Menopause brings big changes for many women, thanks to hormonal fluctuations. “Hormone levels vary greatly during this transitional time, and women may experience a range of unpleasant symptoms, such as hot flashes and sleep problems,” the National Institute on Aging (NIA) explains. “This transition is a major midlife event in women’s lives, usually beginning between ages 45 and 55 and lasting for about seven years.”
To counter the effects of menopause, some women turn to bioidentical hormones—processed, plant-based hormones designed to emulate the natural hormones your body makes. According to the Cleveland Clinic, some people with “symptoms of low or unbalanced hormones” may benefit from taking these hormones, or more traditional forms of hormone therapy (HT). However, they note that it is important to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of any such treatment with your doctors.
Actor and author Suzanne Somers says she has personally benefited from taking bioidentical hormones during menopause, going so far as to call them her “secret to staying ageless.” However, not all doctors endorse the treatment—and some even warn that it can cause serious side effects.
Read on to learn why two doctors are taking a stand against this particular health trend, which they say may do more harm than good.
READ THIS NEXT: If You’re Over 50, Sleeping in This Position Is Aging You, Experts Warn.
In a 2009 issue of the Women’s Health Activist Newsletter, published by the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN), two doctors pushed back on Somers’ claims that bioidentical hormones can help menopausal women stay healthy and “ageless.”
“Certainly, we all want to stay healthy as long as possible,” Charlea T. Massion, MD, a physician in Santa Cruz, California and Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, a former NWHN Board Chair, wrote in the newsletter. “Many practices contribute to healthy aging, including exercise, not smoking, and avoiding heavy alcohol use. Enjoyable activities help too, like socializing, getting enough sleep, relaxing and having fun. But, alas, there’s no magic pill (or cream) and Ms. Somers’ promotion of hormone drugs hurts women’s health. The truth is, post-menopausal use of hormones has well-known dangers.”
READ THIS NEXT: 5 Secrets for Growing Out Gray Hair, According to Stylists.
Somers has written several books on the topic of anti-aging, regularly touting the benefits of hormone therapy. In a 2009 interview with The Baltimore Sun, the actor claimed that these hormones were in fact a key to longevity.
“Our bodies weren’t intended to live beyond our reproductive years. Women used to die routinely at 40 or 45, and now they’re living to 90 or 100,” she told the outlet. “We’ve figured out with technology how to keep ourselves alive twice as long as the body wants to be. When we restore our bodies to those optimal hormonal levels at which we reproduce, we keep our insides healthy because our brains are tricked into thinking we can still reproduce and keep us alive to perpetuate the species.”
Massion and Fugh-Berman described these statements as “just plain wrong,” adding that “hormones are more likely to shorten your life, not lengthen it.” The doctors continued: “Life expectancy is calculated as an average; if half the population dies at age 100 and half dies before age 1, the average life expectancy is 50. While it’s true that the 1900 life expectancy was only 49 years, it was mainly due to high rates of infant mortality and women dying in childbirth. In the past, women who survived both infancy and childbirth had an excellent chance of reaching a ripe old age.”
Though some medical providers view bioidentical hormone therapy as a safer alternative to traditional hormone therapy, the Cleveland Clinic points out that “there have been no large research studies of bioidentical hormones to show evidence of this.”
Known side effects of bioidentical hormones include weight gain, bloating, blurred vision, increased facial hair, headaches, cramping, mood swings, and more, the health authority says. The treatment may be especially unsafe for women with a personal or family history of blood clotting disorders, heart disease, breast cancer, or stroke.
“Alarmingly, Somers believes that these hormones are safe, despite the fact that she developed breast cancer while taking them,” wrote Massion and Fugh-Berman in the newsletter, addressing possible side effects. “After continuing to take hormones against her doctor’s advice, she developed endometrial hyperplasia (abnormal uterine cell growth that is a risk factor for cancer). Both breast cancer and endometrial hyperplasia are known risks of HT,” the doctors point out.
For more health news sent directly to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Though the two doctors stop short of advising against hormone therapy for all patients, they urge those going through menopause to exercise caution when exploring hormonal treatments.
“Hormone use of any kind, bioidentical or not, should only be used for symptom relief (severe hot flashes and/or bothersome vaginal dryness) and only at the lowest doses for the shortest time possible. If you take hormones after menopause, do not take progestagen every day (a popular regimen). You can take two weeks of progesterone every three months; that will protect you from the endometrial cancer risk of estrogen and lessen your exposure to the progestagen. If you are treating vaginal dryness, use a vaginal preparation—an estrogen cream or an estrogen ring—to lower your total estrogen exposure,” they explain.
Speak with your doctor to learn more about the full range of risks and benefits associated with hormone replacement therapy and bioidentical hormones.