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.

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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.

Jan 042015
 

8787343055_a2a6eb06bf_mIt’s a new year here at Open Minded Health. I hope you all had a safe, fabulous, and fun new years celebration. Here at OMH it’s time for the yearly questions and answers post.

For the unfamiliar — once a year I take a deep look at all the search queries that bring people here. Often, they’re questions that I didn’t completely answer or that need answering. So in case anyone else has these questions — there are answers here now that Google can find. The questions are anonymous and I reword them to further anonymize them.

This year is all questions about transgender health issues. There’s been a lot published and a lot in the news about trans health issues lately. This next year I’ll try to find other articles to post about too, though. 🙂

Questions!

What are the healthier estrogens that a transgender woman can take?

In order from least risk to most risk: estrogen patch, estrogen injection sublingual/oral estradiol, oral ethinyl estradiol, oral premarin.

But note that that’s an incomplete picture. The estrogen patch isn’t the best for initial transition and is very expensive. Injectable estrogen means sticking yourself with a needle every 1-2 weeks and needing a special letter to fly with medications. By far the cheapest of these options is oral estradiol.

Ethinyl estradiol is the form of estrogen used in birth control. Premarin is conjugated equine estrogens, meaning they’re the estrogens from a pregnant horse. Neither should be the first choice for transition. They’re both higher risk than estradiol.

For transgender women, how long does it take to see the benefits of taking spironolactone?

The rule of thumb is 3 months before changes on hormone therapy.

Where is the incision placed in an orchiectomy for transgender women?

That depends on the surgeon. But I’m know you can find images and personal stories on /r/transhealth and transbucket.

Does a trans man have to stop taking hormones to give birth?

Yes. Trans men and others who can become pregnant who are taking testosterone must stop testosterone treatment before becoming pregnant. Testosterone can cross the placenta and cause serious problems for the fetus. Once the child is delivered and no longer breast feeding testosterone can be resumed.

Once you’re on female hormones, how long does it take to get hair down to your shoulders?

My understanding is that the speed that hair grows doesn’t change. It grows at roughly 1/2 an inch a month. Expect growing it out to shoulder length to take 2-3 years.

As a trans woman on estrogen, are there foods I should avoid?

If you’re on estrogen only, there are no foods you should avoid. Instead eat a healthy varied diet.

If you’re on spironolactone you may need to avoid foods that are high in potassium. Potato skins, sweet potatoes, bananas, and sports supplements are foods you may need to limit or avoid. Ask your physician if you need to avoid these foods.

Is there a special diet that can help me transition?

In general, no. Any effect that food may have is, in general, too subtle to make a difference. The possible exception is foods that are very high in phytoestrogens — like soy. Phytoestrogens are chemicals in plants that act a little like estrogen in the body. There are a few case reports in the medical literature of people developing breasts when they eat a lot (and I do mean a lot) of soy. But they’re unusual. Ask your physician before you make radical changes in your diet. In general — just eat a healthy, varied diet.

I’m a trans guy taking testosterone and having shortness of breath. Do I need to worry?

See a physician as soon as you can. Shortness of breath may be a sign of something serious. Taking testosterone raises your risk for polycythemia (too many red blood cells in the blood), which can manifest as shortness of breath.

How often do trans women get injections of estrogen?

Most women have their injection every week to two weeks.

Can I still masturbate while I’m on estrogen?

Yes. Many trans women have difficulty getting or maintaining an erection though.

Can I get a vaginoplasty before coming out as transgender or transitioning?

Generally speaking, no. Surgeons follow the WPATH standards of care which require hormone therapy and letters of recommendation from physicians and therapists before vaginoplasty.

Are there risks to having deep penetrative sex if you’re a trans woman?

I’m assuming you’re referring to vaginal sex post-vaginoplasty. The vagina after a vaginoplasty is not as stretchy or as sturdy as most cis vaginas. It’s possible to cause some tearing if the sex is vigorous or if there are sharp edges (e.g., a piercing or rough fingernails).

Things you can do that might help prevent injury: Make sure you’re well healed after surgery. Dilate regularly as recommended by your surgeon. Use lots of lubrication, and try to go gently at first. Topical estrogen creams may also be helpful for lubrication and flexibility.

Is it safe to be on trans hormone therapy if you have a high red blood count?

Depends. If you’re a trans man looking for testosterone, you may need treatment first to control the high red blood cell count. Testosterone encourages the body to make more red blood cells, which would make the problem worse.

What kinds of injection-free hormone therapy are available to trans men?

Topical testosterone is available for trans men. It’s a slower transition and it’s expensive, but it exists and it works. Oral testosterone should never be used because of the risk of liver damage.

What can cause cloudy vision in trans women on hormone therapy?

Seek medical care. It could be unrelated, but changes to vision are not a good sign.

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And that’s it for this year! Next week we’ll be back to normal posts. 🙂

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.

Jun 012011
 

For “older” adults, the IOM uses retirement age (around 60) as their starting age. For this group, there are no well-studied areas of health (beyond HIV/AIDS, which I don’t cover here). I’ve decided to leave the conclusion portion for another post – the last in this series.

  • Depression: Definitely more frequent in LGB elders than heterosexual elders. A very significant mental stress for this group is surviving the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One study of elder gay/bisexual men found that 93% of them had known others who were HIV+ or had died of AIDS. There is no empirical data on rates of depression in elder transgender people, but it’s thought to be high.
  • Suicide/suicidal ideation: Empirical data suggest the rates of suicide are higher in LGB elders. No data on transgender elders.
  • Sexual/reproductive health: This is a rarely studied area. PCOS and its related risks may be an issue in some transgender elders. There is some indication that gay/bisexual men may be at the same risk as heterosexual men for prostate cancer. Early research implies that “lesbian bed death” may be a real phenomenon, but it’s a controversial topic. All cis-gendered women (bisexual, heterosexual, or lesbian) appear to have the same rate of hysterectomies. Sexual violence was reported on for transgender elders and it appears to be high. One study found about half of transgender elders had experienced “unwanted touch” in the past fifteen years.
  • Cancers: There are no data on cancers and transgender elders. Elder gay/bisexual men are at a higher risk of developing anal cancer (which is linked to receiving anal sex and HPV). Non-heterosexual women also appear to be at a higher risk for reproductive cancers (due to risk factors like smoking and obesity).
  • Cardiovascular health: Data appear to be conflicted. Transwomen using estrogen may be at a higher risk for venous thromboembolism (this may be because of the specific forms of estrogen used). There’s an association between transgender people getting their hormones from someone other than a doctor and poor health outcomes (e.g., osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease). The relevant transition hormones may cause long-term health problems at high doses, but no studies have really looked at this.

Risk factors include those for the younger age groups. Ageism within the LGBT communities may be an additional challenge for LGBT elders. Elders may also feel they need to hide their orientation if they move into a retirement home. Some retirement homes may also be discriminatory.  Transgender elders especially face very high threats of violence.

Some studies have found that elders felt more prepared for the aging process by being LGBT. Why? They’d already overcome huge difficulties. They’d already done a lot of personal growth. LGBT people are also more likely to have education beyond high school, and education is a well-known protective factor for the negative effects of aging. Conversely, some LGBT elders reported fewer relationship and social opportunities, being afraid of double discrimination, and problems with health care providers.

As for elder interactions with the health care system, again there’s a lot in common with younger age groups. One out of four transgender elders report being denied health care solely because they were transgender. Elders in general face problems if they need to enter assisted living homes, as some homes are discriminatory. It’s also worth noting that LGBT elder social structure is different from heterosexual social structure. LGBT elders rely much more on close friends than relatives (and/or adult children). Their chosen families are less likely to be recognized by the medical community, especially without legal paperwork.

So that’s it for what I’ll summarize from the report. Thanks for sticking around for it… this is hefty stuff.

May 262011
 

Welcome back! This part of the IOM report covers adults aged 20 to 60. There are more data available for adults than adolescents, so this part’s broken up a bit different from the last. As a reminder: GLBT (or LGBT – same meaning, different order) stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. I frequently do use GLB separate from T. That is intentional, not a typo. Also, the full report is available here – you can read it online for free.

The best studied aspects of health:

  • Mood/anxiety disorders: There are conflicting data here, but the consensus so far is that GLB people have higher rates of these problems. There’s almost no research on transgender people, but one preliminary study found that around half of transgender people have depression. Yikes!
  • Suicide/Suicidal ideation: LGBT people as a whole appear to be at higher risk. Bisexuals and transgender people appear to be at an even higher risk. Risk also seems to vary by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and how far out of the closet a person is.
  • Cancer: Gay and bisexual men are definitely at a higher risk for anal cancer than heterosexual men. This risk is linked to having anal HPV, which can be spread by anal sex.

Somewhat studied:

  • Eating disorders: May be more common for GLB people than heterosexuals, but we’re not sure. No data on transgender people.
  • Sexual: Gay/bisexual men don’t appear to be at an elevated risk for erectile dysfunction. Transgender people who have had sexual reassignment surgery may be at a higher risk for sexual difficulties…not entirely surprising given the potential for nerve damage from any surgery.
  • Cancer and obesity: Lesbian/bisexual women may be at a higher risk for breast cancer than heterosexual women.
  • Hormone replacement therapy -may- affect cardiovascular health, but it’s unknown.

Essentially not studied: Reproductive health (including the effects of hormone therapy on fertility for transpeople), cancer (especially in transgender patients), and cardiovascular health

Risk factors:

  • Stigma/Discrimination/Victimization: As we all know, LGBT people face these problems all the time.  Stigma is strongly associated with psychological distress. Bisexuals have reported facing discrimination from both the straight and gay communities. One study of transgender people found that 56% had faced verbal harassment, 37% had faced employment discrimination, 19% had faced physical violence.
  • Violence: LGBT people are at an elevated risk for suffering violence. LGBT people do experience intimate partner violence, but the statistics and relative risk are unknown.
  • Substance Use: LGBT people may be more likely to use substances, especially tobacco (read my previous post on this).
  • Childhood abuse: LGB may have higher rates of childhood abuse.

Potential protective factors (LGB): supportive environments, marriage, positive LGB identity, good surgical/hormonal outcomes (T)

As for access/quality of health care? Er…it’s complicated. GLB people get less regular screening (like pap smears and basic physical exams) than heterosexuals and use the emergency room more often. Two biggest obstacles to getting good health care?: problems with the health care providers. This could be perceived discrimination (thinking that someone is acting in a discriminatory way, whether that person is or not), or simply lack of knowledge on the part of the provider. One study found only 20% of physicians had received education about LGBT health issues. That’s only  one in five! I will note that this is improving – medical schools, depending on the school and its location, are starting to teach LGBT cultural competency more than they used to.

Lack of insurance is another barrier, and it especially affects transgender people. The services they need, like hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery aren’t covered by insurance. In addition, one study found that a third of transgender people had been treated ill by a physician.

Next time: Older Adults and conclusions…