Estrogen replacement therapy, commonly known as hormone replacement therapy, is meant to give women hormones in an effort to treat or prevent the symptoms of certain conditions or the actual condition itself. The most common condition is menopause; the therapy is used to replace the hormones that a woman’s body no longer makes after menopause. Menopause is a time in a woman’s life when she goes through many physical and often emotional changes; typically, hormone levels fluctuate up and down, causing menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and irritability. The goal of estrogen replacement therapy is to relieve these symptoms through the use of hormones. All of the hormones given are synthetically made in a laboratory, but they work the exact same once inside the body. The thing about taking estrogen hormone therapy is that it is only prescribed for short term use and at the lowest possible dosage that works for an individual. Let’s look at the benefits and side effects of estrogen replacement therapy, and whether or not it is right for you.
Why Estrogen? Estrogen and progesterone are two hormones produced in a woman’s ovaries. They both have very important functions: together, they thicken the lining of the uterus to prepare it for implantation of a fertilized egg; estrogen regulates how the body uses the mineral calcium in bone building, and estrogen also helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Estrogen, very importantly, keeps the vagina healthy! Low levels of estrogen during and after menopause can cause hot flashes (as mentioned above), vaginal dryness, and osteoporosis due to poor bone structure. It is not at all uncommon to receive hormone therapy with estrogen alone, although it is available as a combination with both estrogen and progesterone.
Who Should Receive from Estrogen Hormone Therapy Women with no uterus will benefit from estrogen replacement therapy. If a woman has a uterus and only takes estrogen, she is at greater risk for cancer of the endometrial lining because estrogen thickens the lining and can lead to an overgrowth if the lining isn’t shed (shedding the lining is the job of progesterone.
- Women who have not had endometrial or breast cancer. Estrogen therapy alone can cause a recurrence of breast cancer.
- Women who have no problems with bleeding. Estrogen can cause even more problems if a woman has abnormal vaginal bleeding.
- Women who have menopausal symptoms. Hot flashes, irritability, vaginal dryness, and other menopausal symptoms can be relieved by estrogen replacement therapy.
- Women who have lost bone mass. Estrogen will help the body store more calcium, which will help strengthen bone mass.
- Women who stopped having periods before age 40. This is known as premature menopause.
Benefits of Estrogen Replacement Therapy
- Lower risk of osteoporosis. Estrogen therapy can prevent the bone loss that often occurs after menopause.
- Lower risk of colorectal cancer. Estrogen therapy can also reduce the risk of this type of cancer.
- Lower risk of heart disease. This is not backed by much scientific evidence yet, but it is suggested that estrogen replacement therapy can reduce the risk of heart disease. However, this is dependent on an individual woman’s condition. It is typically true for women who started menopause around age 50.
- Alleviated menopause symptoms. As explained above, estrogen therapy can relieve symptoms of menopause.
Risks Associated with Estrogen Replacement Therapy Unfortunately, as with most medical treatments, there are side effects to estrogen replacement therapy. They include: increased risk of breast and endometrial cancer, heart disease (for women who went through early menopause), stroke, and blood clots. Talking with your doctor is the best way to decide if estrogen replacement therapy is right for you.