Patient Questions – HRT and Weight Gain

Question 

I’m an active baby boomer who tries to stay in good shape. I walk a lot, go to aerobics twice a week, inline skate in summer, and curl twice a week in the winter. I try to eat healthy food but I’m finding it nearly impossible to lose that excess fat around my waist. My question is, does taking hormonal drugs, such as Premarin and Prometrium, have any effect on trying to lose weight? I’ve tried several times to get completely off the drugs and although I’m only taking half my original dosage, I can’t bear the hot flashes and night sweats without the drugs. I personally believe that I’d be better off without the drugs but I don’t know if it would then be any easier to lose the abdominal fat.

Thank you,
Cathy 

Answer 

Dear Cathy,

Your letter has raised a number of very pertinent questions that every woman that’s approaching menopause should be aware of. 

First of all, we know that the negative conclusions reached by the Women’s Health Initiative study¹ led to 50 percent of women being removed from or voluntarily stopping their hormone replacement therapy. The negative findings were suggestive of an increased risk of heart disease, strokes, breast cancer, and dementia.

However, in later reviews and critiques of the study, many researchers have reversed some of their earlier conclusions. Please see my blog post on this subject, entitled Risks of Hormone Replacement Therapy in Women. The researchers suggest that women become informed regarding the many helpful benefits of hormone replacement therapy, not just about the symptomatic treatment of hot flushes and night sweats. In the journal Fertility and Sterility in December 2005, the authors critiqued the study design and proposed two major reasons why the original authors of the study reached the conclusions that they did². The authors criticized the use of continuous combined estrogen/progestin or estrogen alone as a standard regime to an aging female population with little previous hormonal treatment, who because of their age were naturally predisposed to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. The authors also criticized the use of continuous synthetic progestin or Provera, which is known to have significant side effects and has been linked to increasing rates of breast cancer. There are now over a hundred published studies indicating that estrogen can be safely prescribed to women with a history of breast cancer. The hormone estrogen when prescribed alone, rather than in combination with the synthetic progestin Provera, hasn’t been found to be harmful in any study to date. The hormone combination Prempro was to blame and more specifically, the synthetic progestin, Provera. 

Due to the premature termination of hormone replacement therapy, many women are being exposed to increased risks of osteoporosis and hip fractures, colon cancer, and increased risks of heart disease, strokes, and breast cancer. In the field of anti-aging medicine, we’ve been warning patients of the detrimental effects of synthetic hormones and have strongly suggested that women use bioidentical hormones instead. Restoring one’s hormones to youthful levels seems highly appropriate and is supported by scientific literature. It’s strongly encouraged that you begin to use hormones as soon as possible after menopause. You should also check with your doctor that you have no personal or family history risk factors for hormone replacement therapy before beginning your regime.   

Cathy, bearing this in mind I’d strongly suggest that you continue your hormone replacement therapy, but switch to bioidentical hormones and be sure to reach therapeutic levels. If your doctor prescribes hormones to merely relieve hot flushes and night sweats, and doesn’t reach therapeutic levels with your hormones, you’ll not be protected against the deterioration of your bones, brain, and cardiovascular system. In addition, your risk of colon cancer will increase. 

With regards to the weight issue, it’s well established that Provera, which is synthetic progesterone, can lead to significant weight gain. Sometimes physicians use synthetic progestin in cancer patients suffering from severe wasting to increase their appetite and reverse a condition known as cachexia³. I suggest that you switch to bioidentical progesterone and see if this makes any difference. Prometrium is a reasonable choice but I prefer sublingual slow-release progesterone, which is available from compounding pharmacies. 

I suggest that you also check your levels of estradiol. If the level’s too high, this may lead to weight gain. The suggested level is between 186-367 pmol/l. I also suggest that you have your blood level taken approximately twenty-four hours after your last estrogen dose, if you’re taking oral estradiol. This will reflect the ‘steady state’ level in your bloodstream. If you’re taking transdermal estrogen cream, you’ll need to do a saliva hormone test to measure estradiol, estriol, and estrone levels to more accurately reflect your levels at the surface of your cell’s receptors. Blood levels of estrogen do not reflect levels of estrogen when given in a transdermal form, a mistake made by many practitioners new to the prescribing bioidentical hormones. You’ll also need to test your urinary metabolites of estradiol to ascertain if you’re making the less harmful metabolites of estradiol, which is known as 2-hydroxyestradiol, as opposed to the potentially more harmful metabolites of estradiol known as 4-hydroxy and 16-hydroxyestradiol.

In a study published by the Oregon Health and Science University, scientists observed a group of forty-six pre- and post-menopausal women. The scientists reached the conclusion that the drop in estrogen levels commonly associated with menopause is linked to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone is strongly linked to an increase in abdominal obesity. It was determined that if the women received therapeutic levels of estrogen, cortisol levels decreased and there was a reduction in visceral fat.

In addition, as we age, we lose muscle mass and there’s a corresponding decline in the metabolic rate. As a result, many perimenopausal and menopausal women who continue to eat the same amount of food that they did when they were younger find that with decreasing energy expenditure, they gain weight that’s difficult to lose. Find out if the gym or health clinic closest to you has a bioimpedance machine that can measure your percentage of muscle mass and ask them to track it over time. We routinely measure such biometrics at every visit when patients complain of weight gain or loss. 

Most weight gain during perimenopause and menopause is usually secondary to an increase in appetite. It’s well known that all hormones can significantly increase a person’s appetite. If there’s been rapid weight gain, this is usually due to fluid retention and brief use of a diuretic may be helpful. If your weight gain is gradual, it’s most likely due to an increase in appetite. 

It’s established that hormones have no caloric value. In fact, in a study in 1999⁴, the authors concluded that not only does hormone replacement therapy prevent weight gain, it also favours weight loss by significantly increasing the breakdown of fat after three months of treatment. It also positively influences the insulin/blood sugar response, plasma cholesterol, and energy expenditure.  

In another study published in 2004⁵, the authors determined that hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women, along with testosterone replacement therapy in older men, appeared to reduce the degree of central obesity. 

So Cathy, in conclusion I suggest the following:

  • Continue your hormone replacement therapy, but find a doctor who knows how to prescribe bioidentical hormones in therapeutic doses. 
  • Eat a low glycemic paleo autoimmune type diet with a decrease in the total daily dose of calories consumed.
  • Increase the amount of hot, spicy, bitter foods that you consume, as it has been shown in studies of Ayurvedic medicine that these tastes increase one’s metabolism. 
  • Concurrently, decrease your consumption of sweet, sour, and salty foods as these tastes have been shown to increase weight gain. 
  • Exercise five days a week with an exercise regime that includes significant muscle strengthening with large muscle groups, such as those in the legs, to increase your metabolic rate. 
  • Be sure to get a good night’s sleep as this naturally increases your levels of growth hormone, which has also been linked to weight reduction. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how hormone replacement therapy can affect or is affecting your health, then please don’t hesitate to read the other posts on the Hoffman Centre blog or contact my office to set up an appointment.

Resources:

¹JAMA. 2002;288(3) 321-333

²Fert Steril. 2005 Dec; 84 (6): 1589 -601

³Sem Oncol 1991: 18:35-42

⁴Maturitas 1999 Aug 16; 32(3);147 -53

⁵Obesity Review 2004 Nov; 5 (4);197 -216

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