I have been writing quite a few articles on hormone therapy lately and have mentioned bio-identical hormones in many of those articles. I realized that I have never offered an explanation of what a bio-identical hormone is. Bio-identical hormones have been getting a great deal of attention in the media lately, so many are familiar with the term Bio-Identical. However, I find that even among my physician colleagues there is often confusion or no knowledge of this term. So, in this article, I will do my best to explain what is meant by the term bio-identical hormone and explain why it is important to understand this term.
Bio-identical hormones are made through a chemical process that converts wild Mexican yams into hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These manufactured hormones have the exact chemical structure as those already floating around in your body. For example, a Bio-Identical estrogen molecule will have the same elements, chemical bonds, shape, and chemical activity as the estrogen found in your body. When you take a Bio-Identical hormone, your body cannot tell the difference between the hormone molecules it made and the hormones you took. This applies to bio-identical progesterone, testosterone, and other hormones too. Because of this, bio-identical hormones offer a safe and efficient way to treat hormone deficiencies.
I often hear Bio-Identical hormones compared to “synthetic” hormones or hormones that have been made by drug companies to imitate the activity of real hormones. This comparison and using the word “synthetic” can cause confusion. When referring to hormones as synthetic, it implies that they are fake or not like the original. Synthetic also refers to something that has been created through a chemical process. Bio-identical hormones are made through a chemical process, so they technically can be called synthetic. However, this implies that Bio-Identical hormones are not identical to the original hormone, which is not the case. To avoid confusion, I prefer the term “Bio-Similar” to describe the imitation hormones made by the drug company.
Medications like Prempro and Premarin have been designed by drug companies to have chemical structures that are similar, but not exact, to hormones that are actually in your body. These Bio-Similar hormones will perform some of the important functions that their corresponding hormones perform. However, they won’t do all of them. For instance, natural progesterone has positive effects on your cardiovascular system, yet these benefits are not found with Bio-Similar progesterone (commonly known as progestins). Unfortunately, Bio-Similar hormones also do some things that your natural hormones do not, and these effects are often unwanted. Again, using progesterone as an example, natural progesterone has been found to protect against breast cancer, while Bio-Similar progesterone has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. As you can see, it is very important to distinguish between the two types of hormone therapy available. I see a lot of media stories about hormones where there is no distinction made between bio-similar and Bio-Identical hormones. I even see doctors commenting on issues regarding hormones without an understanding of the difference between the two. Here is what you need to know:
- Bio-Similar hormones are NOT the same as Bio-Identical hormones.
- A Bio-Identical Hormone has the exact chemical structure as the corresponding hormone made by your body.
- A Bio-Similar hormone (often referred to as synthetic hormones) does not have the same chemical structure as the corresponding hormone made by your body. Your body sees it as a foreign chemical.
- Comments made about Bio-Similar hormones cannot be randomly applied to Bio-Identical Hormones. They are not the same thing.
When you read or hear a story about hormones, make sure you know if they are discussing Bio-Identical Hormones or Bio-Similar Hormones.