Nov 162015
 

This week let’s take a break from genetics and ask: “Among transgender people seeking medical treatment, how many want what treatment? Among those who are not seeking out the traditional transition, what are their reasons?” As you might have guessed, a paper from the Netherlands was just online published ahead of print addressing these very questions.

360 people seeking treatment at a specific clinic in the Netherlands were surveyed; 233 (64.7%) of them were assigned male at birth (AMAB; mostly trans feminine) and 127 (35.3%) were assigned female at birth (AFAB; mostly trans masculine). Because this was a survey specifically asking about trans people who may fall outside the gender binary, I’ll stick to the AFAB/AMAB terminology.

The researchers also defined “full” and “partial” transition. For the purposes of this study, “full” transition was either:

  • Antiandrogens + estrogen + orchiectomy + vaginoplasty, for AMAB people
  • Androgens + mastectomy + hysterectomy/oophorectomy + phalloplasty or metoidioplasty, for AFAB people

Variations on these were considered “partial” transition, even if they included more surgeries (such as facial feminization surgery or breast augmentation). By using the terms “full” and “partial”, neither the researchers nor I are trying to imply that one form of transition is any better, desirable, or more “complete” than any other. It’s a historical term, and used here only as a label for one set of treatments that have been considered a “standard” treatment.

So — what did the 360 people want? 10 weren’t sure yet (2.8%). Overall, 253 (70%) wanted “full” treatment. and 97 (27%) wanted “partial” treatment. Of the 97 who wanted a “partial” treatment, 47 cited surgical risks and concerns about the ultimate result, 19 had no genital dysphoria and felt genital surgery wasn’t important for them, 5 felt they were too old, 4 had a non-binary gender identity, 1 was afraid of social rejection, 1 wanted to remain fertile, 1 wanted to go outside the country for surgery, and the others declined to answer.

If you look at the data differently, AFAB and AMAB people wanted different things. Among the 225 AMAB people who knew what they wanted, 180 (77%) wanted “full” treatment. Only 45 (19%) wanted a different treatment. 12 wanted hormones only, another 12 wanted hormones and breast augmentation, and another 10 wanted hormones and breast augmentation and facial feminization surgery.

AFAB people were less likely to want “full” treatment — only 73 of 125 (57%) wanted “full” treatment. Of those, 35 wanted phalloplasty, 12 wanted metoidioplasty, and 26 were uncertain. 52 of 125 (41%) wanted “partial” treatment, with the majority (31) wanting androgens, mastectomy and hysterectomy and 18 wanting androgens and mastectomy without hysterectomy.

That’s quite a difference between AMAB and AFAB people — 77% vs 57% wanting “full” treatment. When the reasons were compared, AFAB people were most likely to be concerned about the risks and results of surgery. AMAB people, on the other hands, were more likely to report feeling that genital surgery was unnecessary.

Of course, this was just one survey within one culture. However, it’s interesting food for thought and gives one set of ballpark figures for who wants what treatment.

Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available!

Jul 132015
 
CDC_edamame

Soybeans, a common source of phytoestrogens

Have you heard that some herbs and foods contain chemicals called “phytoestrogens” that work like estrogen in the body? Ever seen products being sold over the counter advertised to “feminize naturally” or “prevent hot flashes during menopause”? Or read conversations online about using over the counter products to feminize instead of prescribed hormones? Did you stop and wonder if there was truth to the claims? Let’s do a quick overview and do some debunking!

What are phytoestrogens?

Phytoestrogens are estrogen-like chemicals made by plants. Just like how the tobacco plant makes nicotine to defend itself against insects, phytoestrogens are thought to have a protective effect for the plant. One of the most commonly known phytoestrogen is soy isoflavone, which is found in soy beans and soy products. However other plants produce this compounds too. Red clover is another commonly found herb in herbal products.

As a side note: There are three forms of estrogen in the human body that are commonly talked about. Estradiol is the strongest. The type of estrogen used in modern-day hormone therapy is estradiol. So when you see estradiol in the rest of the article, feel free to mentally substitute “estrogen”.

Is it possible that phytoestrogens can feminize?

All things are possible.

First, let’s talk about dose. Phytoestrogens are found in very small doses in foods, or in slightly higher doses in supplements.

Medical transition requires high doses of hormones. A typical dose of estrogen today, when combined with an anti-androgen is around 4mg a day. Before antiandrogens were introduced, doses equivalent to 12mg of estradiol a day were used*. That’s a lot of hormone.

Phytoestrogen products do not come with an anti-androgen. Is it possible that they’re reaching the equivalent dose of 12mg of estradiol a day? Doses found in Canadian products ranged from 1mg to 35mg of phytoestrogens. So if phytoestrogens are equal in strength to estradiol, perhaps.

But that’s a big assumption. The body absorbs different drugs from the digestive tract in different amounts. Then that drug goes through the liver, where some portion may be activated or deactivated. And then it has to circulate around in the blood stream, find its way into the tissues of the body, and find its target. Pharmaceutical drugs have all these factors measured and calculated, so that the dose you’re given should ensure a certain dose is delivered into your tissues in the end. These herbs have not been studied in that way — so until more research is done, it’s difficult to know how much actually gets to the tissues. And it’s known that phytoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors only weakly, so they’re likely to have a weaker effect than estradiol.

In the doses that are being taken, do they have any effect?

As far as I can tell from the evidence, no. Phytoestrogens are marketed to cis women for relief from hot flashes. A study from 2003 published in JAMA found that they do not provide significant relief from hot flashes. Most of the clinical evidence that I’ve seen agrees with that study.

In cis men, phytoestrogens do not affect testosterone levels and does not feminize.

Worse, one study found that among cis women, those who were taking phytoestrogens had lower levels of estrogen in their blood than women who were not taking phytoestrogens.

While in theory phytoestrogens may possibly help with feminization, I see no medical evidence to suggest that they actually do.

Do phytoestrogens provide a consistent dose? Do the pills contain what they say they contain? Is there any regulation?

No. The dose ranges from company to company, pill to pill, season to season. Companies all have their own special formulations with different sources and types of phytoestrogens.

In the United States, supplements are not regulated by the FDA like drugs are. They’re in a special category. There are no independent checks to make sure the supplement is safe before it goes to market. There are no guarantees that the bottle actually has what it says it has. A Canadian study found wide variation in the amounts of phytoestrogens in various products.

Summary

Phytoestrogen supplements may seem to offer an accessible, easy way to feminize. However, there’s little to no evidence behind their use. And since they’re supplements, you’re never sure of what you’ll be getting. If you want to eat foods that are high in phytoestrogen, they’re not likely to do you harm. But from what I can tell of the literature, you’re better off saving that $20 to pay for an estrogen prescription.

If you’re having difficulty finding a physician who’s will prescribe hormone therapy, I urge you to call your local transgender or LGBT center, or visit the WPATH or GLMA website for provider listings.

*: These formulations were often from conjugated estrogens, which use a slightly different dosing. Doses of conjugated estrogens ranged from 7.5 to 10mg/day, and .625mg of conjugated estrogens is roughly equivalent to 1mg of oral estradiol. My figure of 12 mg of estrogen was using the “low” dosage of 7.5mg.

Jun 122015
 

450px-Bone_density_scannerOne of the worries about hormone therapy for transgender people is over bone density. Cis women are at higher risk of osteoporosis (brittle bones) than cis men are. Sex hormones are needed for good bone health. Specifically — estrogen is known to encourage bone health. The loss of estrogen during menopause is what’s thought to cause osteoporosis in cis women. Does the change in sex hormones involved in hormone therapy change bone density?

We have a little more data on that now, thanks to a study out of Europe. This was the same data set as a previous study on weight. So we’ll skip the study details for now.

The question this part of the study asked can be summarized as: After 1 year of hormone therapy, with no surgery, was there a change in the bone density of adult trans women and trans men?

And the answer? For trans women: Yes. Trans women gained bone density after a year of hormone therapy. They gained as much as 4.5%, depending on the measurement location. For trans men?: No. There was basically no change in their bone density.

Promising news, in either case. There was no loss over one year on hormone therapy.

If you’re concerned about your bone density, talk with your doctor! Making sure that you eat enough calcium (in food form, not supplements) is also helpful. Most important of all, make sure you get good weight bearing exercise like walking, running, and jumping.

As a final note: this was a European study. The hormones used in Europe are different than the ones used in the United States. The results may not be applicable in the United States.

Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available!

Jun 052015
 

ZAYİFLAMA-İP-UCLARİHormone therapy for trans people has long been known to change body shape and body fat percentage. But by how much? And how much can be expected in the first year? A European study of 77 trans women and 73 trans men found out!

On average over the first year of hormones…

  • Both trans women and trans men gained weight overall. On average they gained around 4-6 pounds (2-3 kg). Both groups started with a BMI around 24 (just barely between normal weight and overweight). For trans men, this weight gain tipped them into the “overweight” category. Trans women stayed in the “normal” weight category.
  • Trans women gained body fat and lost muscle mass. Their body fat went up from 24% to 28%. They lost a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of muscle mass.
  • Trans men lost body fat and gained muscle mass. Their body fat went down from 34% to 30%. They gained 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of muscle mass.
  • There wasn’t much of a significant different in waist sizes.

It may be helpful to remember body fat percentage numbers. For cis women, 21-31% is considered a fit or normal range. For cis men, 14-25% is the fit or normal range. So the trans women in this study started out at an average body fat percentage and stayed there. The trans men in this study started off with too much body fat and stayed there.

During the first year of hormones it seems that around a 4% change in body fat can be expected. Trans men can gain quite a bit of muscle. Trans women will lose some muscle.

As a final note: this was a European study. The hormones used in Europe are different than the ones used in the United States. The results may not be applicable in the United States.

Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available!

Jan 092015
 

This is the start of a new series of posts here on Open Minded Health: Quickies! I often run into items in the medical literature that are too short to do a fully post on, but for whatever reason I think it’s worth covering it anyway.

~~

This week’s quickie is a case report, which was presented as a poster at a medical conference.

7170317810_f25026d624_mA trans woman in her thirties showed up at the emergency room with gastrointestinal problems. She had nausea, pain, and bleeding. No significant medical history was noted in the report, and she was on a normal dose of hormone therapy.

When they took her blood to run some lab tests, the sample appeared “as white and turbid as milk.”

Her lab work revealed a triglyceride level of 30,000 mg/dl. For reference, a normal triglyceride level is less than 150. Above 500 is considered “very high.”

She was immediately transferred to the intensive care unit for treatment. Triglycerides that high can cause inflammation of the pancreas. Thankfully all her pancreatic lab values were normal. After a week of treatment, which managed to get her triglycerides down to 3,000, she was sent home. She was instructed to stop estrogen treatment, take new prescribed triglyceride-lowering medications, and to follow up with her physician.

Why did the hospital physicians recommend that this patient stop her estrogen? Because estrogen treatment is known to increase triglyceride levels. Triglyceride levels that high are extremely rare. A much more mild version can, however, happen to anyone who has high estrogen levels. It can happen to cis women in pregnancy or receiving hormone replacement therapy for menopause. It can also happen to trans women on estrogen treatment.

High triglyceride levels are usually “silent” — there are no symptoms. That’s part of the reason it’s important to see a physician regularly for screening, especially if you’re at higher risk. High triglyceride levels are more likely if you…

  • are overweight
  • don’t exercise
  • eat a high-carbohydrate, high-fat diet
  • have other cardiovascular issues
  • are on certain medications
  • or if it runs in your family

Mild elevations in triglyceride levels may be controllable with diet, exercise, and weight control. If those don’t help, your physician may prescribe medications to lower your triglycerides.

For more information on triglycerides, including what they are, normal levels, and how to control them…check out this article by WebMD or ask your primary care provider.

The case report inspiring this post was “Hypertriglyceridemia up to thirty thousand due to estrogen: Conservative Management” and was published in Critical Care Medicine.