Balancing Act: Treating Menopause Symptoms

The menopausal years can stretch from the 40s on to the 60s. Bioidentical hormones are one way to deal with them.

Now, where was I?” In the middle of an important business presentation, Catherine Shearon, a 50- year-old medical sales representative and certified personal trainer, lost her train of thought. “I had brain fog and couldn’t focus,” says Shearon. “I’ve always juggled two or three jobs. I need to have my brain working at a pretty high level.”

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She was struggling, feeling stressed and anxious. Then the hot flashes would start, rising from the pit of her stomach to the top of her head, leaving her feeling nauseated some 20 to 30 times a day. “While I was trying to do presentations, I’d feel waves of nausea and get overwhelmed by them.” Shearon was suffering from menopausal symptoms.


Almost 40 per cent of women in Canada are over the age of 50, according to Statistics Canada. As women enter the peri-menopause and meno-pausal years, the production of estrogen, progesterone and other hormones that help maintain youthful vitality begins to decline. While the individual effects of menopause vary widely, the most common symptoms include hot flashes, night sweats, emotional irritability, poor concentration and sleep disturbance, which can range from mild to severe.

As her body raced into menopause, Shearon was desperate to feel like herself again. She ruled out traditional hormone therapy based on her experience as a sales rep for a drug company selling conventional synthetic hormones like Premarin and Provera. “I knew the traditional hormone replacement therapy route uses a set ratio of progesterone and estrogen,” explains Shearon. “I just couldn’t buy into the idea that one-size hormones fits all. I couldn’t see myself on a medication where everybody gets the same amount of hormones regardless of what their symptoms are.”

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She was also aware that clinical trials conducted in a 2002 Women’s Health Initiative study found significant increases in health risks associated with these synthetic hormones, including breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes and blood clots. Shearon began to investigate the increasingly popular choice of bioidentical hormones.


“Bioidentical hormones refer to supplements of estrogen and progesterone which, atom for atom, are identical to human hormones,” says Dr. Gus Zachos, medical director at Body Science Medical. “They have the exact same physiological response and action as hormones manufactured in your own body.” He explains that the base chemical structures of bioidentical hormones are found in yams or soy plants. Under stringent regulations, Health Canada extracts the hormones from natural sources, manipulates and refines them in a lab so that they’re identical to the human hormone molecule. Compounding pharmacists, regulated in Canada, buy the hormones from Health Canada and create a personalized delivery system, be it a pill, patch, cream, vaginal ovule, rectal suppository or implantable pellets that dissolve over time.

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“It gives us the flexibility to choose what’s best for the patient,” says Zachos. He adds that bioidentical hormone treatment goes beyond treating hot flashes and menopausal symptoms. “It’s about bone, brain, skin and heart health. Hormone therapy pushes back on all the disease issues – like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis – caused by inflammation, which is mostly hormone-related as well.”


“Just because bioidentical hormones are natural and a better fit to our own hormones, one still has to be careful because there are risk factors to all hormones,” cautions Lorna Vanderhaeghe, author of The Smart Woman’s Guide to Hormones. “You need to be aware of the symptoms of too much hormones regardless of whether the drug you are using is synthetic or not.”

Zachos agrees with a prudent approach. “The ideal is using the lowest amount of hormones to achieve a sense of well-being in the body that leads to the best vitality and optimal quality of life. I also recommend a day off once a week as a ‘hormone holiday.’ ”

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Only about 20 per cent of menopausal women need hormone therapy, says Vanderhaeghe “The other 80 per cent we can help through the transition using nutrients, herbs, diet and lifestyle changes, making sure that the thyroid is healthy and the adrenals are functioning properly. It’s not just about slapping on the hormones.”


Shearon eventually found a physician prescribing bioidentical hormones and underwent blood tests to determine her levels. A combination of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and DHEA hormones was prescribed. “I saw a big improvement in my sleep, brain fuzziness and energy level,” she says. “The hot flashes started to come back a little bit, but my physician adjusted the testosterone level, and that got rid of them. It’s been life-changing for me.”