What Is Hormone Replacement Therapy?

What Is Hormone Replacement Therapy?

Pink Blue Transgender Medication Health Care Abstract Testosterone Oestrogen Pills Medical Ethics 3d illustration render

If you’ve experienced gender dysphoria — the distressing feeling that occurs when your gender identity differs from the one you were assigned at birth — you might have considered hormone replacement therapy. Originally, HRT referred to the process of prescribing sex hormones like estrogen to people going through menopause, as a way of treating symptoms such as hot flashes (a practice that has since been the subject of some controversy). But today, the term “HRT” is commonly used to describe “gender affirming hormone therapy” for “individuals who are seeking to alter their secondary sex characteristics for a more ‘masculine’ or more ‘feminine’ gender presentation,” as defined by FOLX, an online health and wellness provider for the LGBTQ+ community. At FOLX and other gender-affirming providers, HRT involves using hormones like estrogen or testosterone to give the body a more traditionally feminine or masculine appearance to match one’s gender identity.

While many trans and non-binary people describe the medicine as life-saving, the process isn’t for everyone, nor is it a requirement for trans and non-binary people. “HRT does not make a trans person trans,” stresses TikToker and professional actor Dylan Mulvaney, a trans woman who has been chronicling her self-described girlhood on the app. “If there is a trans person out there, and for whatever reason, they don’t think HRT is right for them right now, or ever, we need to see them and such and respect their pronouns as such,” Mulvaney adds.

The decision to start HRT is individual and can be complex. Sade Bolger, a Vermont-based activist and public affairs organizer for Planned Parenthood started HRT — specifically testosterone therapy (or T) — in May of 2017. But when he began, the decision was one of uncertainty. “When I did start T, I didn’t really actually fully feel like I did know that for certain this is going to be the right thing,” Bolger says. “I stepped into T in an explorative way, having seen other people who had gone through that process, and utilized it as a tool for self-discovery and self-exploration.”

California-based Mulvaney echoes a similar sentiment: “The initial reason for going on HRT was just to sort of explore what that side to me was.” Before beginning HRT, the actor had considered themself non-binary for about 18 months. “But I always knew that I wanted to be more feminine,” she says. “And even while I was non-binary I knew that I loved the features on a woman, that I would love to have.” Even so, she tells POPSUGAR, “I was so nervous to start [HRT] because it really is a huge decision to be potentially altering your body.”

Josie Moon, another trans TikToker, also described her decision to start HRT as a tough one. Moon says she didn’t know what the word “trans” meant until she was late into high school. The Nashville-based content creator got married at 24 years old, came out to her now ex-wife as trans about two years into their marriage, and decided to get divorced just before the 2020 COVID lockdown. Through her own research, she discovered that some trans people don’t take hormones. When making the choice for herself, she considered how it would affect her. “I was very concerned that even if I went on hormones at 29, it wasn’t going to be enough for me to feel comfortable in my body,” Moon tells POPSUGAR.

So, she gathered more information, reading relevant threads on Reddit and Twitter and speaking to others in the trans community to make sure HRT was the right decision for her. “There’s a subreddit called Trans timelines which shows pictures of mostly trans women — but also trans men, really trans people in general — before and after hormones,” Moon says. “And I was like, wow these people are the same age as me . . . and they look amazing. The results are amazing. So maybe this could work for me too.” It had gotten to the point, Moon says, where she was constantly looking at these pictures and “imagining just feeling comfortable in my body and what that would look like.” Now, two years on HRT, Moon is happy with her decision to start the therapy. So is Mulvaney and Bolger. “I look at myself in the mirror now and every day I get a little bit closer to finding myself to be a beautiful woman,” Mulvaney says. “I think it was through the process of experiencing the changes that came alongside taking T that really kind of confirmed for me that this was what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be on the planet,” says Bolger.

If you’re still trying to figure out whether HRT is right for you, this explainer will help answer some of your questions, including what to ask your doctor, when to expect changes, and what side effects to be aware of.

What is hormone replacement therapy?

Masculinizing or feminizing hormone therapy, also commonly referred to as hormone replacement therapy or HRT, is a process used to “induce the physical changes in your body” caused by male or female hormones “to promote the matching of your gender identity and body (gender congruence),” per the Mayo Clinic.

Someone transitioning from male to female (MTF) would typically use feminizing hormone therapy and “be given medication to block the action of the hormone testosterone. You’ll also be given the hormone estrogen to decrease testosterone production and induce feminine secondary sex characteristics,” the Mayo Clinic states. In a female to male (FTM) transition with hormone therapy, “you’ll be given the male hormone testosterone, which suppresses your menstrual cycles and decreases the production of estrogen from your ovaries.”

The method in which those hormones are administered can vary, says Dave Usman, nurse practitioner at Radiant Health Centers, a California-based LGBTQIA+ Health and HIV care center. “It depends on the comfortability of the individual that’s seeking hormone therapy,” he says. For those receiving masculinizing HRT through testosterone, there are two options, Usman says. The most common route is injection. “It can be self-administered or office-administered,” he says. There’s also a topical gel option. For estrogen therapy there’s a pill, injectable, or patch.

Where can you access hormone replacement therapy?

Not every hospital or clinic provides trans-affirming healthcare. There are some instances in which medical providers can get exceptions, specifically hospitals and clinics with religious affiliations. It’s important to do your research beforehand to ensure that you can get the care you need.

Bolger was referred to an endocrinologist after expressing to his therapist that he was considering HRT. Mulvaney recommends going to an LGBTQIA queer health center in your area. “The great part is that they focus primarily on queer trans clients, so they are very in the know as far as treatment plans,” she explains. Another good option? An informed consent clinic, which means that a referral or therapy note is not required to receive care. (Planned Parenthood is an informed consent clinic.) You can also receive hormone therapy online through services like FOLX and Plume.

As far as cost goes, many insurance plans cover hormone therapy. For those who are uninsured, or have trouble accessing hormone therapy, health centers like Radiant Health rely on contracted pharmacies that provide the medication at a low out-of-pocket cost for patients. Brands like FOLX also offer an HRT care fund which distributes financial resources to an annual grant covering 12 months of hormone replacement therapy, including prescription medication, unlimited clinical visits and messaging, and labs. Eighty percent of the FOLX HRT grants are reserved for BIPOC individuals. Eligibility starts at 18 years old, and you must live in a state where FOLX is currently available.

What can you expect at your doctor’s appointment?

“The first visit is mainly educating the patient, asking questions, and telling them what is expected,” Usman says. “And then, once they have all the questions answered, they feel like they’re ready, they’re mentally and physically ready, that’s when we start initiating therapy.” That initiation point can be that day or weeks later. It’s really about the patient’s comfortability level.

Mulvaney first went to get information and ask questions about the process, and then was prescribed spironolactone and estradiol. Spironolactone is a testosterone blocker and estradiol is a form of estrogen. “I went for the information, I got it, I got my mind put at ease. And then I started [the hormones] a few weeks later,” Mulvaney says. She adds that she started out with a low dosage, “because I was still new to it. I was nervous. I just didn’t want to throw myself into it too fully quite yet.”

One major conversation you should have with your provider, Mulvaney stresses, is about reproductive options, which will change during hormone therapy. Both testosterone and estrogen therapy can lower your sperm count or egg production, and may permanently change or stop your body’s production of eggs and/or sperm altogether. So, if someone is planning to undergo hormone therapy and they may want to conceive a child in the future, Usman says it’s encouraged to do egg or sperm retrieval or freezing. “I actually didn’t start the spironolactone until recently, because I wanted to freeze my sperm first,” Mulvaney says. “Being in my 20s, I just wanted to keep all my options open for the future and family planning because I don’t know what that’s going to look like when I’m older.” But Bolger adds that not knowing what you want your reproductive options to be is okay, too. They started T when they were 19 years old. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do reproduction wise — I still don’t. I’m 23 now, and I’m still figuring it out.” But it’s important that you know all of your options and make the decision that’s best for you.

When will you start experiencing changes?

Everyone’s timeline of changes is different, but Usman says you can start to see small, physical changes in as early as a month.

  • In one to three months, in FTM transitions you will see skin changes (acne development), body fat redistribution, and cessation of menses. For MTF transitions you can also expect body fat redistribution, decrease in libido, and softening of skin.
  • In three to six months, those transitioning FTM can expect facial hair growth and an enlarged clitoris. In MTF transitions, breasts will start to grow, testicles will shrink and slim down, muscle mass will decrease, and fat will start to develop in the hip area, becoming more feminized.
  • In one to two years you’ll start to see a full transition, Usman says. The voice will have deepened, for those on testosterone. For those on estrogen, breasts would be fully developed.

“My first sort of notice was stretch marks on my booty,” says Mulvaney. It was an unexpected surprise to her less than three months on HRT, in addition to a smoothing of her face, and the loss of muscle mass in the chest. “I never had hard nipples before,” says Mulvaney. “And now they are starting to bud.”

For Bolger, the most notable initial changes were voice deepening, peach fuzz hairs on the lip, and clitoral enlargement which is commonly referred to as bottom growth. In terms of mood, Bolger says “my libido pretty greatly increased and stayed kind of intense for the first couple of months into that first year.” They also dealt with recurring mood swings. But this was predominantly “just during the period of time where my hormone balance was off because I was transitioning between estrogen and testosterone. And once I kind of plateaued with the T in my body, and that became the main hormone in my body, then all that stuff kind of settled out.”

What’s important to note is that the mental and emotional changes are just as important to address as the physical ones, and they may hit you sooner. “The first two weeks, I’m not gonna lie, were tough. I didn’t feel like myself in some ways. My mind was foggy, I felt very emotional, I had some anxiety,” says Mulvaney. These changes ultimately went away, or Mulvaney became accustomed to them. “I think my body learned to accept that this was the new normal and I started to feel like myself again,” she says.

Therapy also helped, she adds. “I’m in therapy once a week and I have been with the same therapist for two years, it’s changed my whole life and outlook on things.” With HRT, you’re seeing a doctor every three months or so for check-ins. “But you also you need to have a support system in place that can help you with the day to day, because it can get pretty overwhelming,” says Mulvaney.

Moon agrees that at times, the emotional aspects of HRT can become overwhelming. “When I was younger, I used to say I had three emotions — angry, happy, neutral — and that was just how it was,” says Moon. But in starting HRT, she unlocked a new range of emotions with various depths and layers. “Angry is actually ‘I’m a little bit hungry, but I feel hurt and misunderstood and just sad in general.’ And then when I was happy, I’m not just happy or euphoric, it’s like, ‘I’m excited about this and there’s a little bit of joy about this.'” The whole process is “also a little bit bittersweet, because in transitioning, I get to be myself, but I also lost so, so much and had to rebuild,” Moon says. “I think emotionally, it took me off guard.”

One change that Bolger says he was the most unprepared for is the way others perceived him. “I absolutely took on male privilege,” he says. “I noticed that I was being treated differently. The men in the room would shake my hand before they left. I was listened to more. There was more of a platform in a space, people kind of waited for me to have something to say.” Emotionally, Bolger says it was “so weird.” Because they don’t identify as a man, “it was like switching from feeling misgendered on one side to feeling misgendered on the other side.” He also says the transition between living the first 18 years experiencing sexism against women, only then to be welcomed and respected by sexist men was “not ever in my intentions.” There’s this layer of complexity for nonbinary individuals, Bolger says, because T or no T “we live in a society where people assume that you’re either a man or a woman.”

Another unexpected change? Anecdotally, many people on T have said that it changes their sexual attraction, especially as it pertains to men. Bolger says that being on T hasn’t necessarily changed his attraction level to men but rather his comfortability level being with a man. “I felt really uncomfortable being with men, for example, when I was younger, because I knew that that would make people see me as a girl,” Bolger says. Being on T changed the way people perceived them and how Bolger perceived himself. Ultimately, “T didn’t make me stop loving women. T didn’t make me start loving men. T didn’t change anything about who I loved or who I f*cked. It changed my comfort, being in those relationships and having those experiences because of how I was feeling and perceiving myself.”

Any side effects or complications?

Yes. “That’s why we screen people initially for their past medical history and family history, because both [hormones] have side effects and adverse effects that can affect their overall health,” says Usman. Hormone therapy can aggravate pre-existing depression and anxiety. Other complications include developing diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and blood clots. If you’re a chronic smoker in particular, and you’re on estrogen, “there’s higher risk of developing blood clots,” Usman says. So be sure to be honest about all of your lifestyle habits within that first meeting, so that your provider can assess your needs and design a hormone therapy plan that works best for you.

Bolger for example is neurodivergent. “I have ADHD. I sometimes struggle with routine, like hygiene care, because of that,” Bolger says and talking to his provider about that openly was “really important” in figuring out which form of T was right for them. For example, the topical gel has to be applied once a day. “It has to be a part of your routine and for me with my ADHD, that wasn’t something that I really thought was going to be plausible,” Bolger says. So he went with the weekly injections instead. Even so, Bolger experienced health complications, including ovarian cysts, which were caused by going off schedule on T, a diversion caused by his ADHD. That’s why Bolger emphasizes the importance of seeking out a provider who can assess and treat your whole self — someone who will be looking our for your mental, physical, and emotional health beyond you being trans, but as a whole human, too.

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