(This is the second article in a series of four related to “Anti-Aging Medicine”. To see all the articles, click here.)
DISCLAIMER: If you are taking hormones currently and wish to make a change, you MUST consult with your physician. Stopping hormonal medications, especially if you have been taking them for a period of time, can be very dangerous and must be done sensibly and with medical supervision. Additionally, there ARE valid medical reasons to take hormones and this article is not meant to imply that all hormonal medications are to be considered dangerous or potentially unhealthy.
There is no evidence that short term, targeted hormonal therapy such as steroids to reduce acute inflammation, or injections used briefly during IVF or fertility cycles, causes any long-term medical problems. This article is about long-term exposure to hormones when there is not a demonstrated medical need for them.
As with any situation, before changing your medication regimen, consult with the prescribing physician.
There are a lot of people taking a lot of hormones these days — most of them by choice, not medical necessity. In fact, there is a whole industry that has been created around the testing, mixing, and dispensing of hormonal substances to people who want to feel and look younger, have more energy, etc.
Some of these patients do have real medical issues and do feel very, very fatigued, depressed, and “unwell”. So, I don’t want to start off by implying that the bioidentical hormone industry is completely predicated on human performance. Indeed many people seek out this therapy for medical reasons.
And, I want to make sure you understand that I am not “anti-medication” or “anti-conventional medicine”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m vaccinated. I take antibiotics when necessary. If I ever get cancer, I am going to use every means necessary to treat it, including chemo, radiation, surgery — whatever is recommended.
However, what I will say is that I would personally never take hormones if I wasn’t very sick and didn’t need them for a medical purpose.
And, so, I repeat: Aging is not a disease. Aging, in and of itself, doesn’t require treatment.
Why most people don’t feel well as they age is not because of aging. It’s because we don’t respect the process. And, it’s because we’ve accepted many myths about our health as we continue to put unnecessary stress on our bodies that does nothing but accelerate the aging process.
Yes, metabolism slows down. Yes, our physical bodies take longer to recover. Yes, it seems we need more sleep and, if we don’t exercise, our bodies stiffen more easily.
Despite these natural needs for more rest, more metabolic support, more moderate exercise, everyone wants to keep doing what they did before — work hard, play hard, eat and drink with abandon, and generally live like a teenager when they’re actually in mid-life or entering the early stages of what we label “old age”.
So, many resort to taking hormones, which absolutely DO work. There is no doubt that a dose of thyroid, testosterone, progesterone, and/or cortisol will cause a dramatic change in how you feel, and may make you feel a lot more focused, energetic, and… well… young.
That’s because hormones are the body’s MOST POWERFUL substances. They are, in essence, your body’s core signaling substance, the root messaging system. They are insanely subtle and powerful at the same time.
When your body starts to slow down its hormonal production, there are two reasons, generally speaking.
The first reason hormone production declines is because that’s nature’s blueprint — your body no longer needs them as much. You are moving from one stage of life into the next, and hormones that were once central are now becoming less crucial. For instance, when you begin to go from teenage to adult years, Growth Hormone levels decline rapidly. Even when you enter puberty Growth Hormone no longer functions as it once did. This is nature’s plan. If you kept secreting the same amount of Growth Hormone, you’d become ill and possibly die.
So, reason number one is that hormone production changes with natural life cycles.
The second reason hormone production declines is that your body is having trouble making them because of biological stress. This means the glands are depleted or some other tissue in your body is having difficulty and it’s affecting the hormone cycle. Keep in mind that just about every tissue in your body has a role to play in hormone balance. Liver, kidneys, brain, gut, heart, lungs, and the actual hormonal glands all work TOGETHER to create a balanced environment.
So, depletion or blockage in any of these can cause you to feel unwell, sluggish, and metabolically challenged. When this type of depletion happens, you may feel like you’re aging at an accelerated pace and that’s because… well… you are.
The standard diet most Americans grew up on is like a murderers row for the endocrine system. The adrenals, thyroid, pancreas, even hypothalamus and pituitary deep in the brain, are all stretched to the max every single day trying to keep up with the barrage of sugar, caffeine, and processed ingredients we pour into our bodies on a daily basis. Add to this our propensity to work insane hours, stay up late and forego the necessary 8 hours of sleep… And, well, it’s a recipe for depletion and, frankly, burnout.
The result? By the time you’re in your mid-30s to mid-40s, your endocrine system is becoming exhausted, having been pushed too hard for too long. You start to feel tired much more easily, brain fog starts to creep in… Your libido diminishes. You gain weight and having more difficulty keeping it off. Your motivation and drive start to wane.
It is sad that we have come to accept that this is part of aging, that it is natural to start feeling like this at ANY point in life, much less in the prime of life.
And so, it’s no wonder that people become desperate. Conventional medicine has no real answers for this condition. In fact, conventional medicine has come to accept this as a defect that needs to be corrected, as something to medicate.
But, it’s not a defect. It’s a MESSAGE.
All that fatigue, slower metabolism, low libido, and brain fog is your body saying, “Slow down! I need more rest! And, please give me some nutrients I can easily absorb and use. And, please stop bombarding me with all that sugar and caffeine and processed food that makes me work so hard. Oh, and while you’re at it, exercise more moderately and let me rest in between.”
So, reason number one for your body making less hormones: Nature’s blueprint. Reason number two: Stress-induced depletion of the tissues involved in hormonal balance (which includes not only the glands, but liver, nervous system, gut, bone marrow, kidneys, brain, and just about every other tissue in the body — they ALL play a role in endocrine signaling and flow).
Whether the cause is nature or depletion due to stress (and I’m talking here not just about emotional stress, but the stress created by lack of sleep, caffeine, sugar and processed foods), the long-term use of hormones is rarely, if ever the answer. It is, in fact, a dangerous, slippery slope that requires extreme caution.
Can you feel better if you take hormones? ABSOLUTELY. It is almost guaranteed that a little extra thyroid hormone and cortisol will boost your energy. A little extra testosterone or estrogen will adjust your mood and motivation and possibly libido. But, these come with a HUGE biological price.
Hormone production depends on very complex tissue, and very complex relationships between organs and systems. It’s a very delicate process and very subtle changes can cause very dramatic shifts in how you feel.
That’s because a tiny, tiny amount of hormone is so powerful.
To put this in perspective, most people on thyroid medication require around than 1/10th of a milligram a day to keep them stable. That’s 1/10th of a milligram of a substance for EVERY SINGLE CELL in your body to maintain metabolic state for a whole day!
See how sensitive your cells are to hormones? This is something that will be very important later, so make sure you remember this.
When you begin to take these hormones on a regular basis, two very important things happen:
- You develop tolerance.
- You develop dependence.
Tolerance is your body’s way of adjusting to hormone levels it’s not able to cope with. When the hormone enters your cell or attaches to a receptor, it triggers very significant changes in cellular function. Your cells know their limits and they will very wisely adapt so that they don’t overdo it. The way they do this is by building tolerance.
When tolerance is established, it will take more of the hormone to feel the same effects. This is not a good thing. It is your body telling you that you are pushing it too hard. It is your cells saying “Enough!”.
Dependence is when your body is not able to function normally without the hormonal medication. This is because when you take a hormone for a long period of time, the gland that makes the hormone slows down or stops its function altogether. This is why male athletes who “juice” with testosterone get the notorious side-effect of small testicles. The testicles are no longer needed to make testosterone, so they shrink. They literally wither away and shrivel up. It’s also how birth control works. By taking a synthetic estrogen, the ovaries stop making it, and egg production is slowed or stopped.
Any hormone you take long-term will have this effect on the gland that secretes it. And, when you stop taking the hormone, or reduce the dose, the gland doesn’t just suddenly wake up and start making normal levels again.
Depending on the hormone, it can take weeks or months or even years for the gland to return to normal after stopping exogenous use. And, depending on the hormone and the dose you’ve been taking and for how long, suddenly stopping or reducing the dose can make you very sick and even be fatal. So BE CAREFUL and, as mentioned above, do NOT play with your dose of medications without medical supervision.
Your body’s hormone system is extremely intricate as well. So, taking hormones long term can cause dependence and tolerance in every single tissue of your body, not just the gland that produces the hormone. The feedback loops that regulate how much hormone is produced are also very delicate and complex and can be permanently altered if you take hormones for too long.
Finally, it’s important to note that hormones have extremely powerful effects on their target cells. For instance, estrogen has very significant effects on breast and uterine tissue. Too much estrogen for too long (for example years of taking it for menopausal symptoms) has now been linked to cancer. The reason for the cancer is simple — the cell, being pushed past its limit, mutates in order to keep responding to the estrogen. In other words, the cell is ADAPTING to the un-natural levels of estrogen being presented.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire and, unfortunately, this isn’t just limited to estrogen-driven cancers. We are now learning that taking testosterone can lead to a higher risk of prostate cancer. And, other hormonal excesses are being linked to carcinogenic effects, either directly or indirectly.
And, it’s not just cancer we have to worry about. Long term use of cortisol can trigger diabetes. Even some of the less powerful over-the-counter hormones like progesterone, pregnenolone, and DHEA should be used with care as they do stimulate tissues in the body and can become harmful if over-used.
And, I also would like to dispel one more myth. “Bioidentical” doesn’t mean “safe”. It is a ruse to make hormonal medication appear more safe. But, it simply isn’t this way.
Again, think of your body. As a woman begins to go thru the natural process of perimenopause and menopause, her estrogen levels decline gradually. This is her own bioidentical estrogen dose being gradually reduced by her own body which knows exactly how much it needs. If it was safe for her body to continue receiving the same bioidentical dose of estrogen at the age of 45 as it did at 25, then her body would continue making the same amount. But, it doesn’t.
This is because our bodies are unbelievably wise, and unbelievably intelligent. They know more than we ever could about managing hormonal output. And, if the output seems to be decreased over what it “should” be for your age, it is because there is a blockage or a depletion that needs to be addressed. Your body is still capable of producing the amount of hormone it needs if it is given the right support to do so.
NOTE: There are cases where genetics and constitution will play a role in conditions such as premature ovarian failure or hypothyroid. The scope of this article is not going to cover those situations but it is important to know your diagnosis.
The bottom line here: Buyer beware. There are many, many clinics popping up in the US today, all claiming to have discovered the secret of the Fountain of Youth via “bioidentical” hormones. No matter what anyone tells you — and unfortunately there are many MDs telling people these substances are safe — proceed with caution.
My advice to you is try simple, natural, common-sense ways first. More rest, better nutrition, proper exercise, and a positive attitude can go a LONG way to getting you to where you feel great without taking bioidentical hormones.
How do I know this? Because I’ve seen it firsthand over and over in my clinic. When you give the body what it needs to perform at its highest level, it ALWAYS does so, even if that level isn’t quite what it was 20 years ago. You can still feel GREAT as you age, without all the chemicals, drugs, and hormones that are being sold these days as “anti-aging” remedies.
In the next article, I’ll explain exactly how to do it.