Jul 182016

Transgender youth are a special population. Because of the relative novelty of treatment at any age much less for youth, data are scarce. A recent review article examining the published data on transgender youth was published. Let’s take a look at what they found.

First, how about prevalence? How many youth self identify as transgender? There are very, very, few studies that get good numbers on this. One study in New Zealand found that 1.2% of secondary school children identified as transgender, and 2.5% weren’t sure about their gender.

As we well know, being a gender and sexual minority can often be associated with health disparities. And this review reports on that too. Identifying as transgender was associated with negative psychological health. Specifically, being bullied, having symptoms of depression, attempting self harm, and attempting suicide were all more common in transgender youth than in cisgender youth. How much of that was because of discrimination and how much was because of gender dysphoria was not explored.

Researchers have also found that being transgender and having autism appear to go together. No one is quite sure why yet. There’s still a lot of research to be done to figure that out.

One interesting difference in the literature stands out to me, though. It appears that transgender men are more likely to self harm and transgender women are more likely to be autistic. Among cisgender people, cis women are more likely to self harm and cis men are more likely to be autistic. There are theories for why that sex difference exists, but there’s little to no agreement. It could be related to social environments, hormones, the environment in the womb, or any number of other factors. But the observation that transgender men and women more resemble their sex than their gender for self harm and autism is worth investigating further.

What about the effects of hormone therapy for transgender youth? Especially puberty suppression, which is the unique factor for their treatment? As a reminder, the treatment of transgender youth is largely based on the Dutch model. At puberty, children go on puberty suppressing drugs. They then go on hormones (and thus begin puberty) at age 16 and are eligible for surgery at age 18. There are efforts to deliver cross-sex hormones earlier, but the Dutch model is the standard that most of the research is based on. A Dutch study found that the psychological health of transgender youth improved after surgery. Their psychological health even equalled that of their cisgender peers! The researchers also found that youth continued to struggle with body image throughout the time they were on puberty suppression only. But their self-image improved with hormone therapy and surgery. None of the children regretted transitioning. And they said that social transition was “easy”.

One challenge to that particular Dutch study is that the Dutch protocol excludes trans youth who have significant psychiatric issues. A young person with unmanaged schizophrenia, severe depression, or other similar issue wouldn’t be allowed to start hormones. So the research was only on relatively psychologically healthy youth to begin with. It’s difficult to say if that had an effect on the study’s results. It’s also difficult to say whether the psychological health of a trans youth is the cause or the result of their dysphoria. A trans youth with depression might well benefit from hormone therapy, after all.

There are multiple questions still unresolved when it comes to treating transgender children. Does puberty suppression have a long term effect on their bones? Are there long-term physical or psychological health effects of early transition? How should children with serious psychological conditions be treated (besides the obvious answer — with compassion)? And on, and on.

The medical and scientific communities are working on answering these questions. But it will take time. And in the mean time — physicians and families do they best they can with what information we have. If you have, or are, a transgender youth please consider participating in a study so we can do even better for children in the future.

Want to read the review for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

Sep 212015

This week’s post is a reader request! Ricki B asked for more information on gender dysphoria before and after transition. While I can’t speak from personal experience, I can dive into the literature and answer the question that way. Luckily there’s a summary article that talks about this very topic!

Gender dysphoria is a term that refers to the distress associated with having a mismatch between gender identity and physical sex. It’s a hallmark of being transgender or transsexual. People with gender dysphoria are often in intense distress. Some (but not all) individuals try to commit suicide, self-castrate, or self harm because of their distress.

This summary was published in 2010. The authors looked at studies that examined dysphoria and other psychological factors before and after medical transition (hormones or surgery or both).

Across all the studied the authors looked at, this is what they found:

  • 80% of the individuals found relief from their gender dysphoria by transitioning — some even to the point that they had no dysphoria at all.
  • 78% had relief from other psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression. They also had relief from psychiatric symptoms that had not been diagnosed as a disorder. Suicide attempts also dropped, though they were still above that of the general population.
  • 80% had a significant increase in their quality of life. At least 2/3rds found that they had an improvement in concrete factors in their life. Their relationships improved. Their job prospects improved. They were generally happier.
  • More than half were satisfied with their sexual life after transition.

While life did not improve for everyone on hormone therapy or after surgery, it was a strongly positive influence in the vast majority.

This particular summary article did not go deep into potential differences in the benefits of surgery and hormones, though individuals studies do. The current consensus is that both are beneficial for the alleviation of suffering.

If you’re looking for a more personal account of how dysphoria improved with treatment, I highly recommend visiting the transgender communities on reddit, or picking up one of the many books written by trans people.

May 012013

One way to reduce stress and cortisol - CC BY 2.0 - flickr user eamoncurry123Summary: Research now indicates that cross-sex hormone therapy is associated with a lower cortisol awakening response in trans people, regardless of attachment style. Many confounding variables, however, were present in this study.

Transgender people have long asserted that gender dysphoria can be extremely distressing and that transition, including hormone therapy, helps relieve that dysphoria. Hormone therapy is known to improve self-reported quality of life, as measured by questionnaire. To my knowledge no other study has looked at stress-related biological factors in trans people. Biological factors are important because self-report is notorious for validity problems. This study looked at one such biological factor, called the cortisol awakening response.

What is the cortisol awakening response? Readers of the blog may remember the last time I spoke about cortisol (paragraph #2). For those who don’t remember…. cortisol is a “stress hormone.” When we’re stressed, whether by speaking in public or running from a lion, cortisol is released. It helps our body be ready for immediate survival by increasing blood sugar and helping with metabolism. High cortisol levels over a long period of time can have many negative effects on health, including weakening the immune system. The cortisol awakening response is part of the daily cycle, when blood levels spike about 20-30 minutes after waking in the morning. The cortisol awakening response is larger in stressed people than in non-stressed people and can be affected by many things, including burn out, fatigue, aspirin, and sleep schedule. Awakening response is thought to be a good indicator of general stress levels and as a good indicator for stress-related disease risks.

Participants in this study were 70 trans people seen at the Gender Identity Unit of the University of Bari Psychiatric Department, roughly 64% trans women. All the participants had the same hormonal treatment; transdermal estradiol gel and cyproterone acetate (an anti-androgen) for trans women, intramuscular testosterone esters for trans men. They were assessed before hormone therapy and 12 months after starting hormone therapy. There was no significant difference in age, education, or occupation between the two groups.

The researchers measured perceived stress (a self-report of how stressed a person feels) in addition to the cortisol awakening response. The cortisol awakening response was measured by a blood test at 8:00am on three consecutive days, 1 hour after waking.

The results were striking. Before treatment, both perceived stress and cortisol levels were above the  “normal” range. After twelve months of hormone therapy, both were much lower and back within normal ranges. There were no statistically significant differences between trans men and trans women.

However there are a number of confounds for this study. Cortisol levels vary with sex hormones. For example, the cortisol levels of menstrual women will vary depending on which part of the menstrual cycle they’re in. Could cross-sex hormone therapy have caused this change in cortisol levels? Maybe, but then I’d expect there to be a difference between the trans men and trans women in this study and there weren’t.

The researchers also did not appear to attempt to control for other factors which could have impacted the cortisol awakening response. Changes in sleep patterns (e.g., naps) or sleep quality (e.g., a noisy environment) have effects on the cortisol awakening response. As far as I can tell the researchers did not screen for these changes.

Cortisol and stress were not the only things measured in this study. The researchers also looked at attachment styles. Attachment styles are a psychological concept. The idea is that when we are children our interactions with parents, and how they respond to our needs, affects the type of “attachment” we have. Attachment styles are secure or insecure. A secure attachment often results in happy adult relationships. Insecure attachments include avoidant, anxious, and unresolved/disorganized styles. Attachment styles may influence how we respond to stress, so they could have been a confound in this study if not examined.

The researchers determined the attachment style of the participants with a structured interview. They found that trans people are more likely to have an insecure attachment (70%) than the general population with no psychiatric diagnoses (44%). Attachment style did not, however, appear to be correlated with cortisol awakening response or perceived stress.

In other words, the relationship trans people have with their parents did not appear to affect the stress-reducing effects of hormone therapy.

I do not really understand why these researchers chose to examine attachment style in this study. I think that knowing attachment styles may be useful for therapy or for the development of effective variations on therapies for trans people. But I don’t feel that the inclusion of attachment style was sufficiently justified in this study. Why look at attachment and not, for example, socioeconomic status or social support? I would think either of those would be more likely to have an impact on stress levels than attachment.

On the whole: I think that the cortisol results of this study are decent validation of the anecdotal evidence from trans people themselves, but that the exploration of attachment style in this context is a red herring.

The abstract is publicly available.