Hormone Replacement Therapy: Dangers and Natural Alternatives

The newspaper headlines were alarming: "Hormone therapy too risky, study says. Increased chance of cancer among long-term effects."

These headlines were no surprise to me, a post-menopausal woman who is part of the nationwide, federally funded study, "Women's Health Initiative." This study started in 1991 and includes 265 women in Hawaii.

Though I am merely a "control", meaning I did not agree to take the hormone pill or a placebo (dummy pill), I was notified by letter in June of this year - 2002 - that preliminary results of the study showed a puzzling and disturbing increase in serious health problems among the women taking HRT in the form of estrogen plus progestin. These problems included blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, and breast cancer. The study was scheduled to last until 2005, but as increasing numbers of negative effects came in, the researchers decided to pull the plug three years early; they simply could not justify continuing.

In July, the official announcement was made and in doctors' offices across the country the phone began ringing off the hook. Patients and doctors were upset and confused and a class action lawsuit has been filed against the maker of this drug demanding that it be taken off the market immediately.

I had been well aware of the risks for years. Working at Down to Earth Natural Foods, I was familiar with the book "What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause" by Dr. John R. Lee. He is an M.D. who spoke out against HRT many years ago. I gave several workshops on the topic, informing women about such alternatives as plant-based natural hormones, the benefits of a plant-based diet, taking nutritional supplements and herbs, and getting regular exercise.

What doctors have told menopausal women - and probably believed themselves - was that taking a daily pill made from extracts of urine from pregnant horses (Premarin) and a synthetic form of progesterone called "progestin" would prevent hot flashes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and that it would greatly extend women's youthful years. The study shows a very different picture. About all the pill does is prevent hot flashes!

It is crucial that we understand the difference between natural hormones derived from plants and those made from horse urine and synthetic progestin. It was the latter prescription drug that was used in the study, and the results confirmed what had been in the small-print literature accompanying the product for many years. In other words, the serious drawbacks and dangers had been known for a long time. But aggressive marketing had convinced many women and their doctors that HRT would keep them healthy and youthful. The only benefits the study revealed were a small percentage of fewer colorectal cancers and fewer bone fractures.

If a study of this magnitude had been conducted on the combination of a healthy lifestyle, natural supplements, and the natural hormone progesterone made from Mexican wild yam, we probably would have seen impressive benefits. According to Dr. Lee, progesterone protects the body in so many ways that they are too numerous to list here. And plant estrogens go to the same receptors as the dangerous estrogens and replace them. In addition, many wonderful supplements such as flax oil, multi-vitamin-mineral combinations, and special menopausal herbal formulas are now available. They may not relieve all hot flashes, but I'd rather have some of those than worry I might suddenly have a stroke or discover a lump in my breast!

Most doctors are as distressed and confused as their women patients. They have been exposed to the same sales pressures from drug companies as well as TV ads with Patty LaBelle and Lauren Hutton. What every woman and every doctor needs is a copy of Dr. Lee's book (inexpensive at $13.99 and available at Down to Earth and most bookstores). All of his claims are backed by scientific studies and professional literature as well as his own experience as a family physician.

I think the Women's Health Initiative study came just in time for millions of baby boomer women entering menopause. Many of these women will now seek out naturopathic physicians who are familiar with the dangers of HRT. They have saliva tests available to assess a woman's hormonal status (a procedure which regular MDs don't even know about) and can design a personal program based on those tests. We are not able to recommend any particular naturopath, but several are listed in the Oahu Yellow Pages.