03/07/2014 06:01 EST | Updated 05/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Myths About Bioidentical Hormones

Suzanne Somers seemingly reigns atop one of the most controversial issues in Women's Health; bioidentical hormones. Now targeting younger women in her new book, Suzanne professes a bioidentical hormone solution for their peri-menopausal problems. A growing divide between conventional medicine and a Suzanne-inspired burgeoning alternative health industry, heightens the need to debunk the bioidentical myths and hype.

The term bioidentical is used to differentiate amongst hormonal treatments that are equivalent to our body's own hormones and those that are not. Indeed, bioidentical hormones are simply those that are structurally and functionally equivalent to our own. These hormones work and look just like those our body produces. With a definition so straight forward it is a mere marvel that this term has stirred up such controversy and heated debate amongst women and their doctors.

One of the greatest barriers to bioidenticals is the rampant misinformation and problems with nomenclature. The misuse of words like natural and plant-derived has led to a great deal of confusion. Bioidenticals are actually both natural and synthetic; as they may be derived from natural sources but are then synthetically modified to be identical to human hormones. Adding to the confusion is the false belief that bioidenticals are special creams that are not available from conventional medical doctors. This too is not the case, as there are numerous pharmaceutical bioidentical hormones available by prescription and approved by Health Canada.

So why do we care about bioidenticals? Well, as it turns out, hormones that work and look like our own may be both safer and more effective that those that do not. Despite evidence revealing these important differences, the powerful drug industry continues to focus on hormone analogues that can be patented and commercialized into blockbuster new drugs. Here is where the natural vs. conventional divide is born. Alas, women are turning away from their physicians and seeking instead alternate "wellness" providers to prescribe the "fix" for their burden of symptoms.

Hot flashes and night sweats are merely the tip of the menopause iceberg. The several years leading to and following a woman's final menstrual cycle (her menopause) are often plagued by other troubling symptoms such as; mood disturbance, insomnia, brain fog, memory problems, loss of libido, and vaginal dryness (to name a few). With these troubling symptoms emerging at an otherwise difficult time of life, women in their desperate search for relief may be led down dangerous paths to wellness potentially muddied in pseudoscience.

But this need not be the case. Women of this era have the option to age proactively; to harness the best of science-based medicine and make informed life choices. Bioidentical hormone therapy can play a vital part in helping women successfully navigate the menopause transition. But even bioidentical hormones can carry substantial risk and their use must be carefully considered and monitored. Hormones are one piece of the menopause puzzle, and should be given only to the right woman, in the right form, and by the right doctor who is expert in this area.

By Dr. Jennifer Pearlman, MD CCFP NCMP FAARM ABAARM

Dr. Pearlman is a physician focused on Women's health and wellness, staff physician at the Menopause Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Medical Director of PearlMD Rejuvenation, a Women's health and wellness facility.