Are Bioidentical Hormones (Estradiol, Estriol, and Progesterone) Safer or More Efficacious than Commonly Used Synthetic Versions in Hormone Replacement Therapy?
Background: The use of bioidentical hormones, including progesterone, estradiol, and estriol, in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has sparked intense debate. Of special concern is their relative safety compared with traditional synthetic and animal-derived versions, such as conjugated equine estrogens (CEE), medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), and other synthetic progestins. Proponents for bioidentical hormones claim that they are safer than comparable synthetic and nonhuman versions of HRT. Yet according to the US Food and Drug Administration and The Endocrine Society, there is little or no evidence to support claims that bioidentical hormones are safer or more effective. Objective: This paper aimed to evaluate the evidence comparing bioidentical hormones, including progesterone, estradiol, and estriol, with the commonly used nonbioidentical versions of HRT for clinical efficacy, physiologic actions on breast tissue, and risks for breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. Methods: Published papers were identified from PubMed/MEDLINE, Google Scholar, and Cochrane databases, which included keywords associated with bioidentical hormones, synthetic hormones, and HRT. Papers that compared the effects of bioidentical and synthetic hormones, including clinical outcomes and in vitro results, were selected. Results: Patients report greater satisfaction with HRTs that contain progesterone compared with those that contain a synthetic progestin. Bioidentical hormones have some distinctly different, potentially opposite, physiological effects compared with their synthetic counterparts, which have different chemical structures. Both physiological and clinical data have indicated that progesterone is associated with a diminished risk for breast cancer, compared with the increased risk associated with synthetic progestins. Estriol has some unique physiological effects, which differentiate it from estradiol, estrone, and CEE. Estriol would be expected to carry less risk for breast cancer, although no randomized controlled trials have been documented. Synthetic progestins have a variety of negative cardiovascular effects, which may be avoided with progesterone. Conclusion: Physiological data and clinical outcomes demonstrate that bioidentical hormones are associated with lower risks, including the risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease, and are more efficacious than their synthetic and animalderived counterparts. Until evidence is found to the contrary, bioidentical hormones remain the preferred method of HRT. Further randomized controlled trials are needed to delineate these differences more clearly.
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.
Author: Kent Holtorf, MD