Better than Bio-Identical

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In 2003, Dove soap commissioned a global study in which only 2% of women described themselves as beautiful. Dove followed this with an advertising campaign called “Campaign for Real Beauty”, which defied the fashion and beauty industries by promoting “real women” as beautiful. Their ads contrasted the “tighter… firmer… younger…” media messages with messages such as “beauty has no age limit”. Dove criticized the popular anti-aging movement and put pro-aging on the map. Unfortunately, the company that owns Dove, Unilever, was later criticized for the digital photographic touch-ups of their “real” women models, and for the absolute contradictory message promoted in their women-objectifying Axe Body Spray ads (available on youtube). Marketing analysts suggest that Dove didn’t really believe that a truly pro-aging approach could work.

Beauty, youth, and “anti-aging” are often central concerns for women transitioning through hormone changes known as menopause. Misguided cultural and medical perspectives categorize menopause as a disease state characterized by hormone deficiency, which can be “fixed” with treatment. In her book The Wisdom of Menopause, Dr. Christiane Northrup outlines our “cultural inheritance”, in which Hormone Replacement Therapy was advertised by doctors in the 1960s as “the pill that would keep your husband from understandably leaving you for a younger, more beautiful woman”. Decades later, facets of this perspective still affect our culture, our medicine, and the women currently experiencing menopause. Some geographers believe that this negative cultural definition of menopause is exactly the reason why we experience significantly more serious menopausal symptoms than most cultures.

Though menopausal symptoms are common and sometimes severe, menopause is a normal and healthy part of growing older that can be symptom-free. It is a complicated process of change that involves multiple organs, glands, brain chemicals, and hormones. For example, when the ovaries stop producing hormones, our adrenal glands may provide enough hormone to prevent menopausal symptoms. However, the adrenal glands’ priority is to produce stress hormones that keep us safe from perceived danger. Because the body doesn’t generally distinguish between threats such as a small infection or job and relationship anxiety, most sources of chronic stress have the potential to reduce our capacity for making female hormones, thereby creating menopausal symptoms.

Similarly, research indicates that women who describe themselves as anxious are more likely to experience a difficult menopause. Some pharmaceutical anti-depressants, including a class known as Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), effectively treat hot flashes in some women, possibly by supporting the brain’s ability to respond to serotonin despite declining estrogen levels. Mood and stress significantly contribute to menopausal symptoms.

Many women choose to treat their symptoms effectively with estrogen and/or progesterone pharmaceuticals despite known risks such as heart attack and breast cancer. Bio-identical versions of these hormones, so-called because they more closely match the structure of our own hormones, may work just as effectively and with fewer risks and side-effects. However, not only are bio-identical hormones another facet of the pervasive anti-aging philosophy, but their use can conceal underlying health imbalances, such as adrenal gland “fatigue” or serotonin deficiency, that create menopausal symptoms. Symptoms offer an opportunity for a woman to listen to and support her body from the inside out, so that healing can ensue. For women with severe menopausal symptoms, a combination of hormone replacement (whether synthetic or bio-identical), and integrative medical care that addresses the cause of symptoms, can provide the most effective relief and healing potential.