As an added benefit, they may also improve heart health, researchers say.
The researchers studied custom-compounded creams made from plant-derived hormones that are biochemically similar to those produced by the body. A preparation contains one or more various hormones in different amounts to meet each woman's individualized needs.
Custom-compounded hormones have been gaining favor ever since a large government-funded study known as the Women's Health Initiative linked the long-term use of conventional hormone replacement therapy in menopausal women to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and breast cancer.
But there have been few well designed studies showing the custom-compounded hormone preparations actually work.
The new research suggests that these compounds "can make remarkable changes in a woman's life," says Kenna Stephenson, MD, of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.
"Individualized hormonal treatments are just what women need," she tells WebMD.
Stephenson presented the new study at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2008.
Custom Creams Improve Menopause Symptoms
The 12-month study involved 150 perimenopausal and postmenopausal women 30 to 70. Half were given conventional hormone pills -- birth control pills for younger women and Prempro (estrogen plus progesterone) or Premarin (estrogen only) for the menopausal women.
The other half received a cream that contained a customized blend of some combination of estrogen, progesterone, and the androgens testosterone and DHEA.
While androgens are often labeled "male hormones," they're necessary for women's health, too. A deficiency has been linked to menopausal symptoms, loss of libido, and other problems, Stephenson notes.
The pharmacist typically places the cream in plastic syringes that contain the precise amount a woman needs each day, she says.
By a year later, women who were taking compounded hormones reported significantly less depression, anxiety, and pain. They had fewer hot flashes and night sweats. Their quality of life improved. Blood pressure and triglyceride levels fell. Levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and other markers of harmful inflammation in the arteries that can lead to blood clots dropped as well.
In contrast, conventional hormone pills have been shown to raise triglyceride and CRP levels, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, an American Heart Association spokeswoman and heart specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"It appears this preparation could be protective against symptoms of menopause as well as heart disease, but clearly a larger study is needed," she tells WebMD.
Stephenson says women who want to use the hormonal blends need to make sure they choose a compounding pharmacist who is licensed and trained.
The International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists, which helped fund the research, maintains a list of members with specialized training, she says.