Despite Suzanne Somers' claims on the Oprah Winfrey show that she has controlled the symptoms of menopause for 10 years by taking 60 supplements a day and using bioidentical hormones, there is little in the way of scientific evidence to back what she says.
Bioidentical hormones appear to help some women through the change of life, said Dr. Manny Alvarez, managing editor for FOXNewshealth.com. But they should be used with caution, he said.
“The best way to control the symptoms of menopause is to sit down with your doctor, get evaluated and come up with a customized plan that properly deals with your symptoms,” said Alvarez, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
A 2002 study found that the use of hormone replacement therapy increased the risk of heart attacks, breast cancer and strokes, prompting women to look for safer alternatives to control the often debilitating symptoms of menopause.
That search has led some women to bioidentical hormones, which are derived from plant sources and said to mimic hormones produced by the human body.
Somers, 62, revealed to Oprah on Thursday that she’s been using estrogen and progesterone creams and injecting herself vaginally with estriol, a bioidentical hormone similar to the female hormone estrogen, since she began going through menopause.
Estrogen levels become significantly depleted during menopause, causing physical symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, weight gain and loss of bone density, as well as mental health issues that include depression and anxiety.
Some women, including Somers, have turned to alternative medicines to treat these symptoms. But the Food and Drug Administration, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the North American Menopause Society have warned consumers to use caution when taking these products, pointing out that there are no studies to back the safety or effectiveness of bioidentical and custom-made hormone therapies.
“From a scientific point of view, these hormones are very similar to the ones females have in their bodies,” said Alvarez. “The question always is how much to take, because there are not a lot of studies that have been done proving their benefits.”
Alvarez warned that estriol, like estrogen, may increase the risk of certain cancers.
“The other problem is that most of these hormones are manufactured in places where the quality is unchecked,” he continued. “And to routinely take large quantities of bioidentical hormones is not right for everyone. It’s not a silver bullet and women should not look at it as a silver bullet.”
Somers, a breast cancer survivor, has long been an advocate of alternative medicines. In 2001 she revealed that in addition to more mainstream treatments such as surgery and radiation therapy, she was also using a drug made from mistletoe extract to treat her cancer.
While she did not mention which supplements she is taking to control her menopausal symptoms, many women have turned to black cohosh, red clover, Dong quai, evening primrose oil, ginseng, wild yam extract, chaste tree, hops, sage and kava kava to control their symptoms.
But a recent study found there is no evidence to support the effectiveness of any of these supplements.
Alvarez said each woman is different, as is every stage of menopause, and that's why a doctor should always be consulted before taking supplements of any kind.
"You don't necessarily need hormones to treat every every phase of menopause," he said. "And every individual is different in terms of severity of symptoms, family history, cardiovascular history, cancer history -- so it really needs to be looked at on a patient-to-patient basis."