Could the secret to happy aging lie in hormones?
Val Beaudreau was only 43 when her symptoms started. “I thought I was having anxiety attacks,” she remembers. “And I’d cry, just cry. I’d hear a sad song, I’d cry. I’d see a commercial, I’d cry.” She also started gaining weight, struggling with insomnia, having debilitating hot flashes and losing her interest in sex. “I was up, I was down, I was around and around,” says Beaudreau. “I’d tell my girlfriends, ‘Oh my God, I think I’m going nuts!’”
Her doctor prescribed her an antidepressant, but it didn’t relieve her symptoms. “I was on it for about eight months and then I thought, ‘No, I’m not doing this,’” recalls Beaudreau. “That’s when I started being my own health advocate.
She hit the books, and in her research she came across a copy of Suzanne Somers’ bestseller Ageless. In the book, Somers describes symptoms similar to what Beaudreau was experiencing—symptoms related to the inevitable loss of hormones that goes along with aging. Somers also carefully documents her treatment through the controversial use of bioidentical hormones.
But first she needed to find someone who was trained in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) and willing to administer it. This was harder than Beaudreau ever could have imagined.
Doctors have been prescribing synthetic hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to women for more than 75 years. Initially, physicians touted it as a preventative medicine and believed that every woman should use HRT when she turns 50 to prevent osteoporosis and heart disease, improve memory, and perk up overall well-being. Treating the symptoms of menopause was simply considered a bonus feature. However, in 2002 doctors significantly scaled back the use of the therapy after a study conducted by the Women’s Health Initiative linked HRT to an increased risk for blood clots, stroke, heart attack and breast cancer.
Dr. Dina Linfoot of Provident OB/GYN Associates at Memorial University Medical Center is fully aware of the public’s negative perception of HRT, but she still considers it a safe and effective treatment for certain patients. “People have to weigh for themselves the risks and the benefits,” Dr. Linfoot explains. “There are some people who are not candidates [for HRT]. People who have had some sort of estrogen-dependent cancer—mainly breast cancer—or a strong family history for that, or carriers of the breast and ovarian cancer genes. These people are not going to ask me for hormone replacement because they’re too scared.”
But Dr. Linfoot feels the need to put the risks into perspective. “The Women’s Health Initiative suggested an increase of eight cases of breast cancer per 10,000 women, which is not really a lot,” she explains. In fact, Dr. Linfoot believes that women should pay careful attention to the therapy’s link to an increased risk for heart disease. “Women in general are more likely in their lifetime to die of heart disease than to die of breast cancer, but we all walk around fearing breast cancer and not fearing heart disease,” she says.
Dr. Linfoot does not deny the benefits of HRT: “In terms of skin, vaginal health, bone health, cholesterol, there’s definite benefits.” But she believes that doctors must administer it sparingly and with caution. “The recommendations by our governing bodies and by what science supports right now is to offer hormone replacement to perimenopausal and newly menopausal women who are having the true, life-altering symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, like hot flashes, night sweats, trouble sleeping, mood changes, skin changes, vaginal atrophy—changes like that,” advises Dr. Linfoot. “It should be used not for the potential benefits but mainly for symptom relief and for the shortest time possible.”
Enter the bioidenticals.
Searching for a safer alternative to HRT, a relatively small number of physicians began experimenting with bioidentical hormones in their practices. Several years ago, Dr. Mary Kay Ross, an E.R. doctor at Memorial University Medical Center, learned that her stepbrother and his wife were using BHRT under the supervision of a physician in St. Augustine, Florida. Concerned that her family may be experimenting with a risky treatment, Dr. Ross made an appointment to meet with the physician. She was surprised to find that he was very well-informed about a therapy that had a long list of benefits for both men and women. She began studying with the physician, became a patient herself and eventually opened a practice in Savannah called Live Well MD that specializes in bioidenticals.
Dr. Ross now treats more than 150 patients ranging from 14 to 82 years old. Her practice extends beyond treating the symptoms of menopause: She works with men and women looking to improve their overall well-being and slow the symptoms of aging.
Like what you’re reading? Read the full article in the December/January 10 issue of South magazine.
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