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Should You Take Hormone Replacement Therapy?
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Should You Take Hormone Replacement Therapy?

Menopause is finally having a moment.
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You can also check out this episode on Spotify!

Dr. Mary Claire Haver is a board certified OBGYN and women’s health advocate who has helped thousands of women going through menopause actualize their health and wellness goals. Dr. Haver’s goal is to empower and educate women in their mid-lives, and help women advocate for themselves in the doctor’s office. 

On this episode of Beyond the Prescription, Dr. McBride and Dr. Haver break down the myths and facts about menopause and hormone therapy. They discuss the harms of fear-based narratives in medicine and the importance of balancing risk to help women live longer and healthier lives.

So, should you or shouldn’t you take hormone replacement therapy? Dr. McBride wrote a longer piece about this decision-making process here

The upshot?

  • Menopause is defined as having gone a full calendar year without a menstrual period. A woman’s midlife decline in estrogen and progesterone levels can cause short-term symptoms (like hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and insomnia) and can increase the risk for long-term health problems (like cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis).

  • In general, menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) is considered safe for most healthy women when it is initiated within 10 years of menopause.

  • Estrogen itself does not seem to increase the risk of breast cancer for the vast majority of women.

  • Unless she has had a hysterectomy, a woman should take estrogen and progesterone together.

  • Micronized (aka “bioidentical”) progesterone does not increase the risk of breast cancer; synthetic progesterone does seem to increase the risk, but only slightly.

  • Dr. McBride recommends not panicking about the new Danish study suggesting an increased risk of dementia in women who take MHT. Why? It was an observational study (not a randomized controlled trial or RCT) therefore it cannot prove causation; the study population used oral estrogen and synthetic progesterone which are not the standard of care in the U.S.; myriad RCTs show the opposite finding: that MHT is likely protective against premature cognitive decline, especially when started early. 

  • Too many women needlessly suffer through menopause because of false narratives about the safety of MHT and because discussions about quality of life often aren’t prioritized.

  • Don’t take it from her! Dr. McBride encourages you to share the latest expert statement from the North American Menopause Society with your own doctor to help guide your decision-making process.

  • Women are entitled to make their own decision about hormones, armed with the data, and with an understanding of their unique risks and benefits.

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Dr. McBride will answer your questions about menopause and HRT on Friday. Submit your question right here!


Join Dr. McBride every Monday for a new episode of Beyond the Prescription.

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The transcript of the show is here!

[00:00:00] Dr. McBride: Hello, and welcome to my office. I'm Dr. Lucy McBride, and this is Beyond the Prescription, the show where I talk with my guests like I do my patients, pulling the curtain back on what it means to be healthy, redefining health as more than the absence of disease. As a primary care doctor, I've realized that patients are more than their cholesterol and their weight.

[00:00:31] We are the integrated sum of complex parts. Our stories live in our bodies. I'm here to help people tell their story, and for you to imagine and potentially get healthier from the inside out. You can subscribe to my free weekly newsletter at lucymcbride.substack.com and to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

[00:00:57] So let's get into it and go Beyond The Prescription. Today on the podcast, I'm talking with the incredible Dr. Mary Claire Haver. She's a board certified OBGYN who has helped thousands of women who are going through perimenopause, menopause, and beyond actualize their health and wellness goals. She realized after decades of practice that she hadn't learned as much as she should have about the science of menopause, aging and inflammation.

[00:01:27] She really took a deep dive into the science and has created an online course called The Galveston Diet with the goal of empowering and educating women in their mid lives. Mary Claire, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast.

[00:01:41] Dr. Haver: Thanks for having me.

[00:01:42] Dr. McBride: Let's talk about the fact that women have been notoriously excluded from medical studies. Women have also been deprived in many ways of access to nuanced information about their own bodies and health. And so it's interesting right now that menopause is having this moment, right?

[00:02:01] It's like Susan Dominus wrote this beautiful article about how women have been misled, and I think women around the country, around the world were like, “yes. Oh my gosh. Thank you for seeing me and hearing me.” And I think it's a historic moment where women are finally recognizing that they need to be seen and heard, and that their menopausal symptoms are not just in their head and that it's time to get the facts to put ourselves in the driver's seat. So let's just start with that article. So tell me what happened when that article in the New York Times came out, did that change increase the volume of phone calls coming to you? What? What did it mean to you?

[00:02:39] Dr. Haver: I think it just validated and reinforced what I was already doing on social media and that really people were sending me the article by the thousands—I was getting tagged. I was getting, “why aren't you in this article?” I didn't even know it was being written, and I just felt like it was really well done and it really was the tip of the iceberg, but it was the first meaningful publication—in such a respected area—that really was drawing attention to the problem. But women have been screaming about this for years, and I'll tell you, so I finished my OBGYN training in 2002, which was also the year the WHI stopped the study on hormone replacement therapy and basically ended any meaningful research into menopause care for at least 20 years. 

[00:03:36] And when I graduated from that training program, I would've sworn on a stack of Bibles based on my board scores and my level of training that I was a world-class menopause doctor. And it wasn't until 20 years of clinical practice that I realized in going through my own menopause journey that I was not a good menopause doctor, that there were serious gaps in my own education and training.

[00:04:03] So when you look at an OBGYN residency, and I know this because I was a former residency program director, and over half of what we do, probably 55 to 60% of what we do is obstetrics. All important stuff. Then everything else gets shoved in the box called gynecology. And in that gynecology box we have pediatric gynecology, we have GYN oncology, we have reproductive endocrinology, which is fertility.

[00:04:29] We have everything, and menopause gets a tiny sliver of that time and education. There are only 20% of residents coming out today who feel that they had any clinical menopause training, meaning went to a clinic where they were specifically addressing a woman in menopause. When multiple surveys have been done, the doctors are realizing this is important, but they didn't get the training.

[00:04:56] Nothing was really focused on that. Not to say that what we learned wasn't important. It's just menopause has never been prioritized.

[00:05:03] Dr. McBride: Why do you think that is?

[00:05:05] Dr. Haver: So I think it's a perfect storm of societal norms of medical education, how women have been treated through the years in medicine. I don't know about you, but we had a saying, if it walks like a duck, it talks like a duck… we love a differential diagnosis.

[00:05:22] We love a standard set of symptoms, and I think one of the problems is that menopause has a very diverse presentation in each woman. Even identical twins can have completely different symptomatology. We're all going through something very similarly endocrinologically as far as our ovaries beginning to lose their eggs, and the decrease of estrogen and leading to the full menopause with no estradiol. But how that presents in our bodies is very different. So unless you've been trained in the nuances of how to pick this up, then you're going to miss it unless she's just waving a flag with hot flashes and no periods. But the symptoms of menopause begin in perimenopause seven to 10 years before.

[00:06:03] So we have this entire generation of women who are suffering and going to their healthcare providers with this kind of laundry list of symptoms. And if the doctor isn't trained to realize that this constellation could all have a common denominator of decreasing estrogen levels, they may get told it's all in their head, or this is a normal part of aging, or there's nothing we can do, white knuckle it, suffer through it, you'll be fine.

[00:06:30] And we're just leaving them without… they're walking out feeling dismissed, feeling like maybe they're crazy and that they are going home to cry over, I can't get any help for this. 

[00:06:42] Dr. McBride: I couldn't agree with you more that medical school and residency, while of course I learned a ton, did not do a fantastic job at countenancing suffering that you can't see, that you can't measure in a blood test or a CAT scan, night sweats, hot flashes, vaginal dryness. Pain with intercourse, relationships, struggles because of sexual dysfunction, decreased arousal—what we call low libido.

[00:07:10] Those are things you can't see. Plus, women are used to suffering. We are very comfortable in the space of suffering, right? We deliver babies. We have our nipples cracking and bleeding with these infants hanging off of our chest. And I think it's not hyperbole to say that women are pretty good at suffering.

[00:07:34] And so I think it makes sense that gynecologists who only have so much time in the office to talk to patients. And who only had a certain education and that didn't encompass menopause per se. And when we aren't comfortable talking about things we cannot see and we can't measure, we can't quantify despair, that it gets brushed under the rug.

[00:07:57] It reminds me a lot of, my interest is in the relationship between mental and physical health. The relevance of mental and physical health, how we all have anxieties, we all have fears, we all have moods, we all have relationships, and we didn't talk about that at all in medical school. My psychiatry rotation was about addressing patients who are in institutions and paranoid schizophrenics, which of course is relevant, but it's not speaking to the universality of mental health as a common sort of ground zero for our whole health. So I think what you and I are doing is trying to shine a light on these universal phenomena—grief, loss, anxiety, moods, relationships. And in the case of women, the fact that every single woman, if you live long enough, will go through menopause as defined by…

[00:08:47] Dr. Haver: A hundred percent.

[00:08:48] Dr. McBride: The gradual decrease in the production of estrogen and progesterone, and a little testosterone, and we need to talk about it. We need to be open about it. We need to empower women with the questions to ask their doctors.

[00:09:03] Dr. Haver: I think the other thing to mention here, and it's really getting brought to the forefront with the political discourse going on right now, is that society in general stops valuing a woman somehow after she's done with the ability to reproduce. And we're seeing it, and I think this is manifesting in how we are not focusing on menopause care, why the research dollars are not going to menopause care.

[00:09:30] When you look at women's health spending at the NIH, it's, I think it was several billion, but only 45 million was spent on anything to do with menopause, and that was like 0.3% of the funding in women's health was going to anything to do with menopause when a third of us living, breathing, functioning women are suffering right now due to their menopause journey. We're just not valuing them.

[00:09:58] Dr. McBride: And then we have, of course, the headlines that came out in 2002 when the Women's Health Initiative was stopped early, and the headlines screamed things like, I mean… you put the word breast cancer out there in a headline and the fear of breast cancer. What happened in 2002 is that this enormous study, that was the first study on hormone replacement therapy powered by NIH and Bernadette Healy was the first female head of the NIH was stopped early because there was a signal suggesting that hormone replacement therapy causes breast cancer. Now, when you hear that as a woman and women are—we're smart, we're paying attention, we also are not immune to fear-based messaging. And so talk about what happened and how it has taken us so long to correct the narrative on hormone replacement therapy as a treatment for menopausal symptoms.

[00:10:52] Dr. Haver: So the fanfare with which that announcement was made was pretty much unprecedented in medicine. There was a press conference called in DC and there were reporters everywhere, and one of the—it was only one person in the study who decided to release this information. This was before the study had actually even been published.

[00:11:17] Healthcare providers couldn't even read the article and decide for themselves. So everyone's in their offices, I'm in residency, and we're just doing our normal day-to-day lives. And it was like a shot went off across the world in our world that estrogen causes breast cancer, hormone therapy is going to kill you.

[00:11:36] And that was the take home message. And all of us were reeling. We're reading the headlines. No one can get their hands on the study for another week or two. 80% of prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy stopped immediately based on one announcement. And in the 20 years, that 22 years now that have ensued since that publication, so much of that has been walked back on multiple levels.

[00:12:04] It's been reanalyzed, looked at, retracted. People have apologized who were in the study, and none of that has gotten any of the fanfare. It's been really hard. The best book that came out was Estrogen Matters, the Avrum Blooming book. He really broke that study apart so a layman could read it and understand, and the fallacies of the study and the things that it really represented.

[00:12:28] So the average age in the study was 65 years old. We weren't talking about newly menopausal women in the beginning of their menopause journey and the potential benefits, the estrogen only arm had a 30% decrease risk of developing breast cancer. No one talks about that. And that women who were diagnosed with breast cancer, it was itI believe the risk went from 3.2 to 3.8% if I have the numbers correct, and that represented a 25% increase, but it was still very small. And that the women who were on hormone replacement therapy at the time of their diagnosis had a 20 to 30% higher survival rate, five-year survival rate than the women that weren't.

[00:13:09] So women were not allowed to digest that information and decide for themselves what their tolerance to this risk was, and if they still, for the health benefits, for their quality of life, they were absolutely denied. So in desperation, I think practitioners began giving people antidepressants, which can be helpful, but it's never the gold standard and the gold standard for menopausal symptoms is always going to be estrogen. But doctors just were so terrified. The patients were terrified. They didn't want to get sued.I remember being fearful of being sued for giving hormone replacement therapy.

[00:13:49] And the mantra, like I was taught, kind of was only give it if she's threatening suicide, like if there's no other option, you know, otherwise do anything other than giving her back the hormones she so desperately needs.

[00:14:02] Dr. McBride: Yeah, it's such an example of the paternalism of medicine or maternalism because I think women doctors too were depriving women of these hormones, but it's more this sort of like sense that doctors should be the gatekeepers and we should be the arbiters of the patient's risk tolerance. It reminds me a heck of a whole lot of COVID when instead of giving the public sort of nuanced information about, you know, calibrating your risk mitigation measures to your actual level of risk, given your age and underlying health conditions and number of vaccines.

[00:14:39] Instead just telling people, here's what you do. Regardless, we are going to tell you how much risk to tolerate in medicine, as you well know, first of all, patients don't trust doctors who think they know everything. I mean, I don't, and I certainly don't know everything. And I think we owe patients…We owe women the ability to make their own decisions based on the facts and the information they have, and we need to countenance the invisible suffering, just like we countenance the risk of breast cancer. Certainly there are risks of hormone replacement therapy and there are risks of not being on hormone replacement therapy. And let's talk about both and let's try to thread that needle with the understanding that life is risky.

[00:15:21] There's risk everywhere you go. You could live your life not on hormone replacement therapy cuz of the fear of breast cancer that may be completely founded because of a family history, a genetic predisposition, but then you're going to have to tolerate perhaps an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, an increased risk for premature cognitive decline, an increased risk for osteoporosis, sexual side effects, etc.

[00:15:42] We owe women the discussion, the conversation. But as you know, the conversation takes time. And then it takes more time when you have to undo a fixed narrative that a woman is bringing to the doctor's office saying, “oh wow. I don't want to be on hormones because that causes breast cancer. And that's not because these people are not intelligent, it's because they've been told…”

[00:16:05] Dr. Haver: It's going to ake everybody being on board. It's going to take years, but I am so proud to be on… I can't believe this. I'm just a regular OBGYN. There's nothing special about me and, but I…

[00:16:19] Dr. McBride: Oh, there's so much special about you. 

[00:16:20] Dr. Haver: I'm kicking the door down on this I feel like… And it's probably the thing I'm most proud about in medicine, and I've delivered about tens of thousand, over 10,000 babies. I've done thousands of surgeries, all good stuff. But I feel like this is the biggest impact I can make for women's health ever.

[00:16:40] Dr. McBride: I think you're making a big difference. I mean, it's amazing to me how menopause is having this moment right now. My friend Sharon Malone, who's a dear friend and colleague, was just on Oprah talking about menopause. I mean, thank you Oprah, for shining a light. My friend Rachel Rubin, our mutual friend, Kelly Caspersen, I mean, we're talking about sex, we're talking about vaginal lubrication, libido.

[00:17:01] We're talking about taking control of our health kind of for the first time in a long time. I don't know if you think it's related to COVID and to me COVID laid bare our vulnerability to narratives that aren't always rooted in truth. COVID laid bare the vast marketplace of sort of pseudoscience and weird stuff.

[00:17:24] It also laid bare how vulnerable we are as consumers of the healthcare industry. And how we really need to know what questions to ask. And so then I think, that's where I came in. I started writing and podcasting and you started doing your messaging and it's, I think people are really glad to have people they trust without any sort of agenda.

[00:17:42] Dr. Haver: Social media for me opened my eyes to how much misinformation as far as menopause care, how much disinformation and misinformation was out there. And then one of the caveats of this menopause explosion and what the New York Times touched on is the gold rush. And so my… I live in the menopause metaverse, I call it, and my social media feed is just filled with everything menopause.

[00:18:13] The wackadoodle companies that are coming up with miracle cures and vitamins and promising you're getting your unrealistic expectations of what this one little herb or something can do and get your life back and lose weight and get your sex life back and all this stuff. And none of it is founded in any evidence.

[00:18:32] They're marketing to a very vulnerable population. They're desperate and willing to try anything at this point because they can't get it from, most of them can't get it from their healthcare provider, and so a lot of these new companies are popping up and really exploiting this very vulnerable population, and it makes me insane.

[00:18:50] Dr. McBride: I know. I feel like wellness is a word that I think MDs and medical professionals should embrace, right? Like, what else am I doing other than helping people be well? But the wellness industry is taking advantage of women's vulnerabilities, insecurities and lack of access to the truth. And then it's fleeing them and giving them false promises. Not always. I mean, there's some good actors.

[00:19:16] And I believe in vitamin supplementation if you're deficient in something in addition to getting your nutrients through food. But I think we agree that there's no sort of supplement that's going to kind of fix your broken marriage and your low libido that stems from sexual trauma or… we have to do the work, we have to do the hard job of looking at these parts of our lives that doctors unfortunately haven't really countenanced and we have to understand that the treatment for menopausal symptoms and the way to prevent the downstream cardiovascular, cognitive, and bone related health problems that stem from the absence of hormones is hormone replacement therapy.

[00:19:56] Women are entitled to a conversation with their provider about hormone replacement therapy. Whether or not they take it is a different story, but in general, the benefits of hormone replacement therapy outweigh the risks in women who are within that 10 year window from their last menstrual cycle

[00:20:11] Dr. Haver:  Right. And when a patient leaves my clinic, now again, I have a background in nutrition. I'm certified in culinary medicine. I can do this with confidence in myself that I know what I'm doing. I give them what I call the menopause toolkit, and so the first thing we address is nutrition. I'm lucky enough that I have a body scanner where I can measure muscle mass.

[00:20:34] All of this is all so intertwined, visceral fat, body fat. So I give them very direct nutritional recommendations based on their body composition. We talk about hormones—pharmacology, hormonal pharmacology, and non-hormonal pharmacology based on their symptoms. We talk about supplementation based on what their nutrition profile looks at.

[00:20:56] We talk about stress reduction, we talk about sleep quality, and every single one of those things is important to turn that wheel so that you can have the best healthspan and lifespan when a patient comes to my clinic. Yes, she's suffering, but her goal is not to have a bikini. Most of them… they don't care about bikinis anymore.

[00:21:14] Sure, that'd be great. But they're more looking at their parents and what themselves and their siblings are going through taking care of parents with chronic disease. When I have a patient who is caring six or 10 years for a debilitated parent or grandparent, it shapes their lives and they are so motivated. What can I do now to keep me from doing this to my children, to my loved ones, to my nieces and nephews. I want to live the most independent, healthiest life that I can. So I'm not gonna burden the people I brought into this world with my disease and illness. Now, there's no guarantees on that. They're like, “how can I stack those cards in my favor?”

[00:21:55] And I said, okay, let's get started. Nutrition, exercise, pharmacology, sleep, stress. It all works together to get you where you wanna be.

[00:22:04] Dr. McBride: You're absolutely right and it so dovetails with the way I talk to my own patients and the way I write that sleep is arguably the best chemical boost you can give yourself—getting good sleep. Now, it's easier said than done. I mean, just telling someone to sleep more is not the end of the story for most people. But managing stress, having brain space to be mindful about our eating, our relationships, being in touch with how we feel, sort of being in the driver's seat, if you can, of your everyday habits. I think all of that relates to symptoms of menopause. It also relates to just our everyday health.

[00:22:44] I think you're right. You look at our parents, our patients in their middle age often look at their parents and they see if their mom has osteoporosis and maybe some cognitive decline. Their dad may have cardiovascular disease or vice versa. And those are not a hundred percent preventable of course, but it's pretty incredible what hormone replacement therapy will and can do if you pair it with appropriate lifestyle modifications and you pair it with someone who's a good coach and a good guide because it's not enough for me to say, eat less red meat, Exercise more, sleep eight hours, manage your stress, take hormones, Good luck. I mean, first of all, I don't do all that stuff well all the time myself. Most humans need a trusted guide. They need structure, they need support, they need follow up, and they need cheerleading, and they need data and evidence and facts to guide their behavioral changes.

[00:23:36] How does your program work? Like tell me, if you have a new patient who comes in, you do an assessment, let's say you recommend hormone replacement therapy. How does that look? I mean, do you typically recommend the patch? Do you recommend the ring? Do you recommend oral hormones? Tell me about the menu of options for hormones.

[00:23:54] Dr. Haver: So I do stick to the FDA approved options. Estradiol is the number one hormone that I prescribe. So there are synthetic estrogens on the market. There's the conjugated, equine estrogens on the market. There are also different compounded options because compounding is not subject to regulation. It's not subject to testing. It can be very variable. I really want to stick to—I know when I pull it off the shelf, it's what I use for myself. There's a 98% chance of what they say is in that box, is in it, and that my patient's going to get a steady state. I usually go with a transdermal option over oral for estradiol because the first pass effect of the liver, which you and I know, when that estrogen bump hits the liver, it upregulates our clotting factors. So there's about a seven out of 10,000 women increase. So not very much, but still seven women who will have a blood clot. I can negate that and put you back to your baseline.

[00:24:55]  Not saying you will never have a clot, but I won't increase that risk with a transdermal option. And because of cost, affordability, and options, I usually do an estradiol patch. If we decide on progesterone as well, There's some wonderful new data that's come out looking at different progesterones, synthetic versus progesterone, which is what our ovaries make… I hate the term bioidentical because it's become a marketing term, not a medical term…

[00:25:19] Dr. McBride: Thank you. Oh my gosh. Thank you.

[00:25:21] Dr. Haver: Women are getting sold a bill of goods and they're being told lies and they're being told the most ridiculous marketing that, oh, buy BHRT… I'm like, I don't use that term. I talk about estradiol and I talk about progesterone. I do not pick up a phone and call another physician and talk about bioidentical. That is, I would be laughed out of… I think people meant well with it, but it's turned into this crazy marketing term to get you to buy their product. So for progesterone I do the oral micronized progesterone. It has the best safety profile for breast cancer.

[00:25:57] Actually, in the latest studies, no increased risk of breast cancer. It was the synthetics. So I tend to avoid those as much as possible. So for myself, I use an estradiol patch and I take my oral progesterone at night. I still have my uterus. For me, I find progesterone sedating, which is a benefit because it helps me with sleep.

[00:26:17] Now, if someone is also having severe vaginal atrophy, I look at vaginal preparations. I love a vaginal ring. Nobody can afford it. It is top tier for most insurance plans. It's a wonderful method of delivery. I think it's amazing, but again, cost is a problem. So for vaginal estrogen, I tend to stick with the vaginal estrogen cream, which is generic and is very affordable for most patients if we decide she needs testosterone.

[00:26:47] And I pretty much only prescribe that in a case of hypoactive sexual desire disorder. There's not enough evidence yet for me to prescribe it for other reasons I don't. Everyone's testosterone is low, guys, everyone, you don't even need it checked if you're menopausal, half of your testosterone unless you have a tumor.

[00:27:06] And so if she's suffering from HSDD, then we discuss different options, the vii, the adi, the testosterone, if she chooses testosterone, because I don't have a great FDA-approved option. And it's very difficult for my patients to get the man's version because they only need 1/10  of the dose and they have to break the packets open and it's just Complicated. I will do the local compounding pharmacy to get some testosterone for them.

[00:27:30] Dr. McBride: So helpful. So I wanna ask you a couple questions and just to clarify for listeners, vaginal estrogen, in my humble opinion, I wonder if you agree topical estrogen or just vaginal estrogen in a tablet form that is not systemically absorbed, is just topical to help with vaginal dryness. It also can help with urinary continence. It can help with muscle tone in the pelvic floor if paired with PT or just Kegels. That should be in my opinion, over the counter. That should be non-prescription. It should be something women are…

[00:28:01] Dr. Haver: Yes, and I believe it is in the UK now.

[00:28:04] Dr. McBride: And even for women who have had breast cancer, it's, and look, talk to your primary care provider, your OBGYN. Don't take my advice on the internet, because I'm not your doctor necessarily, but I think it should be over the counter when you talk about vaginal estrogen, like a femme ring. The femme ring is the vaginal estrogen formulation. That is systemic hormone replacement therapy. The hormone replacement therapy we're talking about is to help with not only the symptoms locally, but also the sort of whole person, the bone density, the cardiovascular risk protection.

[00:28:38] So yeah, you're right. The femme ring is extremely expensive, but if someone's insurance happens to cover it, the femme ring, there's a nice way to go with the estrogen, and then you have to do the progesterone. In addition, if you have a uterus, you have to take progesterone with estrogen. Those are the two train tracks, because without progesterone, estrogen alone can stimulate the uterus and cause uterine cancer.

[00:29:01] So that's sort of the mantra. Testosterone, as you said, is sort of out of the box a little bit, but it is becoming clear that it's good for hypoactive sexual desire disorder. I do have patients asking me about it because they're like,
“What about belly fat, muscle mass? Can I use testosterone for that?” I know you have this wonderful program you're doing on Instagram with the belly fat challenge, and you're doing this on the heels of your Galveston diet. So tell me about testosterone for women a little bit more if you could vis-a-vis metabolism muscle mass.

[00:29:31] Dr. Haver: So one of the phenomena that we know about in body composition changes through the menopause transition, we see an acceleration of body fat deposition. So it's kind of steady state and then whoop goes up in perimenopause and we see an increasing of the rate of muscle loss with age. It's called sarcopenia, which is the natural loss of muscle mass with age, and you have to combat that with consistent resistance training and adequate protein intake.

[00:29:57] There's no way around it. You are going to lose muscle if you don't do the thing. And that's just your body breaking down. And that muscle is so much more important than I ever learned in school. It is controlling our insulin resistance. It is controlling our strength and functionality. And so I am one of those girls who was genetically low muscle.

[00:30:16] I was always lean. But lean to me means muscle. I didn't have very much growing up. I could never do a pull up. I still can't do one. And so there's some thinking, so I'm using testosterone for myself off label, and I'm very clear about that because I'm genetically predisposed to low muscle mass. I measure it every day. I'm about the 90th percentile and I wanna hang on to that. So I'm doing a very low dose of transdermal testosterone in order to help my efforts of protein intake and resistance training to hang on and possibly build some muscle. So my levels are physiologic. I check my levels every three to six months.

[00:30:56] I think the last one I was 47. And so in our natural lifespan, When we're our reproductive height, when our libidos were on point, your testosterone level is never above 70, and some of these pellet companies are recommending that you be super physiologically dosed with no evidence to support it.

[00:31:18] I have had patients come and say, just check my level. My pellet should have worn off six months ago. They're still out of 300. That is men start at 246. Okay, so I asked the patient, okay, let me just make this clear. Are you transitioning? I fully support that. If this is what you're doing, I'm not the right doctor to help you through this, but, and they're like, no, I'm like, your levels are at a transitioning level. 

[00:31:41] I don't have clinical evidence to support a super physiologic dose of testosterone for patients. And that's what's being sold to them by a lot of these camp bonding companies.

[00:31:53] Dr. McBride: So you're saying the data are not there yet, but there's enough evidence in your mind to use it at a physiologic dose to combat sarcopenia, which is low muscle mass. In addition to using it off label for people with low sexual desire, low libido.

[00:32:11] Dr. Haver: Yes. So we have great studies for menopausal women, and testosterone clearly showed a benefit. FDA has not picked up those studies and that work hasn't been done yet. It takes a pharmaceutical company saying, it's worth it for me to do this, and they're not doing it because it's, it's all about economics and there is ot a lot of money in it for them, which is why we don't have an option.

[00:32:34] Dr. McBride: Right. Let's talk diet and nutrition and what happens to our bodies around menopause. I've just gone through menopause myself. I'm on hormone replacement therapy. Woohoo. It's fantastic. I mean, my symptoms weren't that dramatic, but I think what happened was when I went on hormone replacement therapy, I just felt like myself.

[00:32:54] It wasn't like I could name what it was. I mean, I had some hot flashes, night sweats weren't bad, but I don't know, I just slept better. I felt like myself again. But nutrition, so patients commonly come into me around perimenopause in their late forties, early fifties saying, my belly fat has increased. I've never had belly fat there. And they're just, their body composition has changed and they find it harder to…

[00:33:20] It's true that estrogen in the absence of estrogen makes it easier to accumulate weight in our middles typically, and then it increases our risk for insulin resistance or pre-diabetes or diabetes.

[00:33:33] So what are you counseling patients? I know it's not a one size fits all prescription, but what are you counseling patients in general about how to combat that metabolic shift and the weight distribution?

[00:33:44] Dr. Haver: So there are certain behaviors and patterns of eating that we know through studies that for women in their menopausal journey, are going to lead to less accumulation of visceral or belly fat. When we say visceral fat, I want to be clear. So we have the fat, we've known our whole lives, subcutaneous fat.

[00:34:03] It gives us our breasts, our butts, our curves, our cellulite. We don't like it. It's cosmetically distressing, but in, in usual physiologic amounts, it's not dangerous. Okay, visceral fat is different. That's the fat inside of our abdomens and our wrapping around our organs. That at a level, at a certain level starts leading to inflammation.

[00:34:21] It produces cytokines, it's linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, et cetera. And we see a rapid accumulation of this fat in the menopause transition due to multiple factors, but leading off with decreasing estrogen levels. So, what can we do about it? So number one, women who have 25 grams or more of fiber in their diet per day have a much lower risk of visceral fat, and there's probably several reasons for this. It slows down the absorption of glucose into our bloodstreams, which lowers our insulin levels. It keeps us full longer. You're less likely to overeat or make different choices. 

[00:34:55] Number two, having a diet that has less than 25 grams of added sugar in your diet per day—less visceral fat and added sugars are the sugars in cooking and processing. And I'm not talking about keto, so I'm talking about the sugars that are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, dairy, they come in a package with fiber, with other micronutrients, with other things that keep you healthy and slow down their absorption.

[00:35:21] It’s Very different from drinking a soda, and that's the number one source of added sugar in the United States in women's diets is beverages that sugar is instantly absorbed. It instantly goes into the bloodstream, causes a spike in glucose, and the concomitant rise in insulin levels, which then drives fat to the abdomen.

[00:35:37] The whole thing happens so fast before you even realize it drives your blood sugar down. Boom, you're hungry again. And so keeping those added sugars less than 25 grams per day. Not to say you can never sip on a soda or have a cookie, but you have a budget. And if you can keep it less than 25 a day, you're going to have less visceral fat and less ensuing health risks because of it. Third, there are some supplements done, checked on, menopausal women that seem like they were helpful. Number one is eating something rich in probiotics every day. So that could be yogurt, kimchi, miso, tempe, whatever… chinese pickles, there's lots of options, but the study that was done in menopausal women was actually done on supplementation, because that's easier to control and study is give someone a pill versus have them eat a tub of yogurt.

[00:36:25] So, when the study was done on obese, menopausal women with hypertension, so the weight loss was the same. They put them both on calorie restricted diets, but added in a probiotic supplement for Group B, and the supplement group had less visceral fat, so they did their visceral fat measurements, and they also had lower blood pressure.

[00:36:44] So keeping the gut microbiome healthy, both through fiber, which we talked about earlier and with probiotics, restocking the pond, as I call it, can be really helpful. Turmeric supplementation or eating diets rich in turmeric, not so typical in the US. People are now drinking turmeric teas or adding it to certain things, but turmeric supplementation, especially if you add a black pepper extract, can be really helpful.

[00:37:06] Zone two training. It's getting real with Peter's book, Peter Attia's book. It's getting really popular right now. Zone two training is training below the level that you can talk through, so like when you're a little bit breathless and so there's multiple, you can google different ways to calculate what that is.

[00:37:22] 220 minus your age, 60 to 70% of that is one thing that patients use. I wear a heart rate monitor usually, and so I know what my maximum heart rates are and I can do the calculation from there, but 150 minutes a week of zone two training is really helpful in that, and resistance training is important as well. 

[00:37:40] Dr. McBride: Okay, so to summarize these pearls of wisdom we're talking about ideally getting at least 25 grams of fiber a day. Ideally less than 25 grams of added sugar a day. We're talking about supplements based on your unique profile and health issues, and we're talking about resistance training and 150 minutes of exercise a week, building that muscle mass, keeping that motor running. In addition, we talked about sleep stress management. I mean, that's a good kit. I mean, it's a lot to do. You know, when I talk to patients about these kind of lifestyle modifications, they often aspire to these things. They aspire to sleep more or drink less alcohol.

[00:38:19] Eat less sugar. One of the challenges is minding the gap between our best intentions and the execution, as I say to patients all the time,even walking around your block for five minutes after work is better than nothing. While you're on the phone, maybe do a couple squats or wall sits.

[00:38:38] Notice how you feel if you take a week off of alcohol. I decided to take May off of alcohol, not because I have an alcohol problem per se, but just because I feel better without it. And it really does take at least a week in my mind to kind of notice the effect. One night's not gonna do it. So my advice to patients is just small, incremental bite-sized changes. Don't try to make wholesale changes in every aspect of your everyday health because you just won't do it.

[00:39:08] Dr. Haver: Exactly. I say, we have the rest of your life to figure this out. Let's take this one step at a time. Here's the ultimate plan. We're building a house here, so first we have to lay the foundation, then we're gonna put up the studs. Then we're gonna, you know, like we have to take this step-by-step. We don't want you to be overwhelmed. We don't want you to feel like these are new habits. We're building one habit at a time.

[00:39:29] Dr. McBride: That's right. That's right. Mary Claire, thank you so much for joining me today. How can people find you on the internet? In your clinic, like how can people find your wisdom and expertise?

[00:39:41] Dr. Haver: So we have tons of blogs packed with information on how to advocate for yourself at your doctor's visit and you know what tests to ask for. There’s lots of nutrition information at our website at galvestondiet.com. You can also find me on my biggest social media channels on Instagram and TikTok

[00:40:06] Dr. McBride: Thank you all for listening to Beyond the Prescription. Please don't forget to subscribe, like, download and share the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you catch your podcasts. I'd be thrilled if you liked this episode to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question, please drop us a line at info@lucymcbride.com.

[00:40:28] The views expressed on this show are entirely my own and do not constitute medical advice for individuals that should be obtained from your personal physician.

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Each week, Dr. Lucy McBride talks with her guests like she does her patients — pulling the curtain back on what it means to be healthy, connecting the dots between mental and physical health. To Dr. McBride, health is about more than the absence of disease. Health is a process, not an outcome. It's about having awareness of our medical facts, acceptance of the things we cannot control, and agency over what we can change. To learn more about Dr. McBride, visit: https://www.lucymcbride.substack.com/about To sign up for her weekly newsletter, visit www.lucymcbride.substack.com/welcome