Are Bio-identical Hormones & Synthetic Hormones the Same?

by Magnolia on August 7, 2011

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Undoubtedly, if you have done any reading on the topic of bio-identical hormones whatsoever, you’ve learned that like synthetic hormones, they are produced in a lab.

Because of this, many physicians will tell you that synthetic hormones and bio-identical hormones are exactly the same.

But, the honest-to-God’s truth is, they are not.  The difference lies in the structure of the molecule in the hormones.

Bio-identical Hormones Are Not the Result of Modern Medicine

Because of the latest trend in healthcare consumers seeking natural, alternative, and complementary treatments to what we sometimes call “traditional” medicine, many people erroneously assume that bio-identical hormones are a result of modern medicine.  But, it might surprise you to know that bio-identical hormones have actually been around for a very, very, long time.

In the late 1930s, early 1940s, a young, chemistry graduate student by the name of Russell Marker, devised a way to convert a chemical compound, disogenin, found in Mexican wild yams, into a progesterone with the exact molecular structure of the progesterone produced in a woman’s ovaries, hence, the term, bio-identical.

What made Marker’s discovery so significant is that prior to this time, progesterone could only be obtained from sows’ ovaries (yes, from a pig) or by way of a very complicated and time consuming laboratory procedure which made it very expensive to produce.  The exorbitant cost put it not only out of reach of physicians, but patients as well.

With Marker’s method, however, bio-identical progesterone could be produced at a cost of fifty-cents per gram, as opposed to a very hefty cost of eighty dollars per gram via the previous methods.

It wasn’t long, unfortunately, before pharmaceutical companies discovered that this first bio-identical progesterone could be chemically altered to create synthetic variations.

This is significant, because unlike the natural substances found in nature, synthetic hormones could be patented and owned by the pharmaceutical companies.  Since then, the subsequent campaign to sell and market them to physicians and their patients has been fierce and relentless.

How do Bio-identical Hormones Behave in Your Body?

Unlike chemically altered synthetic hormones, your body actually “recognizes” the chemical structure of bio-identical hormones, and interacts with them in the same way it would interact with the hormones produced in your ovaries – like a key fitting properly in a lock.

Think of bio-identical hormones like the key and your hormone receptors as the lock.  They “key” of the bio-identical hormones, aka, the molecular structure, allows them to fit perfectly into the lock, your hormone receptors.  Once in place, our bodies are able to shift back into hormone balance, and all of those nasty symptoms of imbalance begin to subside.

Synthetic hormones, on the other hand, have chemically altered shapes which are not recognized by your body. Furthermore, because they are not metabolized efficiently in the body, they also interfere with the normal ebb and flow of hormonal function, causing potentially detrimental side effects.

So, while the pharmaceutical companies and some physicians would have you believe that bio-identical hormones are the same as synthetic hormones, they are not.

In fact, synthetically produced hormones are not hormones at all; they are man-made drugs which wreak havoc in your body.

Medical Research Supports the Safety of Bio-identical Hormones

There is no question that trying to understand the difference between bio-identical hormones and synthetic hormones is a confusing and frustrating proposition for many women.

The confusion is further exacerbated when there are equally qualified and competent physicians on both side of the debate, both presenting credible evidence to support their medical point of view.

Without question, as with all medical decisions, deciding whether to take synthetic hormones or choosing bio-identical hormones instead, is a personal decision.  But, if you are on the fence and not certain about the safety of bio-identical hormones, you can rest assured that the medical research thus far is in your favor.

To date, there has been no published medical research showing that bio-identical hormones pose health risks for women. In fact, the evidence continues to mount in favor of bio-identical hormone therapy, proving they are a safe and effective choice for women seeking relief from perimenopause and menopause symptoms.

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Sources:

John R. Lee, M.D., & Hopkins, Virginia. (1996). What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause: The Breakthrough Book on Natural Progesterone. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc.

Lundin, Mia, R.N.C., N.P., (2009). Female Brain Gone Insane: An Emergency Guide for Women Who Feel Like They Are Falling Apart. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

Redig, Mandy., (2003). Yams of Fortune: The (Uncontrolled) Birth of Oral Contraceptives. Journal of Young Investigators: Undergraduate, Peer-Reviewed Science Journal. (Vol. 6). Retrieved from http://www.jyi.org/features/ft.php?id=540

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather December 18, 2013 at 8:26 pm

I just wanted to say that I started the bio-identical hormones (the estrogen) this last month and am already starting to feel relief from my symptoms. What a blessing!!

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Magnolia December 18, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Thank you for letting me know, Heather. That’s great news!

Magnolia

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Maria February 18, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Bioidentical hormones are these prescriptions that can be ordered from your OB?

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Magnolia February 19, 2014 at 6:45 am

Generally your gynecologist or an endocrinologist writes prescriptions for hormones, Maria, but I’m sure your OB could as well. Generally and OB is also a gynecologist.

And the FDA approved bioidentical hormones can be found in this list here: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2011/September/fda-approved-bioidentical-hormones-for-menopausal-symptoms

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J. Mersh July 8, 2014 at 11:03 am

Great article! I also have recently started on a BHRT plan and it’s helped me a lot. I’m dealing with menopause after I had a total hysterectomy (as if that wasn’t difficult enough itself. Yikes!!!)

I started using the pellet version of BHRT, the ones that are injected under the skin.

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sandra van nostrand September 11, 2014 at 7:32 am

I am getting ready for a consult for bio identical hormones. It is VERY expensive and not covered by insurance….I was hoping my gyn could help me with synthetics but she was not very willing to agree that my symptoms were hormonal. I KNOW they are, they only started after being taken off the BC pill I took for 23 YEARS. My worst symptom is horrible horrible joint and muscle pain. I want relief so bad. It has been six months.

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Magnolia September 11, 2014 at 8:06 am

Hello Sandra,

While I know it is extraordinarily expensive to go straight bioidentical hormones (we can thank the politics of the pharmaceutical companies for that) it is worth the money.

Your doctor *can* prescribe some FDA approved biodentical hormone products which are not compounded however. Here is a list from Harvard Medical School which breaks down which are bioidentical and which are not. Your insurance will cover these: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/What-are-bioidentical-hormones.htm

I also wanted to mention that I too suffer with awful muscle and joint pain. On a scale of 1 to 10, my pain level is easily an 8. It’s so bad that I sometimes cry from the stress of having to live with it. So, I REALLY understand what you mean when you say it is difficult for you to manage.

Estrogen will help alleviate some of it, but not all of it. I manage mine with monthly massage (that helps more than I can tell you), and I also recently starting eating to reduce inflammation and pain.

I wrote a post the other day on the Nutribullet. I don’t know if you have read it or not, but I would highly recommend that you consider purchasing one. They are not cheap – around $100 – but well worth the investment in my opinion. I have been following the recommendations in the books that come with it on foods to eat which combat inflammation and pain.

I’ve been using it for about two weeks now and I have definitely noticed a difference. My only other options are drugs and I have no desire whatsoever to live on drugs the rest of my life. Please consider it. You can’t lose by eating better. Even if it doesn’t give you the pain relief you desire, how can better eating and health hurt you?

I’m of the opinion that the best way to managing perimenopause symptoms is by approaching it from several angles. Hormone therapy is one component, exercise is another (for joint and pain sufferers I recommend Yoga), reducing stress in your life as much as possible, and radically changing your diet. All of this combined will help you immensely.

Please check this post for information on the Nutribullet. I can’t recommend it enough: http://www.theperimenopauseblog.com/a-review-of-the-nutribullet-one-amazing-gadget/

And here is a post I did on Viniyoga to help with a variety of ailments. This post deals specifically with anxiety and depression. But, there are other Viniyoga methods which I also recommend – and use myself – which help with pain. http://www.theperimenopauseblog.com/viniyoga-for-anxiety-depression-in-perimenopause/

I hope these suggestions help. As a fellow sufferer of muscle and joint pain, I truly “feel your pain.”

Magnolia

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