The Bioidentical Hormone Debate: Are BioidenticalHormones (Estradiol, Estriol, and Progesterone) Safer or More Efficacious than Commonly Used Synthetic Versions in Hormone Replacement Therapy?
Kent Holtorf, MD1
1Holtorf Medical Group, Inc.,
Correspondence: Kent Holtorf, MD,
Holtorf Medical Group, Inc.,
23456 Hawthorne Blvd., Suite 160,
Torrance, CA 90505.
2 © Postgraduate Medicine, Volume 121, Issue 1, January 2009, ISSN – 0032-5481, e-ISSN – 1941-9260
The relative safety of bioidentical hormone replacement
compared with traditional synthetic and animal-derived versions,
such as conjugated equine estrogens (CEE), medroxyprogesterone
acetate (MPA), and other synthetic progestins
is the subject of intense debate. According to The Endocrine
Society Position Statement, there is little or no evidence to
support the claim that bioidentical hormones are safer or
more effective than the commonly used synthetic versions
of hormone replacement therapy (HRT).1 Furthermore,
the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ordered
pharmacies to stop providing estriol, stating that it is a new,
unapproved drug with unknown safety and effectiveness.
Nevertheless, estriol has been used for decades without
reported safety concerns and is a component of medications
approved for use worldwide. The FDA has acknowledged
that it is unaware of any adverse events associated with the
use of compounded medications containing estriol, and US
Congress is considering a resolution (HR342) to reverse
the FDA’s decision to restrict its use. Claims by The Endocrine
Society and the FDA are in direct contrast to those of
proponents of bioidentical hormones, who argue that these
hormones are safer than comparable synthetic versions of
HRT. Such claims are not fully supported, which can be
confusing for patients and physicians.
One major reason for a lack of conclusive data is that,
until recently, progestogens were lumped together because of
a commonly held belief that different forms of progestogens
would have identical physiological effects and risks, because
they all mediate effects via the same (progesterone) receptor.
This view also applies to the different forms of estrogen,
which are commonly grouped together and referred to as
estrogen replacement therapy.
The term “bioidentical HRT” refers to the use of hormones
that are exact copies of endogenous human hormones,
including estriol, estradiol, and progesterone, as opposed
to synthetic versions with different chemical structures or
nonhuman versions, such as CEE. Bioidentical hormones
are also often referred to as “natural hormones,” which can
be confusing because bioidentical hormones are synthesized,
while some estrogens from a natural source, such as equine
urine, are not considered bioidentical because many of their
components are foreign to the human body.
This review will examine the differences between the
bioidentical hormones estriol, estradiol, and progesterone
when used as components of HRT compared with synthetic or
nonidentical hormones such as CEE and synthetic progestins,
including MPA. The article attempts to determine whether
there is any supporting evidence that bioidentical hormones
are a potentially safer or more effective form of HRT than
the commonly used synthetic versions.
Bioidentical hormones have a chemical structure identical
to human hormones but are chemically synthesized, such
as progesterone, estriol, and estradiol. Nonbioidentical
hormones are not structurally identical to human hormones
and may either be chemically synthesized, such as MPA, or
derived from a nonhuman source, such as CEE.
Databases and Keywords
Literature searches were conducted for HRT formularies,
focusing on those that either are or have been used in the
United States. Published papers identified for review by
PubMed/MEDLINE, Google Scholar, and Cochrane database
searches included the keywords: “bioidentical hormones,”
“synthetic hormones,” “progestin,” “menopausal hormone
replacement,” “hormone replacement therapy,” “HRT,”
“estriol,” “progesterone,” “natural hormones,” “conjugated
equine estrogens,” “medroxyprogesterone acetate,” “breast
cancer,” and “cardiovascular disease.”
Published papers that focused on 3 key areas were identified:
1) clinical efficacy, 2) physiologic actions on breast tissue,
and 3) risks for breast cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Papers included human clinical studies that compared
bioidentical and nonbioidentical hormones, animal studies
based on similar comparisons, and in vitro experimental
work that focused on physiological or biochemical aspects
of the hormones.
1) Symptomatic Efficacy of Synthetic
Progestins versus Progesterone
Four studies of patients using HRT, including either progesterone
or MPA, compared efficacy, patient satisfaction,
and quality of life. Women in all 4 studies reported greater
satisfaction, fewer side effects, and improved quality of
life when they were switched from synthetic progestins to
progesterone replacement.2–6 In a cross-sectional survey,
Fitzpatrick et al compared patient satisfaction and quality of
life, as well as other somatic and psychological symptoms
(ie, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, menstrual bleeding,
© Postgraduate Medicine, Volume 121, Issue 1, January 2009, ISSN – 0032-5481, e-ISSN – 1941-9260 3
The Bioidentical Hormone Debate
vasomotor symptoms, cognitive difficulties, attraction, and
sexual functioning) in 176 menopausal women on HRT with
MPA versus HRT with progesterone.2 Significant differences
were seen for all somatic, vasomotor, and psychological
symptoms, except for attraction, when bioidentical progesterone
was used rather than MPA (P _ 0.001).
The effect of progesterone compared with MPA included
a 30% reduction in sleep problems, a 50% reduction in
anxiety, a 60% reduction in depression, a 30% reduction
in somatic symptoms, a 25% reduction in menstrual bleeding,
a 40% reduction in cognitive difficulties, and a 30%
improvement in sexual function. Overall, 65% of women
felt that HRT combined with progesterone was better than
the HRT combined with MPA.2
In a randomized study comparing HRT with MPA or
progesterone in 23 postmenopausal women with no mood
disorders such as depression or anxiety, Cummings and Brizendine
found significantly more negative somatic effects but
no differences in mood assessment with synthetic hormones.
These negative effects included increased vaginal bleeding
(P _ 0.003) and increased breast tenderness (P _ 0.02),
with a trend for increased hot flashes with the use of MPA
compared with progesterone.3 In the 3-year, double-blind,
placebo-controlled Postmenopausal Estrogen/Progestin
Interventions (PEPI) trial, 875 menopausal women received
either placebo, CEE with MPA (cyclic or continuous), or
progesterone (cyclic). Those taking progesterone had fewer
episodes of excessive bleeding than those on MPA (either
continuous or cyclic),4 but no differences were noted in
2) Differing Physiological Effects
of Bioidentical Progesterone
and Synthetic Progestins
Progesterone and synthetic progestins generally have indistinguishable
effects on endometrial tissue, which are not the
focus of this review. Studies that compared the physiological
differences in breast tissue of those on progesterone, with
those on other progestins, have the potential to predict differing
risks of breast cancer. While variations in methodology
and study design are considerable, most of the literature
demonstrates physiological differences between progestins
and progesterone and their effects on breast tissue.
Synthetic progestins have potential antiapoptotic effects
and may significantly increase estrogen-stimulated breast cell
mitotic activity and proliferation.7–21 In contrast, progesterone
inhibits estrogen-stimulated breast epithelial cells.16,22–28
Progesterone also downregulates estrogen receptor-1 (ER-1)
in the breast,27–29 induces breast cancer cell apoptosis,30,31
diminishes breast cell mitotic activity,7,16,22–24,26–28,31,32 and
arrests human breast cancer cells in the G1 phase by upregulating
cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors and downregulating
Synthetic progestins, in contrast, upregulate cyclin
D121 and increase breast cell proliferation.7–21 Progesterone
consistently demonstrates antiestrogenic activity in breast
tissue.7,16,22,24–29,31–34 This result is generally in contrast to that
for synthetic progestins, especially the 19-nortestosteronederived
progestins, which bind to estrogen receptors in breast
tissue (but not in endometrial tissue) and display significant
intrinsic estrogenic properties in breast but not endometrial
Synthetic progestins may also increase the conversion of
weaker endogenous estrogens into more potent estrogens,7,40–45
potentially contributing to their carcinogenic effects, which
are not apparent with progesterone. Synthetic progestins may
promote the formation of the genotoxic estrogen metabolite
16-hydroxyestrone.41 Synthetic progestins, especially
MPA, stimulate the conversion of inactive estrone sulfate
into active estrone by stimulating sulfatase,43,44 as well as
increasing 17-beta-hydroxysteroid reductase activity,7,40,42,43,45
which in turn increases the intracellular formation of more
potent estrogens and potentially increases breast cancer risk.
Progesterone has an opposite effect, stimulating the oxidative
isoform of 17-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, which
increases the intracellular conversion of potent estrogens to
their less potent counterparts.34,46,47
At least 3 subclasses of progesterone receptors (PR) have
been identified: PRA, PRB, and PRC, each with different cellular
activities.48–52 In normal human breast tissue, the ratio
of PRA:PRB is approximately 1:1.50,53 This ratio is altered
in a large percentage of breast cancer cells and is a risk for
breast cancer.50,53,54 In contrast to progesterone, synthetic
progestins alter the normal PRA:PRB ratio,55–57 which may
be a mechanism by which synthetic progestins increase the
risk for breast cancer.
Synthetic progestins and progesterone have a number of
differences in their molecular and pharmacological effects
on breast tissue, as some of the procarcinogenic effects
of synthetic progestins contrast with the anticarcinogenic
properties of progesterone.8,16,22,24–26,31,33,40,58–70
4 © Postgraduate Medicine, Volume 121, Issue 1, January 2009, ISSN – 0032-5481, e-ISSN – 1941-9260
3) Breast Cancer and Cardiovascular
Risk for Breast Cancer with Synthetic Progestins
Many studies have assessed the risk for breast cancer with the
use of a synthetic progestin for HRT. Despite significant variability
in study design, synthetic progestins have been clearly
associated with an increased risk for breast cancer.7,8,58,71–98
The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a large randomized
clinical trial, demonstrated that a synthetic progestin,
MPA, as a component of HRT significantly increased the risk
for breast cancer (relative risk [RR] _ 1.26, 95% confidence
interval [CI]: 1.00–1.59).71–74 This trial confirmed results
from numerous other groups demonstrating that a synthetic
progestin significantly increases breast cancer risk.7,75–98 In
addition, higher doses of progestins, testosterone-derived
synthetic progestins, and progestin-only regimens further
increase the risk for breast cancer.8,75–77,80,91 The Nurses’
Health Study, which followed 58 000 postmenopausal
women for 16 years (725 000 person-years), found that,
compared with women who never used hormones, use of
unopposed postmenopausal estrogen from ages 50 to 60
years increased the risk for breast cancer to age 70 years by
23% (95% CI: 6–42). The addition of a synthetic progestin to
the estrogen replacement resulted in a tripling of the risk for
breast cancer (67% increased risk) (95% CI: 18–136).98
Ross et al compared the risk for breast cancer in 1897
women on combined estrogen and synthetic progestin with
1637 control patients who had never used HRT. Synthetic
progestin use increased the risk for breast cancer by approximately
25% for each 5 years of use compared with estrogen
alone (RR _ 1.25, 95% CI: 1.02–1.18).82 In a meta-analysis
of 61 studies, Lee et al found a consistently increased risk for
breast cancer with synthetic HRT, with an average increase
of 7.6% per year of use (95% CI: 1.070–1.082), and also
found that higher doses of synthetic progestins conferred a
significantly increased risk for breast cancer.75 Ewertz et al
examined the risk for breast cancer for approximately 80 000
women aged 40 to 67 years from 1989 to 2002. For women
older than 50 years, current use of synthetic HRT increased
the risk for breast cancer by 61% (95% CI: 1.38–1.88).
Longer duration of use and the use of synthetic progestins
derived from testosterone were associated with increased
risk.76 Newcomb et al studied the risk for breast cancer with
synthetic HRT (80% used CEE and 86% used MPA) in more
than 5000 postmenopausal women aged 50 to 79 years. They
found a significant increase in breast cancer of 2% per year for
the estrogen-only group (RR _ 1.02/yr, 95% CI: 1.01–1.03/
yr), and a 4% increase per year if a synthetic progestin was
used in addition to the estrogen (RR _ 1.04/yr, 95% CI:
1.01–1.08/yr). Higher doses of progestin increased the risk
for breast cancer, and use of a progestin-only preparation
doubled the risk for breast cancer (RR _ 2.09, 95% CI:
Risk for Breast Cancer with Bioidentical
Progesterone and synthetic progestins have generally
indistinguishable effects on endometrial tissue. However,
as discussed above, there is significant evidence that progesterone
and synthetic progestins have differing effects on
breast tissue proliferation. Thus, progesterone and synthetic
progestins would be expected to carry different risks for
breast cancer. Although no randomized, controlled trials
were identified that directly compared the risks for breast
cancer between progesterone and synthetic progestins,
large-scale observational trials58,59 and randomized placebo
control primate trials16 do show significant differences. Furthermore,
in contrast to the demonstrated increased risk for
breast cancer with synthetic progestins,7,8,58,71–98 studies have
consistently shown a decreased risk for breast cancer with
In 2007, Fournier et al reported an association between
various forms of HRT and the incidence of breast cancer in
more than 80 000 postmenopausal women who were followed
for more than 8 postmenopausal years.59 Compared
with women who had never used any HRT, women who used
estrogen only (various preparations) had a nonsignificant
increase of 1.29 times the risk for breast cancer (P _ 0.73). If
a synthetic progestin was used in combination with estrogen,
the risk for breast cancer increased significantly to 1.69 times
that for control subjects (P _ 0.01). However, for women
who used progesterone in combination with estrogen, the
increased risk for breast cancer was eliminated with a significant
reduction in breast cancer risk compared with synthetic
progestin use (P _ 0.001).59
In a previous analysis of more than 50 000 postmenopausal
women in the E3N-EPIC cohort, Fournier et al found
that the risk for breast cancer was significantly increased if
synthetic progestins were used (RR _ 1.4), but was reduced
if progesterone was used (RR _ 0.9). There was a significant
difference in the risk for breast cancer between the use of
estrogens combined with synthetic progestins versus estrogens
combined with progesterone (P _ 0.001).58
Wood et al investigated whether the increased breast
cancer risk with synthetic progestins was also seen when
progesterone was used.16 Postmenopausal primates were
given placebo, estradiol, estradiol and MPA, and estradiol
and bioidentical progesterone, with each treatment for
2 months with a 1-month washout period. Ki67 expression
is a biomarker for lobular and ductal epithelial proliferation
in the postmenopausal breast and is an important prognostic
indicator in human breast cancer.102 Compared with placebo,
significantly increased proliferation was found with the combination
of estrogen and MPA in both lobular (P _ 0.009)
and ductal (P _ 0.006) tissue, but was not seen with the
combination of estrogen and progesterone. Intramammary
gene expressions of the proliferation markers Ki67 and cyclin
B1 were also higher after treatment with estrogen and MPA
(4.9-fold increase, P _ 0.007 and 4.3-fold increase, P _ 0.002,
respectively) but not with estrogen and progesterone. Inoh
et al investigated the protective effect of progesterone and
tamoxifen on estrogen- and diethylstilbestrol-induced breast
cancer in rats. The induction rate, multiplicity, and size
of estrogen-induced mammary tumors were significantly
reduced by simultaneous administration of either tamoxifen
Chang et al examined the effects of estrogen and progesterone
on women prior to breast surgery in a double-blind,
placebo-controlled study in which patients were given placebo,
estrogen, transdermal progesterone, or estrogen and
transdermal progesterone for 10 to 13 days before breast
surgery. Estrogen increased cell proliferation rates by 230%
(P _ 0.05), but progesterone decreased cell proliferation rates
by 400% (P _ 0.05). Progesterone, when given with estradiol,
inhibited the estrogen-induced breast cell proliferation.22
Similarly, in a randomized, double-blind study, Foidart et al
also showed that progesterone eliminated estrogen-induced
breast cell proliferation (P _ 0.001).23
A prospective epidemiological study demonstrated a
protective role for progesterone against breast cancer.99 In
this study, 1083 women who had been treated for infertility
were followed for 13 to 33 years. The premenopausal risk
for breast cancer was 5.4 times higher in women who had
low progesterone levels compared with those with normal
levels (95% CI: 1.1–49). The result was significant, despite
the fact that the high progesterone group had significantly
more risk factors for breast cancer than the low progesterone
group, highlighting the importance of this parameter. Moreover,
there were 10 times as many deaths from cancer in the
low progesterone group compared with those with normal
progesterone levels (95% CI: 1.3–422).99 Women with
low progesterone have significantly worse breast cancer
survival rates than those with more optimal progesterone
In a prospective study, luteal phase progesterone levels in
5963 women were measured and compared with subsequent
risk for breast cancer. Progesterone was inversely associated
with breast cancer risk for the highest versus lowest
tertile (RR _ 0.40, 95% CI: 0.15–1.08, P for trend _ 0.077).
This trend became significant in women with regular menses,
which allowed for more accurate timing of collection
(RR _ 0.12, 95% CI: 0.03–0.52, P _ 0.005).61 Other casecontrol
studies also found such a relationship.66–70
Peck et al conducted a nested case-control study to
examine third-trimester progesterone levels and maternal
risk of breast cancer in women who were pregnant between
1959 and 1966. Cases (n _ 194) were diagnosed with in situ
or invasive breast cancer between 1969 and 1991. Controls
(n _ 374) were matched to cases by age at the time of index
pregnancy using randomized recruitment. Increasing progesterone
levels were associated with a decreased risk of breast
cancer. Relative to those with progesterone levels in the lowest
quartile (_ 124.25 ng/mL), those in the highest quartile
(_ 269.97 ng/mL) had a 50% reduction in the incidence of
breast cancer (RR _ 0.49, CI 0.22–1.1, P for trend _ 0.08). The
association was stronger for cancers diagnosed at or before
age 50 years (RR _ 0.3, CI: 0.1–0.9, P for trend _ 0.04).60 Preeclampsia,
with its associated increased progesterone levels,
is also associated with a reduced risk for breast cancer.103–105
Estriol and the Risk for Breast Cancer
Estrogen effects are mediated through 2 different estrogen
receptors: estrogen receptor-alpha (ER-α) and estrogen
receptor-beta (ER-β).106–111 Estrogen receptor-α promotes
breast cell proliferation, while ER-β inhibits proliferation
and prevents breast cancer development via G2 cell cycle
Estradiol equally activates ER-α and ER-β, while estrone
selectively activates ER-α at a ratio of 5:1.118,119 In contrast, It is extremely important to
estriol selectively binds ER-β at a ratio of 3:1.118,119 This understand this concept with
unique property of estriol, in contrast to the selective ER-α ER-α and ER-β
binding by other estrogens,107,118–121 imparts to estriol a potential
for breast cancer prevention,59,122–125 while other estrogens
would be expected to promote breast cancer.106,112–115,126 As
well as selectively binding ER-α, CEE components are potent
downregulators of ER-β receptors.114 Whether this activity
is unique to CEE is unclear, but it could potentially increase
Furthermore, synthetic progestins synergistically downregulate
ER-β receptors,114 a possible mechanism underlying
the breast-cancer-promoting effect of CEE in conjunction
with synthetic progestins. Conjugated equine estrogens
also contains at least one particularly potent carcinogenic
estrogen, 4-hydroxy-equilenin, which promotes cancer by
inducing DNA damage.127–131
Because of its differing effects on ER-α and ER-β, we
would expect that estriol would be less likely to induce proliferative
changes in breast tissue and to be associated with
a reduced risk of breast cancer.40,59,80,103–105,122–125,132–144 Only
one in vitro study on an estrogen receptor-positive breast
cancer tissue cell line demonstrated a stimulatory effect of
estriol as well as for estrone and estradiol.145 Melamed et al
demonstrated that, when administered with estradiol, estriol
may have a unique ability to protect breast tissue from excessive
estrogen-mediated stimulation. Acting alone, estriol is a
weak estrogen, but when given with estradiol, it functions as
an antiestrogen. Interestingly, estriol competitively inhibits
estradiol binding and also inhibits activated receptor binding
to estrogen response elements, which limits transcription.135
Patentable estriol-like selective estrogen receptors modulators
(SERMs) are being developed to prevent and treat breast
Estriol and progesterone levels dramatically increase
during pregnancy (an approximate 15-fold increase in progesterone
and a 1000-fold increase in estriol), and postpartum
women continue to produce higher levels of estriol than nulliparous
women.136 This increased exposure to progesterone
and estriol during and after pregnancy confers a significant
long-term reduction in the risk for breast cancer.40,103–105,136–141
If these substances were carcinogenic, it would be expected
that pregnancy would increase the risk for breast cancer rather
than protect against it. Urinary estriol levels in postmenopausal
women show an inverse correlation with the risk for
breast cancer in many,125,132–134,142,143,146 but not all, studies.147
Lemon et al demonstrated that estriol and/or tamoxifen,
as opposed to other estrogens, prevented the development
of breast cancer in rats after the administration of
carcinogens.123,124 Mueck et al compared the proliferative
effects of different estrogens on human breast cancer cells
when combined with progesterone or synthetic progestins.24
They found that progesterone inhibited breast cancer cell
proliferation at higher estrogen levels, but that synthetic
progestins had the potential to stimulate breast cancer cell
proliferation when combined with the synthetic estrogens
equilin or 17-alpha-dihydroequilin, which are major components
of CEE. This demonstrates a mechanism for the
particularly marked increased risk for breast cancer when
CEE is combined with a synthetic progestin.
In a large study of more than 30 000 women by Bakken
et al, the use of estrogen-only HRT increased the risk of
breast cancer compared with that in nonusers (RR _ 1.8, 95%
CI: 1.1–2.9). The addition of a synthetic progestin further
increased breast cancer risk (RR _ 2.5, 95% CI: 1.9–3.2)
while the use of an estriol-containing preparation was not
associated with the risk of breast cancer that was seen with
other preparations (RR _1.0, 95% CI: 0.4–2.5).144
In a large case-control study of 3345 women aged 50
to 74 years, the use of estrogen only, estrogen and synthetic
progestin, or progestin only was associated with a
significantly increased risk of breast cancer (RR _ 1.94,
95% CI: 1.47–2.55; RR _ 1.63, CI: 1.37–1.94; and RR _ 1.59,
CI: 1.05–2.41, respectively). The risk of breast cancer among
estriol users was, however, not appreciably different than
among nonusers (RR _ 1.10, CI: 0.95–1.29).80 Large-scale
randomized control trials are needed to quantify the effects
of estriol in the risk of breast cancer.
Cardiovascular Risk with Synthetic Progestins
The WHI study demonstrated that the addition of MPA to
Premarin® (a CEE) (Prempro®) resulted in a substantial increase in the
risk of heart attack and stroke.71–73 This outcome with MPA
is not surprising because synthetic progestins produce negative
cardiovascular effects and negate the cardioprotective
effects of estrogen.71,73,148–172 Progesterone, in contrast, has
the opposite effect because it maintains and augments the
cardioprotective effects of estrogen, thus decreasing the risk
for heart attack and stroke.148–151,153,155,157,162,165,167,173–178
One mechanism contributing to these opposing effects
for cardiovascular risk is the differing effects on lipids.
Medroxyprogesterone acetate and other synthetic progestins
generally negate the positive lipid effects of estrogen and
show a consistent reduction in HDL,148,153–159,163 the most
important readily measured determinant of cardioprotection,
while progesterone either maintains or augments estrogen’s
positive lipid and HDL effects.148,154,155,157,173,176 For instance, the
PEPI trial, a long-term randomized trial of HRT, compared a
variety of cardiovascular effects including lipid effects of both
MPA and progesterone in combination with CEE. While all
regimens were associated with clinically significant improvements
in lipoprotein levels, many of estrogen’s beneficial
effects on HDL-C were negated with the addition of MPA.
The addition of progesterone to CEE, however, was associated
with significantly higher HDL-C levels than with MPA
and CEE (a notable sparing of estrogen’s beneficial effects)
(P _ 0.004).154
Fahraeus et al compared the lipid effects of synthetic
progestins with progesterone in 26 postmenopausal women
who had been receiving cutaneous estradiol for 3 to
6 months. Women received either 120 _g of l-norgestrel or
300 mg of progesterone sequentially for another 6 months.
Compared with the use of progesterone, l-norgestrel resulted
in significant reductions in HDL and HDL-2 (P _ 0.05).155
Ottosson et al compared the lipid effects of estrogen when
combined with either of 2 synthetic progestins, or bioidentical
progesterone.148 Menopausal women were initially treated
with 2 mg estradiol valerate (cyclical) for 3 cycles, and
then were randomized to receive MPA, levonorgestrel, or
progesterone. Serum lipids and lipoproteins were analyzed
during the last days of the third, fourth, and sixth cycles.
Those receiving estrogen combined with levonorgestrel had
a significant reduction in HDL and HDL subfraction 2 (18%
and 28%, respectively; P _ 0.01), as did those receiving MPA
(8% and 17%, respectively; P _ 0.01). Conversely, there
were no significant changes seen in the HDL and HDL subfraction
levels with the use of progesterone.148 Furthermore, a
randomized trial by Saarikoski et al which compared the lipid
effects in women using the synthetic progestin norethisterone
and progesterone, those on synthetic progestin had a significant
decrease in HDL, whereas those using progesterone had
no decrease in HDL (P _ 0.001).153
A number of studies have shown that coronary artery
spasm, which increases the risk for heart attack and stroke,
is reduced with the use of estrogen and/or progesterone.149–151-
,174,179,180 However, the addition of MPA to estrogen has the
opposite effect, resulting in vasoconstriction,149–151,174 thus
increasing the risk for ischemic heart disease. Minshall et al
compared coronary hyperreactivity by infusing a thromboxane
A2 mimetic in primates, which were administered estradiol
along with MPA or progesterone. When estradiol was
given with progesterone, the coronary arteries were protected
against induced spasm. However, the protective effect was
lost when MPA was used instead of progesterone.149
Miyagawa et al also compared the reactivity of coronary
arteries in primates pretreated with estradiol combined with
either progesterone or MPA. None of the animals treated with
bioidentical progesterone experienced vasospasm, while all
of those treated with MPA showed significant vasospasm.151
Mishra et al150 also found that progesterone protected against
coronary hyperreactivity, while MPA had the opposite effect
and induced coronary constriction.
In a blinded, randomized, crossover study, the effects
of estrogen and progesterone were compared with estrogen
and MPA on exercise-induced myocardial ischemia
in postmenopausal women with coronary artery disease.
Women were treated with estradiol for 4 weeks and then
randomized to receive either progesterone or MPA along
with estradiol. After 10 days on the combined treatment, the
patients underwent a treadmill test. Patients were then crossed
over to the opposite treatment, and the treadmill exercise
was repeated. Exercise time to myocardial ischemia was
significantly increased in the progesterone group compared
with the MPA group (P _ 0.001).162
Adams et al152,175 examined the cardioprotective effects
of CEE and progesterone versus CEE and MPA in primates
fed atherogenic diets for 30 months. The CEE and progesterone
combination resulted in a 50% reduction in atherosclerotic
plaques in the coronary arteries (P _ 0.05).175 This
result was independent of changes in lipid concentrations.
However, when MPA was combined with the CEE, almost
all the cardioprotective effect (atherosclerotic plaque reduction)
was reversed (P _ 0.05).152 Other studies have shown
that progesterone by itself,167,177,181 or in combination with
estrogen,152,175,177 inhibits atherosclerotic plaque formation.
Synthetic progestins, in contrast, have a completely opposite
effect: they promote atherosclerotic plaque formation and
prevent the plaque-inhibiting and lipid-lowering actions of
Transdermal estradiol, when given with or without oral
progesterone, has no detrimental effects on coagulation and
no observed increased risk for venous thromboembolism
(VTE).161,182–184 This result is in contrast to an increased risk
for VTE with CEE, with or without synthetic progestin,
which significantly increases the risk for VTE, whether
both are given orally (eg, oral estrogen and oral synthetic
progestin),71,73,160,171 as transdermal estrogen and oral synthetic
progestin,161 or both estrogen and synthetic progestin given
transdermally.185,186 Canonico et al compared the risk for VTE
with different forms of HRT in 271 cases and 610 controls.
They found that transdermal estradiol and oral progesterone
or pregnane derivatives (progestins derived from progesterone)
were not associated with VTE risk (RR _ 0.7; 95%
CI: 0.3–1.9 and RR _ 0.9; 95% CI: 0.4–2.3, respectively). In
contrast, the use of nonpregnane derivatives increased VTE
risk 4-fold (RR _ 3.9; 95% CI: 1.5–10).161
Medroxyprogesterone acetate also has undesirable intrinsic
glucocorticoid activity,187,188 whereas progesterone does
not have such negative effects and is a competitive inhibitor
of aldosterone, which is generally a desirable effect.189 No
changes in blood pressure are observed with progesterone
in normotensive postmenopausal women, but a slight reduction
in blood pressure is shown in hypertensive women.190,191
Synthetic progestins can significantly increase insulin
resistance,167–170,191 when compared with estrogen and
The expression of vascular cell adhesion molecule-1
(VCAM-1) is one of the earliest events in the atherogenic
process. Otsuki et al compared the effects of progesterone and
MPA on VCAM-1 expression and found that progesterone
inhibited VCAM-1. No such effect was observed with MPA
(P _ 0.001).165
Physicians must translate both basic science results and
clinical outcomes to decide on the safest, most efficacious
treatment for patients. Evidence-based medicine involves the
synthesis of all available data when comparing therapeutic
options for patients. Evidence-based medicine does not mean
that data should be ignored until a randomized control trial
of a particular size and duration is completed. Rather, it
demands an assessment of the current available data to decide
which therapies are likely to carry the greatest benefits and
the lowest risks for patients.
Progesterone, compared with MPA, is associated with
greater efficacy, patient satisfaction, and quality of life.
More importantly, molecular differences between synthetic
progestins and progesterone result in differences
in their pharmacological effects on breast tissue. Some
of the procarcinogenic effects of synthetic progestins
contrast with the anticarcinogenic properties of progesterone,
which result in disparate clinical effects on the risk
of breast cancer. Progesterone has an antiproliferative,
antiestrogenic effect on both the endometrium and breast
tissue, while synthetic progestins have antiproliferative,
antiestrogenic effects on endometrial tissue, but often have
© Postgraduate Medicine, Volume 121, Issue 1, January 2009, ISSN – 0032-5481, e-ISSN – 1941-9260 Kent Holtorf
a proliferative estrogenic effect on breast tissue. Synthetic
progestins show increased estrogen-induced breast tissue
proliferation and a risk for breast cancer, whereas progesterone
inhibits breast tissue proliferation and reduces the
risk for breast cancer.
Until recently, estriol was available in the United States
as a compounded prescription, but was banned in January
2008 by the FDA, which stated that it was a new, unapproved
drug with unknown safety and effectiveness, although its
symptomatic efficacy is generally not in question.192–196 The
FDA has not received a single report of an adverse event in
more than 30 years of estriol use. Estriol is also the subject
of a US Pharmacopeia monograph. The FDA Modernization
Act of 1997 clearly indicated that drugs with a US Pharmacopeia
monograph could be compounded. It appears that the
FDA took action, not because estriol is at least as safe and
effective as current estrogens on the market, but in response
to what was considered unsupported claims that estriol was
safer than current forms of estrogen replacement and because
there is no standardized dose. Estriol has unique physiologic
properties associated with a reduction in the risk of breast
cancer, and combining estriol with estradiol in hormone
replacement preparations would be expected to decrease the
risk for breast cancer.
In cardiovascular disease, synthetic progestins, as
opposed to progesterone, negate the beneficial lipid and vascular
effects of estrogen. Transdermal bioidentical estrogen
and progesterone are associated with beneficial cardiovascular
and metabolic effects compared with the use of CEE
and synthetic progestins.
Based on both physiological results and clinical outcomes,
current evidence demonstrates that bioidentical
hormones are associated with lower risks than their nonbioidentical
counterparts. Until there is evidence to the contrary,
current evidence dictates that bioidentical hormones are the
preferred method of HRT.
A thorough review of the medical literature supports the
claim that bioidentical hormones have some distinctly different,
often opposite, physiological effects to those of their
synthetic counterparts. With respect to the risk for breast
cancer, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, substantial
scientific and medical evidence demonstrates that bioidentical
hormones are safer and more efficacious forms of HRT
than commonly used synthetic versions. More randomized
control trials of substantial size and length will be needed to
further delineate these differences.
The author wishes to thank Duaine Jackola, PhD, of
ScienceDocs for his editing contribution.
Conflict of Interest Statement
Kent Holtorf, MD discloses no conflicts of interest.
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http://news.prnewswire.com/ 02-23-09 Page 1 of 2
New Analysis Finds Bioidentical Hormones Safer Than
Standard Hormone Replacement Therapy
Comprehensive review demonstrates bioidentical hormones are superior to
synthetic HRT with greater cardiovascular benefits and reduced risk of breast
TORRANCE, Calif., Feb. 23 /PRNewswire/ — The most comprehensive analysis
to date, published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, a leading peer-reviewed
publication for practicing clinicians, showed that bioidentical hormones are
associated with reduced health risks and are more efficacious than their synthetic
counterparts. Conducted by a leading expert in hormone replacement, Kent
Holtorf, M.D., medical director of the Holtorf Medical Group in Torrance,
California, the paper reviewed and evaluated results from more than 200
physiological and clinical studies. It demonstrated that bioidentical hormone
replacement therapy is both more effective and has greater health benefits for
women suffering with symptoms of menopause than hormone replacement
therapy with synthetic hormones. Synthetic forms of hormone replacement
therapy prescribe substances such as Premarin, Provera and Prempro and
present real health risks with increased risks of breast cancer, stroke and heart
“Many physicians and so-called experts state that there is no evidence that
bioidentical hormones are safer than synthetic HRT. A thorough review of the
medical literature, however, clearly supports the claim that bioidentical hormones
have some distinctly different, often opposite, physiological effects to those of
their synthetic hormones,” said Dr. Holtorf, whose practice treats more than
7,000 patients each year. “The medical literature demonstrates that bioidentical
hormone replacement therapy is highly effective and carries a reduced, rather
than an increased risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease.”
The review also showed that patients undergoing bioidentical HRT were less
likely to experience sleep problems, anxiety, depression and cognitive effects –
common side effects of synthetic hormones and are associated with a reduced
risk for breast cancer and superior cardiovascular protection.
“While larger, randomized clinical studies are needed, the review of current
medical literature demonstrates that bioidentical hormones are a safer, highly
effective option for women, and any physician that is practicing evidence-based
http://news.prnewswire.com/ 02-23-09 Page 2 of 2
medicine should be using bioidentical hormone replacement for their patients,”
said Dr. Holtorf.
Synthetic HRT preparations, which are the most commonly prescribed method of
HRT in the United States, are comprised of pregnant horse hormones that are
not found in the human body or synthetic hormones that have physiologic effects
that mimic or mirror the natural estrogen or progesterone effects in the body. In
contrast, bioidentical hormone replacement contains molecules that are exact
replicas of the endogenous estrogens and progesterone found in the body and,
as such, have distinctly different physiological effects than their synthetic
The Holtorf Medical Group is one of the leading authorities on hormone
replacement and has been educating patients on the superiority and safety of
natural hormones versus synthetic for many years. Dr. Holtorf is available to
discuss the FDA’s move to halt the use of bioidentical hormones while promoting
synthetic hormone therapy, and why discouraging healthcare professionals from
using this treatment threatens the health of women everywhere. In addition, Dr.
Holtorf can dispel the common misconceptions associated with bioidentical
hormone treatment and discuss the significant health benefits patients can
expect from this treatment compared to synthetic versions of HRT. For more
information or for a copy of the study go to www.HoltorfMed.com.
SOURCE The Holtorf Medical Group
This review will examine the differences between the bioidentical hormones estriol, estradiol, and progesterone when used as components of HRT compared with synthetic or nonidentical hormones such as CEE and synthetic progestins, including MPA. The article attempts to determine whether there is any supporting evidence that bioidentical hormones are a potentially safer or more effective form of HRT than the commonly used synthetic versions.