Healthy Focus

Anti-aging: Can hormones keep women young?

There’s no magic bullet to stop the changes that come with aging—but there are a variety of medical interventions that can help, including hormone therapies, say doctors.

Kristian Elliott, FNP, Paris Women’s Center

Most women are prone to bone loss, sleeplessness, vaginal dryness, mood changes, and wrinkles or other skin changes when they hit their mid-40s and 50s. That’s when production of estrogen and progesterone starts to wane, leading to menopause and other physical changes, says Kristian Elliott, Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) from Paris Women’s Center.

With life expectancies increasing, the period of time spent in menopause is likely to increase as well, say experts. New medical options may have you considering hormone replacement therapy to temper menopause symptoms, yet you may have questions about the safety of these therapies.

Menopause demystified 

The loss of estrogen with menopause contributes to changes in the bones, breasts, heart, uterus, urinary system, skin and brain, and can lead to symptoms commonly associated with menopause, such as hot flashes and mood changes. A reduction in progesterone, meanwhile, can affect a woman’s libido or sex drive. Menopause also means a woman can no longer become pregnant or carry children, which can lead to a sense of loss, says Elliott.

“This is not a loss of your womanhood. This is just part of the changes that every woman goes through,” she says.

Hormone therapy pros and cons

When menopause symptoms are severe, your healthcare provider may want to discuss hormone replacement therapy with you. Still, it’s a decision that needs to be weighed carefully, because research from the National Institutes of Health has indicated that hormone replacement therapy comes with an increased risk of breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes and blood clots in the legs, explains Elliott.

“When a patient comes to me, I say to her, ‘Yes, hormone replacement will get rid of hot flashes, but it does increase your risk of cancer,’” says Elliott. “Some say, ‘My family has a history of breast cancer. I’d rather not.’ Others say, ‘I’m miserable, let’s go for it.’”

On the level

But even women who are good candidates for hormone replacement therapy–those who aren’t at high risk of cancer but are experiencing physical changes that are affecting their well-being–should understand that it’s most effective when it’s carefully tailored to them.

Women have different reactions to hormones, says Elliott. “Progesterone in itself is not good and estrogen is not bad, but when they’re not in appropriate balance, our systems are altered,” she says.

Once you start hormone replacement therapy, your healthcare provider should monitor your health and adjust the hormone levels to find the appropriate therapy, Elliott says. Most healthcare providers strive to find the lowest dose that is effective in alleviating symptoms, but this can differ from one woman to the next.

When hormones are out of balance, they can contribute to many different health issues, including obesity, diabetes, bone loss, depression and irritability, incontinence, sleep issues and fatigue, adds Elliott. But within six weeks of appropriate hormone therapy, women often experience dramatic improvement, she says.

“Natural” hormones

In recent years, natural or bioidentical hormones have been touted as a safer, more effective type of hormone replacement therapy, but even they are produced in a lab. “One can never truly mimic the response in the body from indigenous hormones,” says Elliott.

What’s more, bioidentical hormones have not been scientifically proven to be more effective than conventional hormone replacement therapy, she says. “The data doesn’t support that the use of bioidentical hormones is better or worse than those that have been out there in the last 10 years,” says Elliott.

3 Hormone replacement therapy options

  1. Oral tablets
  2. Transdermal patch
  3. Vaginal ring

Is your thyroid making you fat?

If you’re one of the more than 25 million Americans who have thyroid disease, it’s likely that you don’t even know it.

That small, butterfly-shaped gland just below your Adam’s apple can affect everything from mental health to fertility to the risk of heart disease–not to mention your weight. “When the thyroid is producing inadequate amounts of hormones, it can lead to weight gain,” says Kristian Elliott, Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) from Paris Women’s Center.

Kristian Elliott, FNP, Paris Women’s Center

The good news is that properly monitored hormone treatments can help keep the weight off, if the thyroid is the sole cause of weight gain, adds Elliott. “A healthcare provider needs to monitor the blood to make sure the levels are appropriate,” she explains.

Don’t blame it (all) on the thyroid

What does the thyroid have to do with gaining weight? Here’s how it works: The thyroid produces hormones that help oxygen get into cells and convert calories into energy. When the gland isn’t functioning properly, or the hormones it produces aren’t correctly balanced, it creates cellular chaos in your metabolism.

While a malfunctioning thyroid can lead to a 10- to 15-pound weight gain, it’s unlikely to cause a more serious weight gain (more than 30 pounds), say doctors.

“It used to be believed that a large number of people who were overweight had underactive thyroids,” says Elliott. “You can start by correcting any thyroid problems you have, but you also have to look at your diet and the amount of exercise you get. Your thyroid may contribute to some of the pounds, but not all the weight gain.”

“If you’re seriously overweight, you should consult your healthcare provider to see if you’re suffering from thyroid problems,” she adds. “But it’s rare that we find underactive thyroids are the sole cause, even in excessively overweight patients.”

Weight-loss tips

When an underactive thyroid is a factor in your weight problems, you can take several steps to help keep the pounds off:

  • Talk to your doctor to make sure you’re not being under-treated or don’t need additional hormone treatments.
  • Eat your food in small, 250-calorie mini-meals.
  • Consider a low-sugar and/or low-carbohydrate diet that eliminates refined sugars and limits starches.
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day to boost your metabolism and burn more calories.

Thyroid symptoms

If you think you may be experiencing thyroid problems, here’s what to watch for:

  • Underactive (“hypo”) thyroid: weight gain, fatigue, intolerance to cold, decreased sweating, constipation, slow speech, slow heart rate, hoarseness, puffiness in the face
  • Overactive (“hyper”) thyroid: weight loss, intolerance to heat, increased sweating, increased bowel movements, rapid heart rate, anxiety, restlessness, irritability

“If a patient has a family history of thyroid disease, they should speak to their healthcare provider if they are experiencing any of these symptoms,” Elliott says.

Are you at risk for a thyroid condition?

Some of the biggest factors contributing to thyroid disease are:

  • Gender. Women are six to eight times more likely than men to develop thyroid disease (particularly women who have just had a baby or are who near menopause).
  • Age. Being 50 or over increases the risk.
  • Family history. If you’ve previously had thyroid disease, or if there’s a history of it in your family, your risk goes up.
  • Thyroid surgery. If all or part of your thyroid has been surgically removed, you’re more likely to get hypothyroidism.
  • Smoking. If you are or were a smoker, you have an increased risk due to chemicals in cigarettes that act as anti-thyroid agents.
  • Iodine. If you lack sufficient iodine in your system–or have too much as a result of taking supplements–your risks of autoimmune thyroid disease and hypothyroidism increase.

Quinoa-Stuffed Baby Bell Peppers

12 baby bell peppers, cored and seeded (about the size of golf balls)
Olive oil cooking spray
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup sliced shiitake mushroom caps
1 large shallot, chopped (about ½ cup)
1 cup cooked red quinoa (see note)
¼ cup salted, chopped pecans
2 slices prosciutto, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika

Place bell peppers in shallow roasting pan. Spray with cooking spray. Roast in preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender and lightly browned.

While peppers are roasting, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and shallot. Cook for 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Stir in quinoa, pecans, prosciutto, salt, pepper, cumin and paprika.

Remove peppers from oven. When cool enough to handle, spoon quinoa mixture into cavities, heaping the mixture into each pepper.

Makes 12 stuffed peppers; 6 servings. Leftovers can be refrigerated for a couple of days.

Note: Red quinoa is available in natural food stores and many supermarkets. Follow cooking directions on package. If desired, omit prosciutto for vegetarian dish.

Per serving: 134 calories / 6 grams total fat / 5 grams protein / 17 grams carbohydrates / 4 milligrams cholesterol / 230 milligrams sodium / 4.5 grams dietary fiber