Hormone Therapy: An Introductory Guide
Your body produces hormones in order to help function properly in the natural world. Occasionally, an irregular hormone concentration within our body can lead to certain health issues. Most people are unfamiliar with the concept of hormone therapy. Simply put, it is the usage of hormones for medical treatment. Hormone therapy is used in order to replenish an imbalanced hormone concentration which is used as an alternative solution to treating particular health problems. This article will discuss the basics of hormones, important functions of hormone therapy, the significance of hormone therapy when dealing with certain medical conditions.
Hormone Therapy: What are hormones?
Hormones are the powerhouse of human life and behavior. A little recap of what hormones actually are and how they work in our body will be beneficial for understanding the importance of hormone therapy.
- Hormones are essentially chemical messengers that give direction to cells in our body.
- Created in the endocrine glands, they are sent throughout your body to produce specific functions.
- Activation of certain hormones, when binding to cell receptors, ultimately sync functions of various organs.
- A decrease in your body’s natural hormones can put both men and women at risk of developing osteoporosis. This condition leads to bone weakness and potential risk for broken bones.
To read more about hormones, click here
A common hormone most people know of, at least by name, is Estrogen. This hormone is the primary sex hormone in females. It is prevalent in our system all throughout our lifetime but begins to play a more crucial role in different forms of development during puberty. It is also heavily involved in pregnancy and menstruation.
The primary function of estrogen for females:
- Help form secondary sex characteristics in females (Breast Development, Wider Hips, Soft skins and hair, etc.)
- Accelerates height growth in females during puberty
- Aides in burning body fat and reduces muscle tissue growth
- Essential in uterine development
Fun fact: Regardless of your biological sex, both males and females have a concentration of both estrogen and testosterone (the primary male sex hormone) in their system. In males, estrogen is important for sperm maturation and preservation of a healthy libido. The amount of either hormone in our body is important for both determining biological sex and proper functioning of our sex-specific body functions.
What is Hormone Therapy?
Hormone therapy is used to treat certain symptoms caused by medical conditions by either synthetic or naturally derived hormones. Primarily in females, hormone therapy is commonly used to treat certain types of cancers that rely on hormones to grow. It can also be used to treat the negative symptoms of menopause and certain thyroid conditions that are associated with hormone production and consumption.
Different applications of Hormone Therapy:
- Oral – Usually in pill form, consumed through the mouth
- Injection – Either a patch or vaccination. Administered under the layer of our skin or intramuscular.
- Surgical – Sometimes HT involves the removal of organs, resulting in a decrease of natural hormone production.
Different types of hormone therapies listed below act upon your body in different ways. They all have the same essential purpose, which is to regulate hormone concentrations in your body.
The problem with addressing side effects and risk of therapeutic hormone use is that there are different risks associated with a given therapy to treat a particular condition. However, there are a few known general side effects and consequences that come with undergoing most hormone therapies.
Physical consequences of Hormone Therapy:
- Vein blood clotting in legs (Deep Vein Thrombosis)
- Blood clots in the lungs (Pulmonary Embolus)
- Higher risk of uterine cancer (Caused by alteration of estrogen level in our system.)
- Increase the risk of heart attacks in women who have a history of heart disease.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- A slight increase in potential risk of stroke
Estrogen can also act upon your brain functions in many ways. Abnormal concentrations of estrogen in your brain can have an effect on cognition and emotion. However, long-term hormone therapy has been ultimately proven to not alter cognition in drastic measures. Some theories suggest HT/HRT helps cognition. Finite consequences of HT in cognition and emotion have not be defined by the scientific community.
Cognitive Consequences of Hormone Therapy:
- There is limited research on the effects of Hormone Therapy/ HRT and cognition.
- Estrogen is known in the brain to be important for enhancement of; synaptic plasticity, neurite growth, long-term potentiation and neurogenesis in the hippocampus. (This are important neural components involved in memory development, don’t be discouraged if you don’t know exactly what these terms mean.) Replenishing imbalanced estrogen concentrations can play a big part in the improvement of memory retention.
Emotional Consequences of Hormone Therapy:
- Mood Swings
- Hormone Therapy alleviates physical symptoms caused by health problems, which similar to a domino effect, helps get rid of potential depressive mood.
Hormone Therapy and Breast Cancer
Some cancers are essentially powered by hormones, possibly relying on them to grow. Hormone Therapy is primarily known as either an addition to chemotherapy or an alternative way to treat certain strains of breast cancer. Blocking estrogen can prevent the cancerous cell growth.
Types of Hormone Therapy (Anti- Estrogens):
- In certain types of breast cancer, estrogen binds to a receptor in a cancerous cell, promoting cell division and tumor growth.
- Anti-estrogen medications are a type of hormone therapy which blocks the action of estrogen receptors in breast tissue.
- It is only used in hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers because their receptors make them highly susceptible to these types of medications
Side effects of Anti-estrogens Hormone Therapy:
- Hot flashes
- Night Sweats
- Weight Gain
- Vaginal Dryness
Other Hormone Therapies used for Breast Cancer:
- Fluoxymesterone – An androgen (Male Sex Hormone) which fights the activity of estrogen
- Leuprolide for women – Stops production of luteinizing hormone, the hormone that promotes estrogen production in our ovaries.
- Megestrol Acetate – A form of progesterone which interferes with cell growth of estrogen receptor in positive cells.
To read more about breast cancer, click here
Hormone Therapy and Menopause
Menopause is defined as the decrease in hormone levels in our system including essential female hormones such as Estrogen and Progesterone. Lack of hormones in our system lead to unwanted side effects.
Symptoms of Menopause:
- Hot Flashes
- Night Sweats
- Vaginal Dryness and Decreased Interest in Sex
- Urinary Tract Infections
- Depressed mood
To alleviate the side effects of menopause, some women are interested in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help replenish levels of estrogen that diminishes in our body during menopause. HRT is an effective, widely used treatment which helps fights symptoms of menopause. It alleviates unwanted symptoms that are associated with low estrogen levels.
Some initial side effects of HRT, which go away over time, include the following:
- Breast Tenderness
- Leg Cramps
- Muscle Aches and Joint Pains
Hormone Therapy can have a positive effect on improving our health. If you are interested in using hormone therapy as a way to treat a particular condition listed, please discuss with a specialized doctor. If you are currently on a form of hormone therapy and you notice persistent side effects mentioned and would like to learn more, please notify your doctor. Do not self-administer hormone therapy on yourself without the supervision of a doctor.
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Genevieve is a recent college graduate from the University at Albany, where she studied Psychology and Neuroscience. Genevieve was involved in the CAFE Project, a research lab affliatied with the University at Albany. CAFE Project was focused on family and community violence experienced in childhood and the effects on long term adjustment, as well as MBSR techniques and the benefits they have on reduction of psychophysiology. Genevieve also worked as a Behavioral Therapist for early intervention programs helpful for teaching developmental milestones for children who have ASD. Currently, she is involved in an Evolutionary Psychology lab through State University of New York at New Paltz. She plans to go to graduate school in Fall 2019.