Hormones – what are they and what do they do?
Dr Richard Sibthorpe, anti-ageing expert and cosmetic doctor, says:
Hormones make us who we are and keep us alive.”
If our hormones are balanced, they are definitely our friends. But if you are struggling with hormone imbalance, it could be a very different story.
Hormones are ‘chemical messengers’ that stay busy throughout our lives and control every cellular function in our bodies. They have major effects on growth and development, circulation, metabolism, blood sugar levels, mood, sexual desire and reproduction. They keep our minds sharp, our bodies strong, our skin young and our blood vessels supple.
These hormones interact with each other, rather than in isolation, to achieve vitality and health. Each of the body’s hormones can be envisaged as musical instruments in an orchestra; each player or instrument has to keep in tune with each other to achieve perfect sound or harmony. Balancing the hormones is like conducting an orchestra.
Each hormone plays its own part in creating perfect harmony until the day one is out of tune and throws off the entire melody.
There are more than 100 known hormones produced by the body and more are constantly being discovered. The extent of an individual hormone’s function is known to be extremely wide-ranging; e.g. it is now known that oestrogen has about 400 functions and is important for brain health.
We all know that to achieve optimum health, we need to adopt a healthy lifestyle which includes sufficient sleep, appropriate exercise and good nutrition. Adopting good lifestyle habits helps to support your body’s hormones and their production. We cannot emphasise enough that you are literally what you eat and a Mediterranean Diet of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, fish, whole grains and good fats is the diet recommended by most health professionals. Conversely, a diet high in unhealthy (saturated) fats and added sugar is likely to lower levels of the testosterone, the main hormone that fuels sex drive.
However, if you are struggling with hormone imbalance, your doctor may recommend a little help or additional support in the form of HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) or the more natural option of BHRT.
It is important to understand that risks need to be considered. For example, women taking HRT have an increased risk of breast, womb and ovarian cancers, as well as the risk of cardiovascular problems. The risk is higher with combined oestrogen and progestogen than with oestrogen-only HRT. However, many doctors might suggest that the risks are worthwhile if HRT helps women enjoy a better quality of life for a considerable number of years.
BHRT vs HRT
Bio-identical, Body identical or human identical hormones (BHRT) are derived from plants and refined to perfectly match the chemical structure of human hormones and because of this, they can’t be patented.
Conventional HRT utilises synthetic hormones or drugs which are not identical in molecular structure and include foreign, often animal, elements, e.g. the common synthetic oestrogen in Premarin is derived from the urine of pregnant mares. Progestin is a chemical made in the lab. Synthetic hormones are prescribed in pre-set dosages, whereas bioidentical hormones are not a ‘one size fits all’ type of therapy.
It is important that blood tests are taken to provide some of the information to ascertain which hormones are deficient or imbalanced, causing those unpleasant symptoms such as insomnia, mood swings or hot flushes.
These blood tests are often tailored as the body reaches optimal performance. Additional types of investigations such as saliva and urinary measurements will throw more light on dosing and the metabolism of hormones. Pelvic scans exclude risk and provide further information on the balance between oestrogen and progesterone. It should be noted that the blood tests are not as accurate as we would like and are at best a good guide, with the best indicators being the patient themselves and the symptoms they demonstrate.
The key to staying youthful is optimal hormone balance.
With the ageing process, we lose our hormones and along with that loss, we start experiencing symptoms such as hot flushes, loss of libido, insomnia, irritability, night sweats, stubborn weight gain and chronic illness such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol occur. The pancreas can stop producing enough insulin causing diabetes.
It is important to replenish any deficiencies at this stage and recreate the environment of your 30s and 40s. Where possible, this should be done in the most natural possible way, but for some HRT is an easy solution.
Any hormone program has to be safe and based on good clinical evidence – Follow the science!
Your doctor has to consider the formulation in order to prescribe the appropriate dosage, duration and delivery.
Your hormone program should be adjusted or recalibrated as progress is made utilising regular monitoring and dosing to ensure good hormonal balance.
Preparations for hormone replacement therapy should be tailor-made for each individual by compound pharmacies adherent to strict guidelines to ensure consistent quality and safety. Their presentation is either in the form of topical gels/creams or by mouth, although transdermal oestrogen is considered much safer than the oral oestrogen.
With most hormone therapy, symptoms usually improve within a few weeks.
According to Dr Sibthorpe:
“No one should have to live with an untreated hormonal imbalance. Hormone restoration therapy can benefit any person, any sex at any age”.
Dr Sibthorpe believes people can reclaim their lives by restoring optimal levels of healthy hormones at any age. It’s a bit like switching the light back on after you have suffered in silence with fatigue or mood swings.
Hormones are just as important for men as they are for women. Both men and women produce the same hormones, only in different amounts.
In men the decline of hormones is more gradual, often occurring in mid-life and is called Andropause, with testosterone levels diminishing at a rate of 1% a year. This loss of ‘joie de vivre’ results from decreased testosterone, DHEA and growth hormone. The first signs are not necessarily the loss of libido or erectile dysfunction, but usually of fatigue and depression.
In women this decline in hormones appears to be more dramatic with the onset of menopause, usually occurring between 40-50 – called peri-menopause – leading up to menopause (this defined as the absence of a period for 1 year). However, from the age of 30-35 female hormones are in decline. Every woman experiences a hormonal imbalance at certain points in her life, but she might not recognise it as such.
Women these days have often been on the contraceptive pill for long periods of time and they are also exposed to endocrine disrupters such as xenoestrogens or rogue compounds that mimic oestrogen and have been linked to breast cancer. Bone loss starts in a woman’s 30’s as a result of low oestrogen levels, but some women can lose up to 20% of their bone density during the first 5 – 7 years of menopause.
It is definitely worth addressing any imbalance prior to the onset of menopause, whichever method you choose.