A Real Somers Storm

Suzanne somers doesn't give up--even when virtually the entire medical community is against her. In her 2004 best seller "The Sexy Years," she touted "bioidentical" hormones as more natural than hormones from drug companies for menopausal women. Somers, now 60, claimed that these plant-derived estrogen and progesterone products, which are not FDA-approved, kept her looking and feeling young. As bioidentical sales soared, medical groups grew so alarmed about the health risks that they mounted publicity campaigns to convince women that bioidenticals haven't been proved safe or more effective than FDA-approved therapies for symptoms like hot flashes.

Now Somers is out with a new best seller, "Ageless," in which she promotes the work of an "independent researcher" named T. S. Wiley who thinks menopausal women should have as much estrogen in their bodies as 20-year-olds. Wiley's only academic credential is a degree in anthropology--which has outraged even the pro-bioidentical doctors Somers quotes in her book. In a recent letter to Somers, three of these doctors called "Ageless" "dangerous" because "the book freely and repeatedly blurs the line of medical ethics and science with hearsay."

Despite her critics, Somers is undaunted. "Doctors are embarrassed that they don't know about this," she says. "When doctors don't have an answer, they like to pooh-pooh it." Her advice to them: "Learn more. Go deeper. If I can learn it, they can learn it." Wiley blames professional envy. "New ideas don't come from clinical practice," she says. "Someone who's not a doctor can see things in different ways."

Somers's message resonates because of continuing confusion over the safety of FDA-approved hormone therapy. In 2002, after a huge federal study found that a widely prescribed hormone product increased the risk of heart disease and breast cancer, many women turned to bioidenticals. Many doctors now feel they're fighting a tsunami of misinformation. "Giving unregulated substances to individuals under the guise of it being more natural is hogwash," says Dr. Nanette Santoro, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Somers's status as a breast-cancer survivor makes her advice even more surprising, since estrogen fuels tumors, adds Dr. Glenn Braunstein, an endocrinologist and chair of the department of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "She's playing with fire," Braunstein says.

Somers claims these products, sold by pharmacists who make customized drugs, are natural. In fact, although they may start out as wild yams or soybeans, they are chemicals synthesized in a lab. While the FDA approval process isn't perfect, it's better than what consumers get with these drugs: no warning about side effects, no safety data, no check on advertising claims and no manufacturing oversight. Most women's health experts say it's prudent to assume that all hormone products (FDA-approved or not) carry the same risks. "It is up to you to be an informed patient," Somers says in "Ageless." In that advice, at least, she's absolutely right.

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