A few years ago, former "Three's Company" star Suzanne Somers embarked on a new career: She became a proponent of bioidentical hormones, which she describes as safe and natural therapies for menopausal women. She wrote three bestselling books on the topic, "The Sexy Years," "Ageless" and "Breakthrough." And to cap it all off, she will appear in a movie--titled "Suzanne Somers' Breakthrough Tour," which will show in some movie theaters on November 4 and November 9.
In the trailer for this theatrical event (see below), Somers declares, "I'm 63 and I am healthier and happier than I have ever been--ever." She goes on to urge people to see the movie to "learn how to reverse the aging process and really live your life."
I am among a small group of journalists, doctors and others who have been trying mightily to debunk Somers' anti-aging theories. Why? It's scientifically unsound to suggest that aging can be reversed. More importantly, Somers' theories about how alternative hormone replacement can help menopausal women are flawed.
Before I tell you why that is, let me explain a bit about bioidentical hormones. These are estrogen and progesterone products that are derived from plant sources such as yams and soybeans. The anti-aging industry calls them "bioidentical" because they are molecularly identical to what the human body makes naturally, as explained in this statement from the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
Bioidentical hormones began to take off in 2002, when the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) study revealed an increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women taking Prempro--a drug derived from the urine of pregnant mares--which was once widely prescribed to relieve hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. (A recent update to WHI, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on October 20, suggests those women also faced a higher mortality risk.)
In her first book on bioidentical alternatives, 2004's "The Sexy Years," Somers described her struggles against "the Seven Dwarfs of Menopause," whom she called "Itchy," "Bitchy," "Sweaty," "Sleepy," "Bloated," "Forgetful" and "All Dried Up." The cure: bio-identical hormones, or in her words, "the elixir--the juice of youth that has sent the Seven Dwarfs of Menopause off to the coal mines never to return!"
Somers urges women to purchase bioidentical hormones from compounding pharmacists, who make mixtures of estrogen and progesterone that they say are tailored to what each individual patient needs.
Problem is, that isn't telling the whole story. So in my ongoing effort to tell the other side of the anti-aging story, I will present here a few of the key theories from her books, along with some evidence to the contrary.
Somers Says: Bioidentical estrogen is safe and natural because it's the same as what women's bodies make in their younger years.
Contrary Evidence: Mainstream medical organizations including the Endocrine Society (see official statement here) warn that there are no published studies in peer-reviewed journals showing that bio-identical hormones are safer than other menopause treatments. Even the hormones that our bodies make naturally can be dangerous: In a Harvard project called the Nurses' Health Study, scientists examined blood samples from 1,000 nurses who were not taking any pharmaceutical hormones and discovered that women with the highest levels of naturally occurring hormones were the most likely to develop breast cancer.
Somers Says: Women should get bio-identical hormones from compounding pharmacists because only they can tailor hormones to your particular needs.
Contrary Evidence: Pharmaceutical companies have been making hormones derived from soy and other natural sources for years, and many of them come in different doses so patients can tailor them to their own needs. Some examples of the estrogen products are Bayer's Climara, Esprit Pharma's EstroGel and Novartis's Vivelle-Dot. The difference is that these products are approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, therefore they come with extensive warnings about the aforementioned risks of estrogen replacement--warnings that women may not get if they obtain hormone products from compounding pharmacists.
Somers Says: But pharmaceutical hormones don't include estriol, a form of estrogen that's abundant in younger women and therefore should be a part of a healthy hormone-replacement program.
Contrary Evidence: True, but estriol is not contained in any FDA-approved products. Studies on this form of estrogen are sparse. Estriol fans often quote research done in the 1970s by a University of Nebraska scientist named Henry Lemon. But in 1980, Lemon himself published a study revealing that when he gave estriol to 24 women with breast cancer, six of them saw their tumors grow and two developed endometrial hyperplasia--a precancerous condition of the uterus. (The National Women's Health Network provides a rather sobering description of this study here.) The FDA has received more than 25 reports of adverse events from women taking estriol and in 2008 it put out a consumer warning about bioidentical hormones.
Last year, Somers got a major boost when she was invited to appear as a hormone expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show. She sat on the stage, while two doctors who were also interviewed during the hour were relegated to seats in the audience--giving the distinct impression that Somers was the true "expert." I was in an anti-aging clinic that week reporting my book, "Selling the Fountain of Youth." The phones were ringing off the hook. The doctors joked about being "Oprah-whelmed." Their business went through the roof. And now we have this new movie.
I'll leave you with a question to ponder: When it comes to guiding important medical decisions, should celebrities have such power?
Here are some good resources on bioidentical hormone replacement, from a few of the many organizations that have tried to counter the Hollywood message: The Endocrine Society ("Bioidentical Hormones"), the North American Menopause Society ("Bioidentical Hormone Therapy") and the Mayo Clinic ("Bioidentical Hormones: Are They Safer?").