Looking at the effects of testosterone through the lens of classical Chinese medicine
Hormone supplementation can be a very helpful tool for some transgender people to live full and authentic lives. There is also a great deal of fear-mongering about the side effects of hormones, usually from non-transgender doctors. While more long-range study is needed, a large-scale recent long-term trial found no elevated risk for mortality, either broadly or specifically, for transgender people taking hormones. (1)
Care providers who try to scare trans people away from hormones are not standing on firm evidence in doing so.
That being said, the lack of mortal danger does not mean that there are never annoying or difficult side effects from hormones. Any medication, taken over a long period, can cause some unwanted experiences to occur. In the next two articles in this series, I’m going to break down some of the most common side effects of testosterone and estrogen supplementation, and explain how Chinese Medicine can help resolve them.
Testosterone, as we’ve discussed in the past, is primarily a hot and yang substance. What this means in practice is that it makes this growth, move faster, and makes people feel warmer. What it can also mean is that it can cause some people to get too hot, and develop unpleasant symptoms as a result. In Chinese Medical thinking, the yin of the body, or the cooling and moistening substances, need to be able to balance out the yang.
Over time if the yin is taxed by something, whether it’s a stressful life event or something we are consuming, the heat can overwhelm the system.
Some signs that this may be happening include; night sweats, anxiety, heart palpitations, changes in hunger, hot flashes, acne and pain in the legs. These are mostly symptoms that are associated with puberty or menopause, and there is a very good reason for that: people who are taking testosterone are inducing puberty and menopause, concurrently. This is not a bad thing; it’s just a life process.
But it can be a lot for the body to deal with.
In addition to heat, sometimes testosterone can lead to reduced blood flow in the lower abdomen, or what we call “blood stagnation” in Chinese Medicine. Blood stagnation can manifest as frank tissue changes, like polyps or tumors, but most often it shows up as pain from impaired microcirculation.
This can result from muscular changes in the pelvis bowl (particularly that pesky psoas muscle), the cessation of menses, or from the surgical removal of reproductive organs. Some trans people who take testosterone find that they develop mysterious wandering pain in the lower abdomen after several years on testosterone.
The fact that some people experience these unpleasant effects can feed back into the medical world’s desire to pathologize transgender people and say that taking hormones is just bad and dangerous.
This is rarely said, of course, for most other medications. Very few people say “metformin can cause diarrhea in some people, so no one should ever take it”, because it is seen as a life-saving drug. Hormones are also life-saving, and deserve the same medical care and respect as therapies. The correct way to think about this situation is not to say that testosterone is bad, but rather that we need to help the body integrate the changes from hormone supplementation in a more efficient way.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs to do this, along with dietary changes in some cases.
The body is intelligent, and can learn how to self-regulate under new conditions. We can help it to vent excess heat, supplement yin, move blood, and adapt. Acne can be treated, night sweats disappear, hunger cues return to normal, and the body changes in a normal and healthy way. Instead of yelling at people about the “dangers” of the medications they take, we can work with people and make their experience be the smoothest it can possibly be.
Note: Not all people will have unpleasant side effects from testosterone, and not all side effects will look like what is described above. Each person in unique, both in their constitution and in their life experiences and circumstances.
If you are taking hormones and experiencing any difficulties, feel free to schedule an appointment with me so we can talk through what classical Chinese medicine might be able to do for you.
(1) Largest Study to Date: Transgender Hormone Treatment Safe. Kathleen Louden. July 02, 2017 http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/827713