Suzanne Somers does not look like your typical 70-year-old. Bright-eyed, flirty and svelte, the septuagenarian TV star exudes a surprising youthfulness.
And according to two of her bestselling books, others can achieve similar results with something called bioidentical hormone therapy (BHT).
Indeed, whether Somers can take credit or not, the menopause and “anti-aging” treatment has taken off in recent years.
A new Canadian study suggests the Internet is replete with websites — most run by medical doctors and pharmacists — that tout bioidenticals as a safe, effective and natural alternative to conventional hormone-replacement therapy. Those are drugs that plummeted in popularity after a landmark study suggested they actually increased serious health risks.
But assertions many of the businesses make for the bioidentical alternative lack backing in actual science, while the medicines are often not even approved by regulators like Health Canada, say the University of Alberta professors behind the study.
They tout the research as the first scientific look at online advertising of the treatment, and more evidence of how the Internet has allowed backers of unproven health products to largely skirt regulation.
“It is something that is being promoted purely on the basis of the marketing, and not based on anything that shows it is better,” said Ubaka Ogbogu, a law and pharmacy professor who studies the promotion of alternative health care. “The main claim is that it is safer than conventional hormone therapy, and there simply is no evidence to support this.”
Synthetically produced hormone-replacement therapy was once a ubiquitous treatment for hot flashes, night sweats and other symptoms of menopause.
But when a major U.S. study concluded in 2002 the drugs increased the risk of breast cancer, coronary artery disease and stroke, their use waned dramatically.
Later research has suggested they can be used safely on certain, younger women.
In the meantime, though, bioidentical hormone therapy has soared in popularity, with one American estimate suggesting it is a US$2-billion business south of the border.
The idea is that the hormones — derived from plants such as soybeans and custom-compounded by pharmacists for individual patients — are almost identical in structure to those produced in women’s bodies. And because of that, advocates say, they are safer and more effective than the conventional hormone treatment.
The likes of Somers — in the books Ageless and I’m too young for this — also promote it as a way to counter the effects of growing old.
The University of Alberta researchers examined the claims made about the service on 100 websites for various health professionals, 59 per cent of them Canadian.
A post shared by Suzanne Somers (@suzannesomers) on Feb 29, 2016 at 11:43am PST
More than 60 per cent said bioidentical hormones were safer than conventional hormone-replacement therapy, while a quarter of the sites said the hormones were “protective” against breast cancer, suggesting they could actually help prevent the disease.
Half talked of the medicines as being anti-aging and 70 per cent called them natural.
While some of the businesses were run by natural-health practitioners, one in two involved medical doctors and 19 were pharmacies.
Where do the claims fall down?
Nese Yuksel, a pharmacy professor and lead author of the study, noted that those plant hormones are chemically processed to make them mimic human hormones, so are at least semi-synthetic, she said.
“They’re promoted as being natural, but they’re actually not,” said Yuksel, who has done work for two pharmaceutical companies that make conventional hormone treatments.
Meanwhile, various women’s-health and other medical organizations have concluded there’s no basis for suggesting bioidentical hormones are safer or work better – though it’s possible future studies could show that.
“The risks are not yet well understood,” notes HealthLink BC, a British Columbia government agency. “They may have the same breast cancer, stroke, blood clot, heart disease and dementia risks that synthetic hormone therapy has.”
Ogbogu said his team’s findings underscore the need for authorities to be more assertive in rooting out and halting misleading marketing of health products. As it stands, Health Canada investigates only if a complaint is lodged.
“That kind of regulation is not proactive,” said the University of Alberta professor. “Somebody gets harmed first before the regulator acts.”