Natural (not synthetic) estrogen health benefits in menopause
I recently wrote about the superiority of natural progesterone over synthetic progestogens. Let’s look now at the health benefits of naturally-derived estrogens in menopause.
Natural versus synthetic estrogen
You may have heard of synthetic estrogen brand names such as Premarin, Cenestin, and Enjuvia. These conjugated estrogens have been manipulated in a laboratory and don’t carry the same health benefits as hormones manufactured naturally in your body.
(As I understand it, just more than a year ago the manufacturers of Enjuvia and Cenestin discontinued their production of these tablets.)
Take Cenestin for example; it is an unnatural hormone used to treat moderate to severe vasomotor symptoms (such as hot flashes/flushes) and vulvar/vaginal atrophy due to menopause. It is recommended that you take this at the “lowest effective dose and for the shortest duration” for safety’s sake. It is widely known that conjugated estrogens do not prevent heart disease or dementia, but rather, they increase your risk of these illnesses.
Conjugated estrogens are mixtures of unnatural estrogen molecules such as sodium equilin sulfate, 17 alpha & 17 beta-dihydro equilin, 17alpha-estradiol, ethinyl estradiol, mestranol, quinestrol, and (formerly) diethylstilbestrol. You may remember that in 1971, researchers discovered the link between prenatal DES exposure and clear cell adenocarcinoma of the cervix and vagina (and soon after was banned from the market).
We know from the Women’s Health Initiative 2009 and 2010 reports in the New England Journal of Medicine that women who take synthetic, chemically modified prescription hormones for extended periods of time have an increased incidence of breast cancer, heart attack and stroke, and pulmonary embolism.
Enter estradiol (E2) and estriol (E3)
Natural estrogens are made in a woman’s body and are called estrone (E1), estradiol (E2), and estriol (E3). These are also made in nature (plants) and can be mixed into creams for therapeutic dosing.
However, be aware that even taking natural estrogen by mouth carries some health risks because when they pass through your liver, you can have unnatural metabolites created which can be a contributor to long-term disease. Not so with creams, which absorb directly into your bloodstream, then target organs where they need to be.
There is no question that Estriol (E3) and estradiol (E2) are better for you than conjugated estrogens as I will explain below.
Health benefits of bio-identical transdermal estrogen
Let’s look at the reasons why a menopausal woman would want to consider taking bio-identical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT).
Reduces menopausal symptoms
You should first know that the natural estrogens E3 and E2 work well for reducing menopausal symptoms. Estriol (E3) naturally converts to estradiol (E2) in your body.
A study using estriol therapy that was reported in the November 1987 Hormone and Metabolic Research showed that it reduced menopausal symptoms in 92% of subjects, and completely elimination hot flashes and sweating in 71% of the subjects. It completely eliminated depressed moods in 24% and this was reduced in severity for another 33%. It also reduced headaches by two-thirds and skin improved in some of the subjects. And there were no significant side effects reported.
Improves sexual desire and functions
Apparently, vaginal administration of 50 mg ethinyl estradiol results in circulating ethinyl estradiol levels equivalent to those achieved after oral ingestion of 10 mg ethinyl estradiol.
Prevents memory loss
Animal and human studies show that transdermal estrogen replacement therapy, when started before menopause, decreases memory loss in older age. In the Italian Longitudinal Study on Aging reported in 1998, researchers found that among the 2,816 women aged 65 to 84 years who were followed, the rate of Alzheimer’s disease was only a fourth as much among estrogen users compared with the general female population of the same age and multiple other risk factors. A study reported in 1996 found that among 156 women who reported taking estrogen after onset of menopause, those who later developed Alzheimer's disease did so much later (delayed onset) and significantly less (60 percent fewer) compared with women who did not take estrogen. Also, those who had used estrogen longer than a year had even a greater risk reduction for Alzheimer’s disease.
Improves heart health
We know that transdermal estrogen lowers bad cholesterol (LDL) and raises good cholesterol (HDL). Coronary artery spasm, which precipitates a heart attack by squeezing down areas of the vessel where there is already atherosclerotic plaque, is decreased with the use of estrogen and also estrogen plus progesterone. Estrogen lowers anti-thrombin III levels, thereby lowering recurrent venous thrombosis (vein clotting).
Reduces breast cancer risk
Estriol protects against breast cancer according to a number of studies. When given with estradiol or with progestin, estriol showed clear breast cancer-protecting effects. In a large study of 30,000 women reported in 2004, those who used estriol only had no increased rate of breast cancer, while those who used “estrogen” only did. In a large case-control study of 3345 women, the risk for breast cancer among estriol users was the same as non-users. Estrogen plus progesterone clearly decreases breast cancer risk. This was shown to be true in a double-blind placebo-controlled trial of women given estrogen plus progesterone prior to breast surgery reported in 1995. This was shown to be true in a randomized double-blind study reported in 1998; and also in a primate animal study reported in 2007.
It is clearly known that transdermal estrogen supplementation reduces bone fracture rates in postmenopausal women. Subjects using only a low dose of only 0.1 mg per day stopped losing bone density and dramatically reduced their fracture rate as demonstrated in two clinical trials.
Did you know that topical estrogen combined with nutrients (such as Hyaluronic Acid, Vitamin C, and other nutrceuticals) can be used topically on your face to improve your skin quality? A 2007 study found that topical estrogen helps increase skin collagen which may improve postmenopausal facial skin.
Estrogen is usually taken along with progesterone in order to lower the otherwise increased risk of uterine cancer.
The usual dose of estrogen cream for menopausal symptoms is 0.5 mg to 2.0 mg or more per day of “biest” (estradiol and estriol in a 1:4 ratio or 1:1 ratio). If the woman is still having periods, she can use it days 5-25 of her cycle. If she is menopausal she can use it continuously or with a 3-5 day break every 3 months along with progesterone.
To healthy hormones and longevity,
Michael Cutler, M.D.