Young & Growing Science: ER doc reborn as anti-aging specialist

Young & Growing Science: ER doc reborn as anti-aging specialist

By Kimberly Hundley  |  Photos by Sam Nalven

Former Navy doctor and ER physician Colleen Hunsaker, D.O., was ready for an encore career in the medical field after several years as a committed stay-at-home mom in Scottsdale. Three years ago—drawn to anti-aging medicine and bio-identical hormone therapy for men and women —she opened a practice in the Airpark.

“I went through all the specialties and nothing moved me like this,” she says. “I have a passion for it because people really need to know that we can reprogram our system. We can do stuff about our genes. You don’t have to accept that aging is a slow, steady decline and things like loss of memory, libido and joy for life are settling in and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Working in the emergency room in Los Angeles, Hunsaker had thrived on the adrenaline of saving lives in critical situations, but as she got older, she felt like she was headed toward chronic fatigue. Plus she missed having a relationship with her ER patients, who would move to an operating room once a crisis was managed, sometimes while still unconscious.

“It was almost like taking care of an anonymous person,” she says. “Now I know how many kids my patients have and what is going on in their lives.”

She also gets to see the ongoing dramatic improvements in people’s everyday lives due to the personalized hormone-replacement therapies she prescribes. Most of her clients are baby boomers concerned about symptoms related to slowing hormone production—usually estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.

“You have to replace everything you lose as you get older,” Hunsaker says. “If you lose your insulin production, you start taking insulin shots, but when you lose your hormones, people get all sorts of conflicting information.”

Hunsaker relies on extensive blood testing as well as patient symptoms to determine a hormone baseline for a customized prescription that is adjusted according to periodically repeated tests.

The approach sounds logical enough, yet Hunsaker says many doctors fail to run more than a rudimentary blood panel, let alone do follow-up testing to fine-tune their initial assessment and hormone dosage.

“In four to six weeks, we check it again and see if what I put them on is too high or too low, and we adjust it,” she says.

Hunsaker has seen cases where doctors prescribed estrogen-based hormones purely on reported symptoms and then continually adjusted the level up if the women said they were still having hot flashes, resulting in huge estrogen levels.

“You would think the money for the lab test were coming out of [the doctors’] own pocket or something,” Hunsaker says. “And for thyroid and adrenal issues, it’s the same thing. They’ll do one test. I’ll do three or four in one blood draw.”

Yams & Hormones

As Hunsaker’s website page on hormone function prominently states, “All Hormones of the Endocrine System are Like Instruments That  Must Each Be Finely Tuned to Play the Great Symphony.”

For Hunsaker, the best tuning device is bio-identical hormone replacement therapy, or BHRT, a major part of her practice. Unlike synthetic female hormones made from horse urine—which a major clinical trial linked to complications such as strokes and heart attacks—the bio-identical versions seem to be far safer, according to proponents.

Hunsaker says a base is made from yams, then modified in a laboratory to mimic the molecular structure of hormones produced in the body. No substantial studies have yet been conducted, however, on the efficacy or risks of bio-identical hormones.

“The reason there is no study,” says Hunsaker, “is because pharmaceutical companies often finance clinical trials, and bio-identical hormones are natural and can’t be patented. The companies hate them because they can’t patent them and make money off them.”

Hunsaker’s patients of both sexes are reporting excellent results with BHRT, which is fortunately also cheaper than using pharmaceutical hormones (roughly $30 to $50 monthly without insurance at a compounding pharmacy).

An increasing number of men are getting themselves checked for low-testosterone syndrome. The condition has gotten a lot of publicity recently from pharmaceutical companies—though Hunsaker prescribes bio-identical hormone cream for low-T as well.

“They’ve lost their oomph, their joy. They’re not sick, but they are sick and tired,” she says. “I do blood tests, and if the testosterone is really low, it gets replaced and there is this drastic turnaround.”

In the last couple of years, Hunsaker’s practice has been attracting younger patients, “which is a really good thing, especially for women, who you want to reach in perimenopause,” she says. Estrogen alone has 400 functions in the human body, and a drop in levels can have a host of consequences, including depression, fogginess and saggy skin.

Life-Changing Results

Jennifer Pearson of North Scottsdale visited Hunsaker to make sure her depression and fatigue weren’t hormone related. Because she was only 46, she doubted she was menopausal but couldn’t be sure due to a medical procedure in her 30s that had stopped her periods. Blood tests showed she was in full menopause.

“I do estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. I am one of those people who can honestly say it changed my life,” says Pearson. “I walked in looking tired and worn out, and now I feel fabulous.’”

Like everybody, Pearson still gets moody sometimes, but her attitude is better, even her skin and hair have regained their luster.

“My husband says, ‘You will be on this until the day you go into the grave, honey,’” she laughs.

Trishy Meary, 56, also went to Hunsaker when she was grappling with depression, hers stemming from a divorce. She discovered both her thyroid and menopause-related hormone levels were off, and she had a vitamin D deficiency. Within a month of therapy she began to feel better and now, two years into the medications, she believes she has dodged severe side effects of menopause, unlike some of her friends.

Meary recalls one friend who lost a job because menopause made her so forgetful, and another who battled marital problems due to mood swings.

“Last week, my college roommate emailed me that she had such a bad hot flash in the middle of the night, she went into the bathroom to get a cool cloth, fainted, hit her head on the toilet seat and had to get taken to the hospital for stitches,” Meary says. “I’ve avoided all those problems.”

New Frontiers

The term “anti-aging” seems to be all over place these days, including in the cosmetic industry, and Hunsaker advises caution, even as she speaks with enthusiasm about the evolving medicine and discoveries in the field.

“Everybody is putting ‘anti-aging’ on their shingle, so to speak, without the training,” she says. “I think we’re learning more and more, but those doctors who go through the certification process are going to be the true anti-aging physicians.”

Hunsaker herself is taking her orals in June and will be one of the few doctors in Scottsdale certified by the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine.

One of the newest areas stirring excitement and controversy in the field is telomere biology. Studies have linked aging to the shortening of what is essentially the end caps—or telomeres—of chromosomes. The only way to lengthen telomeres appears to be through the activation of an enzyme called telomerase, and some doctors are advocating “cell rejuvenation” through pills.

Hunsaker is so convinced by the science, she’s working on telomere therapy with a few select patients and recently began taking the doses herself.

TA-65 is just another tool in the fight to age as healthily as possible. Diet, exercise, stress management and spirituality are also part of the strategy.

Dr. Colleen Hunsaker
14300 N. Northsight Blvd., Suite 121
Scottsdale (corner of Evans Road)