Is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) Overhyped?
By Radley Griffin, M.D.
As nice as it sounds, there is no fountain of youth. Aging is inevitable for us all.
Still, it can be frustrating when you can’t go out and play basketball like you used to. Or maybe you sleep wrong one night and your back hurts for days.
Some of these experiences are the result of the changing composition of our bodies as we age. A popular way to fight back against the unpleasant changes of aging is the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Let’s talk about why that is, and whether hormone replacement therapy lives up to the hype.
What Happens to Your Body as You Age?
As people age, their production of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone naturally decreases.
From a biological perspective, sex hormones exist so that two people can be attracted to each other and produce offspring — classic birds and bees stuff. Our sex hormones exist for procreation and protecting offspring. As we move farther beyond reproductive age, our sex hormones begin to slow down.
In men, for example, this can manifest in the loss of ability to build muscle easily. Their muscles can start to atrophy, or break down, and they’re more prone to injury.
When men’s muscles aren’t active, they stop telling the testicles to make more testosterone. When not enough testosterone is present, fat tissue increases, which drives down hormone production even further. This can create a vicious cycle.
As women age, their estrogen levels decrease. Eventually, with menopause they pass completely beyond reproductive capability and their estrogen production becomes negligible. Women often experience fatigue, mood swings, depression, headaches, bone loss, and vaginal atrophy, and their risk for heart disease and stroke increases.
What Does Hormone Replacement Therapy Do?
Hormone replacement therapy uses a medication typically containing either testosterone or estrogen to increase the level of that sex hormone in the body. For many people, HRT can boost energy, increase bone density, improve libido, and encourage muscle growth.
However, hormone replacement therapy isn’t a “magic bullet” solution for all the body’s problems. It simply provides an otherwise out-of-reach opportunity to make health improvements and lifestyle changes in the face of declining hormones.
What Are We Trying To Solve With Hormone Replacement Therapy?
In general, people try hormone replacement therapy because they don’t like the changes and limitations they see as they age. Altered body composition, decreased strength and sex drive, and poor mood and energy are all strong motivators.
These body changes can be especially apparent in people who aren’t physically active as they age. Then again, the limitations caused by hormonal changes can sometimes make it difficult to be physically active in the first place, which can be very frustrating.
The idea behind hormone replacement therapy is to provide a kickstart to get the body going again. For example, HRT can provide a much-needed boost to a metabolic system that’s been suppressing testosterone production. This provides that person an opportunity to strengthen their muscles, reconnect with their partner sexually, and improve their energy level and mood — things they wouldn’t have been able to do without the therapy.
What Are the Limits of Hormone Replacement Therapy?
For many people, aging can be a depressing time. Hormone replacement therapy is not a panacea for all of aging’s ills, but it can provide an amazing boost in a difficult time of life and the means to achieve a sustainably healthy lifestyle.
When considering hormone replacement therapy, it’s important to consider your goals in using this type of therapy, along with what types of lifestyle changes you are willing and able to make. The key is to use HRT to bolster your health in the aging process and encourage holistic, sustainable changes.
What Does Success Mean for You?
Consider your personal goals for hormone replacement therapy. For example, for you success might mean maintaining your strength, increasing your energy, getting down to your natural waistline, or better connecting with your partner sexually.
Say your primary goal with HRT is to change your body composition by reducing fat. You start testosterone replacement therapy and notice you have an easier time losing weight. This is great news!
However, it’s important to make other changes in your life that will result in the maintenance of a healthy weight after hormone replacement therapy. HRT doesn’t usually last forever, but it can give you a window to recover your health and make the lifestyle changes that will best sustain it.
How Can Hormone Replacement Therapy Change Your Life?
You may have seen celebrities in their seventies and eighties looking fit and tanned, energetically supporting the use of hormone replacement therapy. These can be inspiring images!
What’s important to keep in mind is that hormone replacement therapy alone doesn’t bring dramatic change. Rather, HRT provides you a way to make positive and lasting lifestyle changes. You can’t expect lasting changes from HRT alone without putting in some work.
Hormone replacement therapy can provide the energy and confidence you need to increase your exercise routine or change your diet. It can help you manage your stress differently, or help you feel better overall so you can make life changes that are sustainable for you.
Hormone replacement therapy is an incredible tool that you can take advantage of to help you take positive, sustainable action to improve your life and health.
The successful use of hormone replacement therapy comes down to having a holistic mindset. The goal isn’t just to change one hormone, but to make lifestyle changes that are sustainable into the future.
Although hormone replacement therapy isn’t a “magic bullet,” it can be a great option when combined with the right lifestyle changes. HRT is not going to reverse the aging process, but it can help to dramatically boost your quality of life as you age.