Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help balance estrogen and progesterone levels during or near menopause. There are also many other reasons why a doctor might prescribe supplementary sex hormones.
Below, learn about the uses, types, and risks of HRT.
Hormone treatment can help address a range of issues.
The right combination and dosage of the hormones will depend on the reason for prescribing this form of treatment.
Menopause is not an illness. It is a natural transition from the years in which a female can reproduce to the next phase of life.
Many people go through menopause without requiring any treatment. However, if the transition causes troubling or distracting symptoms, a variety of treatment approaches are available.
Around menopause, many people experience:
- hot flashes and night sweats
- vaginal dryness
- bone thinning, or osteoporosis
- urinary problems
- thinning hair
- sleep problems
- mood changes
- irregular periods
- difficulties with concentration and memory
HRT can help manage some of the above symptoms.
In addition, some studies have suggested that HRT may help:
- improve muscle function
- reduce the risk of heart failure and heart attacks
- reduce mortality among younger postmenopausal people
- prevent skin aging, in some people, when used cautiously
However, confirming these benefits will require further research.
A doctor may also prescribe different types and combinations of sex hormones for:
- birth control
- low blood testosterone levels
- a transition from the sex assigned at birth
- prostate cancer
Levels of progesterone and estrogen fluctuate throughout each month, in females, contributing to the menstrual cycle.
These levels also change throughout a person’s lifetime.
Levels of estrogen and progesterone start to fall when most females are in their 40s, but menstruation will continue for some time.
Periods may become less regular, and hot flashes and other menopause symptoms may start to appear during this time.
While menstruation continues, it is possible to become pregnant, although the chances reduce with time.
Perimenopause, or the lead-up to menopause, usually lasts for around 7 years, but it can occur for up to 14 years, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Menopause begins 12 months after a person’s last period. On average, this occurs at the age of 52 in the United States. After menopause, it is no longer possible to become pregnant without medical assistance.
Everyone experiences menopause differently, but hot flashes, mood changes, and other symptoms are common.
- last for more than 7 years
- start before the final monthly period
- continue for an average of 4.5 years after menstruation ends
During this time, HRT can help manage the symptoms.
Menopause begins earlier for some people, and HRT can be helpful if this happens.
People who experience the transition early may:
- have had surgery to remove the uterus, ovaries, or both
- have some types of cancer
- have certain genetic or chromosomal factors
- have certain autoimmune diseases
Sometimes, the transition starts early for no clear reason.
Anyone who is scheduled to undergo surgery or another treatment that will affect their reproductive system should ask about the likelihood of experiencing early menopause.
A doctor can describe the range of treatments available, should a person need them.
While HRT can help manage hot flashes and other menopause symptoms, it can also have adverse effects.
Depending on the type of treatment, these may include:
- breast tenderness
- swelling in the breasts or other parts of the body
- abdominal or back pain
- leg cramps
- vaginal bleeding
- mood changes
These side effects usually disappear after a few weeks.
It is important to let the doctor know about any side effects that cause concern. They may be able to adjust the dosage or suggest an alternative.
In the past, it was common to use hormone therapy during menopause, but HRT may not be safe or suitable for everyone — especially for people with specific risk factors.
Now, most doctors agree that it is safe to take hormone therapy:
- for moderate-to-severe hot flashes and vaginal dryness
- up to the age of 59 years
- within 10 years of menopause
- at the lowest possible dosage, for the shortest possible length of time
However, the individual’s overall health and preferences should influence the decision.
HRT may not be suitable for people with a history of:
- uncontrolled hypertension, or high blood pressure
- thrombosis or blood clots
- high levels of triglycerides in the blood
- heart disease
- breast cancer
- gallbladder disease
Also, people should not use it if they are or may become pregnant.
The American Cancer Society point out that the risk may depend on the type of treatment and the type of cancer.
They report that while one type of HRT may increase the risk of breast cancer slightly, another type may reduce the risk.
Anyone who is thinking of using HRT should talk to their doctor about the specific risks and benefits.
Some people worry that hormone treatment might lead to weight gain, but there is no evidence to support this.
Eating a healthful diet and getting plenty of exercise can help manage the weight gain that commonly affects both females and males in midlife.
There are various ways of delivering hormone therapy, and the different types provide different combinations and amounts of hormones.
Common types include:
Estrogen-only HRT: A doctor may recommend this if a person has had their uterus and ovaries removed, in which case progesterone is not necessary.
Cyclical, or sequential, HRT: This may be a good option if symptoms occur before menopause; the dosage can align with the menstrual cycle.
Continuous HRT: After menopause, a doctor may prescribe a continuous combination of estrogen and progesterone.
Local estrogen: Vaginal tablets, creams, or rings can help with urogenital symptoms, including vaginal dryness and irritation.
The doctor will prescribe the lowest possible dosage that addresses the person’s symptoms, and arriving at this dosage may take some trial and error.
Ways of delivering HRT include:
- creams or gels
- vaginal rings
- skin patches
When a person no longer needs the treatment, the doctor will describe how to stop it gradually.
Various lifestyle adjustments can help manage the symptoms of menopause.
- limiting the consumption of caffeine and alcohol
- avoiding spicy foods
- not smoking
- exercising regularly
- wearing loose clothing
- maintaining regular sleeping habits, if possible
- using a fan or cooling gel pad to help prevent night sweats
- practicing stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness, meditation, or yoga
- talking to friends and family members about the experience
Also, it is a good idea to ask the doctor about nonhormonal treatment options.
Some people take ginseng, black cohosh, red clover, soy, or kava supplements to help ease symptoms of menopause.
However, confirming the effects of these supplements requires further research. Some may not be safe for everyone to use.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not recommend or regulate herbal treatments. A person cannot be sure what a product contains or whether it is safe or effective to use.
Always speak to a doctor before using any supplements.
Hormone therapy is a standard approach to a range of health issues. Certain hormones or combinations of hormones can help manage symptoms of menopause.
However, HRT is not suitable for everyone. Doctors and other healthcare providers can describe the risks and potential benefits in detail and help people with the decision.