People are all familiar with the important role sex hormones play in women’s reproduction. Some may be aware of sex hormones’ influence on libido. Many physicians prescribe synthetic estrogen and progestin for irregular menstrual periods, headache, and mood swings, as well as acne control. Most people, medical professionals and non-medical folks alike, are not aware that sex hormones are essential for a woman’s ability to thrive and stay optimal in the body and mind for the entire duration of her life.

A major cause of this lack of information stems from several factors

  • A 20-year-long misinterpretation of studies that suggested sex hormones are causally related to ovarian and breast cancer. Estrogen in particular has been feared as “the cancer-causing hormone.” In reality, studies have shown that it’s the synthetic progestin’s combination with estrogen that raises risk of cancer. There is mounting evidence that bioidentical hormones that have greater than 90% similarity to the body’s own hormones are actually protective against cancer.
     
  • Lack of understanding of a difference between synthetic and bioidentical hormones. Synthetic estrogen is taken orally and can be diverted in the liver to a proinflammatory and possibly even toxic metabolite, 4-Hydroxyestrone. Bioidentical estrogen is applied topically and functions very much like the estrogen produced by the ovaries. Synthetic progestin is proinflammatory, increases risk of breast cancer, and reduces the body’s ability to make its own progestin. Bioidentical progesterone has been shown to be anti-inflammatory and protective against cancer.
     
  • An archaic medical belief system that loss of hormones is inevitable with aging and that everything that goes with that loss should just be accepted

What gets drowned out in the chorus of cancer-centered fears is the multitude of essential functions both estrogen and progesterone (not the synthetic progestin) play in a woman’s body. 

Which Hormones?

There is a family of hormones that are related to women’s health that can be broadly categorized as primary and secondary sex hormones. Estrogen and progesterone are primary sex hormones. Pregnenolone, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA), and testosterone fall into the secondary group. Both have a role to play in optimal brain function. In this article, we will focus only on the primary sex hormones’ role in brain health. 

Estrogen

Estrogen is essential in maintenance of normal brain function throughout a woman’s lifespan. 

It is especially important in slowing down the aging process, and, with its absence after menopause, the effects on the brain can be immediate and dramatic. Among its essential function, estrogen: 

  • is a potent anti-inflammatory hormone
    • Studies on mice that had ovary resection show them to have had immediate activation of a type of a brain white cell called microglia, with a change of the cell to a damaging, pro-inflammatory type. Inflammatory microglial cells are directly connected to amyloid plaque formation found in Alzheimer’s disease. 
    • These same studies also show that pretreating mice with estrogen before ovary removal prevents this inflammatory activation
  • increases cerebral blood flow
  • promotes neuronal synapse activity
  • exerts both neuroprotective and neurotrophic effects on tissues in the brain
  • is vital in learning and memory recall

Progesterone 

Progesterone is also critical for brain health and provides a variety of reparative and protective functions. Loss of progesterone is connected to mood instability and memory and learning impairment. Progesterone’s loss has also been directly connected to impaired sleep. In addition to its role in emotional and memory aspects of the brain, progesterone has been deemed a neurosteroid because of the crucial role it plays in many vital functions of the brain, such as:

  • Neurogenesis (the growth and development of nervous system tissue)
  • Regeneration (repairing damaged brain cells)
  • Inflammation reduction
  • Myelination in the central nervous system (the process of forming an insulating sheath around a nerve to allow nerve impulses to rapidly move from one neuron to the next)

When Would You Think about Bioidentical Hormone Optimization?

Progesterone levels can start to wane in the pre-menopausal state, which can start as early as the mid-to-early thirties. When this happens, the condition is called estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance is associated with mood instability, sleep disturbance, memory impairment, and painful menses. Oral or topical progesterone is typically used in a cyclical fashion to correct this imbalance. 

When a woman goes through full menopause, many of the inflammatory and cognitive changes take place immediately. Therefore, it is most appropriate to begin bioidentical hormone replacement of both estrogen and progesterone as soon as possible. 

At OWM Integrative Medicine, we take a holistic approach to women’s health and never treat hormone imbalances in isolation. A thorough evaluation of and interventions for gut disorders, chronic inflammatory conditions, and nutritional imbalances are always included in all hormone optimization programs.

For more information, please visit https://owmintegrativewellness.com/bio-identical-hormone-optimization/ or call us to discuss in person at (716) 626-6301.