be Heard: Hormone Connections Women Suspect and Doctors Still Ignore, “The comparative studies that have been done, although not many, do show that the bioidentical human form of 17-beta estradiol is much better tolerated, with fewer side effects, and better improvement in outcome measures (lipids, bone marker and others)” (page 112).
If you are going to use natural estrogen replacement, some experts say it is safest taken along with natural progesterone. My personal philosophy, is to use the minimum dose to eliminate or even just reduce symptoms, for the shortest time possible.
I recently began BHRT (in June, 2010), after going through all of perimenopause and menopause without replacing estrogen or testosterone, because my hot flashes were still intense enough to be an interruption, and I was getting other, new symptoms, like back pain, and joint pain and stiffness.
My sleep, although improved with herbal treatments, was sometimes not as deep as I needed, and natural progesterone is very good at promoting healthy sleep. My hot flashes are finally almost completely gone. But I do not plan to stay on hormones forever. I wanted to ease off in a more controlled manner than my body did, at a time when my stress is a bit less than it was when I started this adventure.
Bioidentical estrogen replacement is safe estrogen replacement, at least compared to traditional synthetic estrogen replacement. Some doctors will say that it is totally safe. Others will say it is definitely safer than non-bioidentical forms of estrogen, but more studies would be informative. The fact is, bioidentical or not, it is still a hormone, and hormones are very powerful in your body. You do not want to use them without considering the alternatives and potential consequences.
Use of natural estrogen, especially in high doses and long-term, may increase some risks (certain types of cancer). On the other hand, especially in combination with natural progesterone, natural estrogen replacement may reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and brain function decline. For information about topical estrogen creams, see estrogen cream.
What About Phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are compounds that occur naturally in plants. When these plants are eaten, they bind to estrogen receptors in your body.
The amount of estrogen that is present in these plants is much weaker than what you produce naturally; therefore this form differs significantly from other forms of estrogen replacement.
What has been discovered is that a diet that is rich in phytoestrogens has been linked to reduced heart disease rate as well as reducing the chance of developing some cancers. However, studies are inconclusive at this time as the cultures that have a diet that consists mainly of these fruits and vegetables also tend to have other dietary differences.
Although using plants to replace estrogen may not be feasible, there are many herbs that can help reduce or eliminate menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, insomnia, mood swings and more. For more about herbal uses for menopause issues, see herbs for menopause.