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Bioidentical, Natural and Synthetic Hormones: What’s the Difference?

I’m going to come clean and tell you that until recently I really didn’t understand the difference between bioidentical hormones and what we call synthetic hormones. I also didn’t know that bioidentical hormones have actually been around for a very long time – like, nearly 100 years. Surprised?  I was too.

Yes, we can thank people like Suzanne Somers and Oprah for beating the drum for bioidentical hormones, and essentially making them a household name. But the truth is they are not new.  And though we constantly refer to bioidentical hormones as “natural,” that is really a misnomer as well. The only natural hormones are the ones produced by your body.  Everything else, even bioidentical hormones, is synthesized in a pharmaceutical laboratory. 

So why are bioidentical hormones considered to be superior to what we call synthetic hormones?  And if they are both created in a lab, then why do we call them natural?  The answer lies in the molecular structure of the hormones and how they are metabolized in your body. 

In the 1930s, American physicians and chemists were quite enthralled and fascinated with the newly discovered sex hormones testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen.  Progesterone was of particular interest and was used to treat problematic pregnancies, gynecological cancers, and menstrual disorders.  However, due to the high cost of producing and synthesizing the hormone, it was not readily available for use in medicine.   

That was until a young graduate student by the name of Russell Marker, devised a way to convert a chemical compound called disogenin, found in Mexican wild yams, into progesterone with the exact molecular structure of the progesterone produced in a woman’s ovaries.

While Marker’s discovery certainly opened the door for future generations of women to have access to healthier forms of progesterone, his motives were not entirely altruistic.  Just shortly after his discovery, Russell Marker set out to make his work commercially available by selling it to the pharmaceutical industry.

Because natural substances which are found in nature, such as the progesterone derived from Mexican yams, cannot be patented, the pharmaceutical industry chemically altered the molecules of Marker’s progesterone to create synthetic variations which could be patented. 

The patent allowed the pharmaceutical industry to own and market the product.  Since then, the campaign to sell synthetic progesterone to physicians and their patients has been fierce and unrelenting.

But the difference between the molecularly altered progesterone and that which is not, is significant.  Biochemically, your body recognizes the chemical structure of bioidentical hormones as identical to the hormones your ovaries produce.  However, it does not recognize synthetic hormones as identically the same.  This difference is why, according to many healthcare professionals, that synthetic hormones produce so many unhealthy side effects. But, that does not suggest that bioidentical hormones are above reproach. The research and studies conducted on them thus far is still relatively new, and they continue to remain a topic of much debate in the medical community.  But, the early research on bioidentical hormones is very promising and could very likely usher in an entire new era of healthier hormone therapy for women; and that, ladies, is always good news.

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About the Author

Magnolia is dedicated to empowering women to take responsibility for their own health.