Video: Are bioidentical hormones safe?

By Chief Medical Editor
NBC News
updated 11/2/2006 7:19:17 AM ET 2006-11-02T12:19:17

The sales pitch is a hard one to resist, with one endorser calling it "the juice of youth," and a commercial touting it as the "more natural alternative."

"It's helped me feel like a person again," says Diane Martin, who has been getting bioidentical hormone replacement therapy since February 2006.

Some doctors are convinced.

"I believe these hormones are safe," says Dr. Alicia Stanton, a hormone replacement expert with BodyLogicMD. "I'm on them myself."

Even some celebrities swear by it.

"I am perfectly hormonally balanced," said Suzanne Somers Oct. 10 on the "Today" show. "I'm a really fun woman to live with." 

It's "bioidentical hormone replacement therapy" — and for some women, looking for an answer to the unpleasant side effects of menopause, it's come just in time.

Bioidenticals are custom-made chemicals designed in a lab by pharmacists who say they use the same molecular recipe a woman's body uses to create her own hormones. But are they any safer than traditional hormone therapy?

"The real issue is how long you take them," says Dr. Susan Love, who wrote "Dr. Susan Love's Menopause and Hormone Book." "Three to five years is probably safe, but you don't want to be on high levels of hormones for the rest of your life.  That's where the safety issues really come in."

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is controversial. Landmark studies in 2002 showed that using HRT over the long term can put women at risk for breast cancer and heart disease. Proponents of bioidentical therapy say that these studies looked only at synthetic hormones and not these so-called "natural" alternatives.

"Women that want to stay on these hormones for life, at this point with my knowledge right now, if we're monitoring them and it's within their normal range, they should be able to," says Stanton.

There are about 3,000 pharmacies in the United States that fill orders for custom-made hormonal compounds, and they get their ingredients from the same suppliers the drug companies do.

"Yeah, some women are surprised," says pharmacist John Herr in Ridgewood, N.J. "They think that we're growing these herbs in our backyard, but in reality we're buying the same chemicals from the same suppliers that supply the drug companies."

The FDA can regulate these compounds, but they make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. And they acknowledged Wednesday to NBC News that they are now "taking a closer look" at this new generation of compounded bioidentical products.

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