Have a question about women’s health or menopause? Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen may have the answer. Click here to send in your question to be posted on WVFC.

Question: Dr. Pat, what is your thinking about bioidentical hormones of the type promoted by Suzanne Somers? Can they really do everything she claims?

Dr. Pat: I’m glad you asked. First, let’s be clear about what bioidentical hormones are and how they differ from the kinds of hormone replacement therapy that have been used for years.

Bioidentical hormones are chemically just like the hormones produced by a woman’s ovaries. Estradiol is the form of estrogen produced in the ovaries of women during their reproductive years before menopause, and progesterone is the form of progestin produced.

FDA-tested, approved and monitored pharmaceutical estradiol and progesterone have been used for years in the management of menopausal symptoms. Both the FDA bioidentical estrogen and progesterone and the compounded bioidentical estrogen and progesterone carry the same potential benefits and risk. After all, they are identical substances.

The problems with compounded hormones include, potentially, a lack of purity; the addition of other untested hormones (testosterone, DHEA and even growth hormone); inconsistency of dosage from one batch to the next; and unknown testing on how well these forms of hormones are absorbed or excreted.

Suzanne Somers, an infomercial entrepreneur, entered the fray in 2004 with her book of magical thinking, “The Sexy Years: Discover the Hormone Connection,” and added to her oeuvre in 2006 with “Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones.” Women are understandably attracted to the ideas promoted in the Somers’ books, as she presents an appealing alternative to the hormone therapy products that are created by FDA-approved pharmaceutical firms.

Based on her “own research and experiences” and advice from doctors she self selected who agree with her ideas of promoting bio-identical hormone treatment, Somers promotes the use of natural bio-identical hormones as a safe and risk free form of hormone therapy that will offset aging, weight gain, flagging libido and lost vitality that she assumes affects all women in the menopausal transition.

Women must know that these compounded hormone products carry the same risk of increased breast cancer, blood clots and stroke as the FDA-approved products. Doctors have been advised to prescribe the lowest effective dose of all hormone treatments to minimize the risks.

Back in November, Larry King hosted a discussion that did nothing to increase clarity for women who are interested in and/or concerned about the hormone therapy touted by Somers. It is completely appropriate to want answers to the questions: Is this method appropriate? Is it risk free?

Unfortunately, the show did not successfully address these questions. Instead, Somers, several women doctors and Susie Wiley, a bio-identical hormone proponent and author of “Sex, Lies and Menopause” (written under the name T.S. Wiley), called each other names, interrupted each other and failed to have any intelligent or civil discourse.

Wiley has created something called the “Wiley protocol,” which is, in her words, “a formulation and manner of dosing bioidentical HRT.” Not only does she claim that this protocol slows the aging process, but on King’s show she did not deny that she had indicated that her protocol could cure cancer.

One other point: There is no reason to measure the hormone levels in the blood or saliva since symptom relief is the only goal of treatment. Therefore, there is no justification, as proposed by Wiley and Somers, to waste money on repeated testing of hormone levels.

Dr. Wulf Utian, founder and executive director of the North American Menopause Society (which WVFC supports), was also an invited guest, but he was in a Cleveland television studio, unable to see or hear much of the program. He did make an effort to discuss issues of bioidentical hormone safety and lack of any long term studies or FDA oversight, and he pointed out that the compounding pharmacies and doctors who specialize in the use of these products are “selling promises, silver bullets against aging with no evidence to prove what they’re claiming.”

People have unrealistic hopes about their health and look for solutions that are too good to be true. Caveat emptor: Buyers of magic beware.

Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen, director of the New York Menopause Center, is a gynecologist affiliated with New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

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  • theresa junor May 7, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    I have a question, I am 41, and am suffering from extreme fatigue, insomnia, no libido, moodiness, and terrible forgetfulness. I get my cycle regularly every 28-32 days as I always have, and have two children ages 8 and 4. My husband and I would like to try for one more child but I think I am going through peri-menopause if I am will it make it harder to get pregnant and or can I take bioidentical hormones if I’m trying to get pregnant. What do you suggest.

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  • Sue May 31, 2008 at 9:09 am

    Bashing of bio-identical hormones makes me think that you are affiliated with a pharmaceutical company. Women were getting breast cancer by the droves using the FDA approved hormones. It disturbs me when a gynecologist is so negative about something so natural. If something wasn’t working before and/or causing harm, please don’t advocate it. Measuring hormone levels seems to make a lot more sense than blindly prescribing hormones.

  • Christine C. January 20, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Thanks, Mel. We’ve got some updates here:

  • Mel January 17, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Here’s an article form DailyCents.com about this stuff. FDA is warning people about it now. Check it out:

  • Terry Williams April 22, 2007 at 11:55 am

    I was 59 last month and have many female friends in their late 50’s and in their ’60’s. Most take bio identical hormones, have increased mental clarity, easier weight loss, and have menstrual periods again.

  • Cheryl Dale January 26, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Women are trying to become advocates for themselves and are trying to make correct decisions about their health issues but it seems hard to know who is giving them the right info. Seems we can find a source for every avenue in which you want to believe.
    It is frustrating.
    I guess we just keep reading and researching and make decisions that work for us individually.
    Thanks for your input.

  • Deborah Vanderstadt January 13, 2007 at 11:46 am

    There’s a lot more to the Wiley Protocol story. Her co-author, Dr. Bent Formby, has disavowed this protocol, calling it reckless and dangerous. Women have gotten very ill on the protocol and been harassed by Wiley for speaking up about it. Wiley has been described as an anthropologist pretending to be a doctor/scientist, but she’s not even that — she’s been lying about having a college degree.