What if I told you I had the key to better sex, a leaner body and youthful skin? You'd probably look at me like I was crazy. There is no fountain of youth, right? I recently read an article on human growth hormone serving as the "so-called fountain of youth" for a former NFL player and his wife. They have been taking human growth hormone injections prescribed by their doctor for eight years and have noticed better sex, better sleep, changes in skin, and that they both feel 20 years younger.
I've been prescribing bioidentical hormones for years and can tell you miracles on both sides of the fence. For many of my patients, taking hormones at a low physiological dose along with other lifestyle changes is the answer to their prayers. Their lives absolutely turn around. But for others, taking extra hormones is too risky. There are patients and practitioners who feel that hormones are a large contributing factor to breast cancer, yet birth control use, for example, has not been definitively connected to breast cancer.
Taking hormones remains a controversial topic. What's frustrating is that patients and healthcare practitioners alike have gotten very good at lumping things into "all good" or "all bad" categories. Hormones are a perfect example of something that requires individualized medicine. What's most important to me is that my patients have a choice about hormones and are informed while making that choice.
What's the Big Deal About Hormones?
If you're searching on the Internet on aging or reading some of Suzanne Somers' books, you may have come across various promises about hormones. Here's a brief description of the most popular anti-aging hormones and a simplified version of what they do in the body:
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is produced in the adrenal glands and is the precursor for testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. DHEA reaches its peak in our 20s and naturally declines as we age.
Some feel that supplemental DHEA can improve energy, strength, immunity and decrease fat. I've written about DHEA and adrenal imbalance on my website, if you'd like more information on it.
hGH (human growth hormone) is produced by the pituitary gland in the brain and supports growth in childhood as well as tissue and organ maintenance throughout life.
Taking hGH in adulthood may increase muscle mass, reduce body fat, and increase libido. Its results can be astounding, but for a population of people side effects like swelling in the arms and legs, and joint and muscle pain can occur.
Estrogen and Progesterone are produced primarily in the ovaries prior to menopause and play important roles in pregnancy and menstruation. A healthy balance of progesterone to estrogen can also help to maintain bone strength, a healthy heart and good brain function, among other things.
Supplementing with hormones during menopause can make an enormous difference for some women's hot flashes, vaginal dryness, insomnia, concentration, etc. There's been debate about whether taking hormones for menopausal symptoms is safe. I've seen many women thrive on bioidentical hormones, but it is always a decision best made with a clear understanding of individual health history. I've written a lot about hormone replacement therapy on my website.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain when we're exposed to dim lighting to prepare us for sleep. After puberty, our melatonin levels decrease, sometimes making it more difficult to fall asleep as we age (especially after 40).
Research done on mice a few years ago revealed that supplemental melatonin neutralizes oxidative damage and inflammation to help delay the process of aging. Some practitioners I know feel that a lack of melatonin is a big culprit in cancer.
Testosterone is produced in the testes in men and the ovaries and adrenal glands in women. It is tied to sex drive in both men and women and can help regulate bone mass, fat distribution, muscle strength and the production of red blood cells and sperm in men. But testosterone naturally decreases as we age.
Some men have had great results from supplementing with testosterone. Increases in memory, prevention of frailty, strong libido and strength have all been reported.
Take Hormone Therapy Case by Case
I've always offered bioidentical hormones in my practice, but even when the conventional medical community was 100 percent behind hormonal therapy for women in menopause, I felt prescribing hormones was (and remains) a complicated decision. Our hormones gradually rise and fall according to the rhythm of nature. As uncomfortable as it may feel for some, it's perfectly natural for some of our hormones to decrease as we age, and any time we interfere with a natural process, we have to be mindful of the whole body.
Here's an interesting story about one of my patients. I regularly prescribe the bioidentical hormone estriol vaginally with great results in my practice. But I had one post-menopausal patient in her 60s whom I put on a slightly higher dose of vaginal estriol and shortly after she began getting periods again. We did an ultrasound and a uterine biopsy to rule out other abnormalities, and they were both negative. I lowered the dose of estriol and her periods went away.
This is a fantastic reminder that we are all different and that we need to honor our individuality, especially when it comes to our hormones. It's a wonderful thing that we are all different, but these differences are what make practicing medicine an art.
Think of Your Hormones Like Your Favorite Recipe
This may sound simplistic, but if you were making bread and doubling the recipe, you wouldn't double the flour without increasing the yeast, water and honey, right? Hormones work in our bodies in concert with other hormones, and if we increase one without looking at the others, health issues can arise. It's similar to what we know now about nutrients. We can't add calcium and expect great results in our bones unless we have magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K along with it.
If you are considering hormone therapy, I always encourage you to work closely with your practitioner on your complete hormone panel and your overall health-picture.
Five Tips to Keep Your Anti-Aging Hormones Naturally Balanced
1. Eat mostly vegetables. Eight to 10 servings of vegetables and plenty of fruit will provide your body with some of the great building blocks for hormone creation in your body. With your vegetables and fruit, have 3 oz. of protein per meal. This is about the size of the palm of your hand. For extra melatonin, eat onions, cherries, bananas, oats and rice. Melatonin is also found in mint, lemon verbena, sage and red wine.
2. Find a multivitamin that works for you. There are so many varieties out there -- some of them better than others -- but find one that works for your body and stick with it. I have an article on how to choose the best multivitamin, if you need some guidelines.
3. Exercise regularly. Exercise can increase your human growth hormone and testosterone , decrease stress and keep you looking and feeling good.
4. Balance your stress. Stress is a very normal part of our lives. Instead of feeling guilty or badly about the amount of stress you encounter, try countering it with activities that relieve stress. Massage, deep breathing, yoga, a slow walk -- all of these things (and more) can help to calm your stress response.
5. Find more joy and fun. Our busy lives have a way of distracting us from joy and fun sometimes. Be sure to make time for these things because they actually help to boost DHEA and balance your hormones overall.
The Magic to Staying Young Depends on the Individual
The bottom line is that we don't have one magic bullet for aging that works for everyone. Don't get me wrong, there is magic to staying young. It's just not the same for everyone. What's wonderful is that we can all make our own choices about our health, and for some that means taking hormones. My hope is that we as patients and healthcare practitioners can stop putting certain treatments into "all good" or "all bad" categories. Each of us has a unique set of genes, life experiences, and outlook on life. Let's leave the question about using hormones to individuals and their health care providers.