Forever Young

Suzanne Somers says special hormones can keep women young. Should they listen?

By Susan Kruglinski|Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Suzanne Somers is spending her golden years selling jewelry on television, writing books about dieting, and getting into yelling matches with doctors about hormones on the Larry King Show. (“You do synthetic hormones!” she barked at the male director of the North American Menopause Society.)

Her latest book, Ageless: The Naked TruthAbout Bioidentical Hormones, is a best-selling endorsement of bioidentical hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. It has caused quite a stir, especially among doctors: Some of them wrote a letter to Crown, her publisher, warning that ideas put forth by Somers may be dangerous to women’s health. Somers, a 60-year-old sufferer of severe menopausal symptoms, holds no medical degree (“I’m a layperson who has chosen to educate myself”), but contends that the many doctors under Big Pharma’s spell may not be providing women with objective advice.

Bioidentical hormones have become a watercooler topic since 2002, when a study by the Women’s Health Initiative suggested that the conventional hormone replacement drugs that millions of women have consumed for decades may be causing cancer and strokes. Bioidenticals are derived from plants like yams and soybeans and are synthesized to be chemically identical to human hormones. (Conventional synthetic hormones are derived from horse urine and are not chemically identical.) While some bioidenticals have been approved by the FDA and prescribed for years, most have not, and doctors argue that these “natural” hormones could trigger disease as easily as conventional hormone therapy.

Even more controversial for Somers and her many followers is that one of the sources interviewed in Ageless, T.S. Wiley, is pushing a treatment plan that may include alarmingly high doses of replacement hormones. Wiley does not hold a Ph.D. or an M.D. and has been caught in a lie about her educational background (she did not actually finish her undergraduate degree) which wasn't especially deep even when padded. “We cannot stand by and allow non-experts to dispense medical advice that could potentially harm women,” write the doctors objecting to Ageless.

Somers stands by her book, insisting that she has simply written about multiple options for women who suffer from the symptoms of menopause, and that readers should listen to their own doctors and proceed at their own risk.

How did you become interested in this subject?
When I started experiencing the symptoms of hormone loss, I went from doctor to doctor and was appalled at what was offered to me. What was offered to me was synthetic fake hormones—and I had already read The Women’s Health Initiative of2002 where they declared that women would be better off taking nothing at all than taking these dangerous, harmful, and even fatal so-called hormones. The second thing I was offered was what I called “the menopause cocktail.” “Well,if you can’t sleep, here’s a sleeping pill. Well, if you’re depressed, here’s an anti-depressant. Well, if you’ve got allergies, here is Claritin. Well, if you’ve got anxiety or panic attacks, here’s valium. If you’ve got joint pain, here’s pain-killer.” I looked at the last doctor I saw and I said, “Are you joking? Is this the best you have to offer women?” So I went on a search. I finally found a doctor who discussed bioidentical hormones, which no other doctor—this was an endocrinologist—no gynecologist had ever mentioned to me.

Why do you think it is that, until recently, bioidenticals have not been on the radar?
The problem is, there’s no money to be made—according to the pharmaceutical companies—in bioidentical hormones, because they are not patentable. It’s going to make them lose money. They don’t want us to know about bioidentical hormones, because if we do, we won’t need their synthetic hormones. We won’t need their sleeping pills. We won’t need their diet pills. We won’t need their valium. We won’t need their painkillers. We won’t need the antidepressants.

In some of the therapies you describe, a menopausal woman would cycle through hormones, often in heavier doses than in conventional therapies, as if she were fertile—even triggering a menstrual cycle. Aren’t many doctors alarmed by this?
By taking a woman off estrogen and not understanding that what she really needs is the right ratio of estrogen and progesterone to recreate—to simulate—a reproductive template, you’re walking into a disaster. That is what I feel with my heart and soul, and I believe it so much that I did it for myself against my doctor’s orders. Taking Premarin means getting estrogen every day of the month. Prenpro gives you estrogen and progestin every day of the month. It never ever happens like that in nature, never. When the doctors say, “Aging is natural and menopause is natural,” I say, it’s not. Technology has got in there and tricked our body into living longer than it wants to live, so now we’ve got to trick our brain into thinking that we can still make a baby even though we can’t.

Can you describe your regimen of hormone replacement?
Our hormone needs as women changes daily. I have my cocktail right now just right. But if I take a plane trip next week, which I will, and there’s a lot of turbulence and I go through a storm or something that’s very agitating to me, for the next couple of days I will need to up my estrogen ever so little. Now some people say, “Isn’t that dangerous?” I feel I will never overdose because the moment I take too much, I may get bloated or get a headache or I can’t sleep. It’s the body’s way of going, “Whoops, that’s enough,” and so you back off. And a woman gets to know. People with diabetes do it all the time. If they slip and they have a dessert, they know they’re going to have to up their insulin ever so much. And so if diabetics can learn how to dose themselves, women can certainly learn how to dose themselves with hormones. And I feel fantastic. I eat organic food. I think today’s world is extremely stressful. And most people are eating synthetic chemicals all the time. And the environmental pollution that is getting into the air, the water, the carpets in our houses, the household products that we’re using… We are under an assault unlike anything the human species has ever before experienced. And this is just my personal choice.

At one point you had breast cancer. Doesn’t that make you more wary about raising your levels of hormones?
When my doctor said, “You have to come off your hormones,” I said, “I can’t do that.” He said, “But you have an estrogen-rich tumor.” I said, “But by taking away my hormones, you are taking away the one thing that I have to fight this, so that I can remain healthy.” I said, “What I’d like you to do is guide me. But I’m going be the contractor here and you are the subcontractor. And I just want to come to you for advice for this and that, but I’m going to do this my way.” Hormones are like a nutrient to your organs. It’s what feeds the organs. As we lose hormones, our organs and glands stop working efficiently. So when I look at this, it just makes absolute sense to me.

Don’t we need clinical trials to gauge the safety of these therapies?
Yeah. But you’re talking here to a 60-year-old woman. What do you want me to do? Wait till I’m 80? I’m feeling good. What they have to offer me, I know is dangerous. But I also know that it’s an exact fit, synthesized to exactly replicate what my body once made. You must understand, I don’t advocate Wiley. I don’t even get my hormones from her. I don’t advocate anybody. In Ageless, I just laid out different ways to do it. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t tell you what’s the best way to do it. Clinical trials take 10 to 20 years, and there are those of us who are in desperate need, caught in this void—my age group. These are the dice I’m rolling. I don’t want to fall into a life of sleeplessness and sexlessness and illness and depression and all the diseases that are byproducts of the loss of hormones. I’m willing to take a risk. I don’t consider bioidentical hormones anywhere near the risk of taking a, quote, “dangerous, harmful, even fatal” synthetic hormone. You couldn’t pry my mouth open to put a synthetic hormone in me.

It seems irresponsible to say, “This is good. You should do this,” even though it may well end up giving women cancer. It may be more responsible just to say, “You have to question what’s out there, but this is just as questionable as anything else.”
That’s what I said in my book. It’s a personal choice. There’s no gun to anybody’s head.

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