Bad Medicine

Suzanne Somers' Health Advice May Be Dangerously Wrong

Suzanne Somers
Suzanne Somers at an event in 2012. (Image credit: Suzanne Somers photo via Shutterstock)

Things are going great for Suzanne Somers. She has a new book out, sure to be a best-seller, as it has been promoted on countless morning talk shows.

At 67, she looks great and feels great, she has said during TV appearances. She's having sex with her husband twice daily, she confessed this month on the TV show "The Talk." And in recent years, with the promotional help of Oprah and the like, she has positioned herself as a women's health advocate and anti-aging expert.

Rarely highlighted, however, is the fact that nearly every sentence Somers says about health is incorrect -- woefully and dangerously incorrect. Women need to understand the potential harm of the hormone therapy Somers promotes.

Somers' lack of scientific knowledge should give women reason to forgo her advice. Consider her interview on the Fox News segment "A Healthy You," on Oct. 5 with host Carol Alt, who, in typical you-go-girl fashion, opened with the question, "How did you go from being a comedic genius to health guru?"

During their discussion, Somers offers this insight about evolution: "When the brain perceives you are no longer reproductive because your hormones are out of balance, it tries to get rid of you, and it usually activates the cancers in perimenopause."

But in reality, while evolution has little influence over how we age past reproductive years, there's no evidence that evolution attempts to kill the infertile. In fact, grandparents are useful, from an evolutionary perspective, to take care of grandchildren or to otherwise gather and prepare food for the community. [10 Celebrities With Chronic Illnesses]

Next, when asked to comment on why women in developing countries don't experience severe symptoms of perimenopause, Somers chalked it up to "stress and toxicity," adding, "They say we experience more stress in a single day… than people of Elizabethan times did in their whole lifetime, and they were chased by tigers. …Walking down the streets here is stressful. And think of all the mold in the building here, and think of all the toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis."

Holding aside Somers' possible allusion to poet William Blake, her comparison of stress levels between the U.S. and developing countries seems to discount the intense stress of civil wars in sub-Sahara Africa, of forced migrations, food insecurity, rape and an AIDS epidemic. Somers should think, too, about the far greater amounts of mold and toxins, such as particulates from indoor cooking, that most of humankind has endured for millennia untold.

Finally, when asked to comment on cancer and diet, Somers begins by saying, "When I didn't take chemotherapy, and decided to go another way…." 

In reality, Somers' breast cancer was successfully treated by a conventional lumpectomy, followed by radiation therapy, she has said. She merely declined follow-up, post-cancer chemotherapy that doctors may prescribe for extra assurance. Somers continuously implies that she had some kind of "all-natural" food and vitamin cancer cure.

And so on in every interview that Suzanne Somers gives.

While parts of Somers' most recent book, "I'm Too Young for This!: The Natural Hormone Solution to Enjoy Perimenopause" (Random House, 2013), are benign — there's lots of basic diet information, such as to eat more fruits and vegetables — the premise is still alarming. And that's this so-called natural hormone solution.

Somers' hit a wall of medical controversy that is shamefully never mentioned on the talk show rounds with her 2007 book, "Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones." In short, even doctors who prescribe bioidentical hormones, a relatively new and unproven therapy, issued a public letter to Somers and her publisher, stating how certain protocols in her book are "scientifically unproven and dangerous." The doctors who signed the letter included the doctors mentioned in her book.

Somers relies predominately on a particular hormone therapy called the Wiley Protocol, from Teresa S. Wiley, an author with no medical or even scientific training, who only recently received a B.A. in anthropology when it was revealed her stated degree from 1975 was indeed nonexistent.

Hormone therapy is complicated. Many menopausal women stopped taking it after it was revealed in well-conducted studies that the therapy of estrogen plus progestin, aimed at countering naturally decreasing levels of these hormones, led to an increased risk of breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart attacks.

But women's menopausal symptoms have not gone away, and many women have been turning to natural products for relief. Enter bioidentical hormones.

Bioidentical hormones are identical at a biological and chemical level to hormones made in the body, and are mostly made from plants. The hormones often used in conventional hormone therapy might closely resemble, but do not match, endogenous hormones.

There is no evidence that bioidentical or FDA-approved non-bioidentical hormones behave differently in the body. Both are natural in that they can be derived from plants and sometimes mare urine. Both are unnatural in that they are made in a factory… and, well, derived from plants and mare urine.

The FDA has approved several bioidentical hormones. Somers' books, however, describes custom-compounded bioidentical hormones, meaning they are produced by a pharmacy mixing ingredients of various naturally derived hormones. This production process places most of these bioidenticals beyond the realm of FDA regulation, so that their purity and potency is questioned. The medicine is then boxed and labeled, with no mention to the inherent dangers of hormone therapy.

What dangers? Aside from the aforementioned cancer and heart disease, in 2003 the FDA examined 29 otherwise unregulated compounded pharmaceuticals and found that a third failed a standard quality test, with nine having fewer active ingredients than posted on the label. In 2012, nearly 1,000 people contracted fungal meningitis from compounded corticosteroids, and 64 died, according to the CDC.

"The logical mistake that many smart women make is that they assume a lack of evidence of harm is the same thing as proof of safety -- not so," said Dr. Nanette Santoro, a professor of ob/gyn and medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver and among the nation's leading experts on infertility and peri- and postmenopause.

"The biggest issue is the lack of evidence for safety or efficacy," Santoro added. "The available evidence suggests that overdosage and underdosage can be common. There are many perfectly acceptable, FDA-approved forms of hormone therapy that provide natural estradiol that is chemically identical to the steroid that circulates in the bloodstream, and there is natural progesterone that is identical to what is made in the ovary that is FDA-approved, so there is really no reason for compounded hormones for the vast majority of people."

Women should be advised that in subscribing to a hormone therapy advocated by the evolutionary and socio-biological expert Suzanne Somers and the author-cum-clinical-protocol-creator T.S. Wiley, you are entering into something that is controversial and are going against the advice of nearly every medical authority in the United States, despite what Oprah and the ladies on "The View" say.

Note also that part of the reason why Somers looks at least marginally younger than some others at age 67 is likely the combination of hair dye (presumably natural dyes), botox (among the most toxic, natural substances known), collagen fillers (yes, natural), and, quite possibly, according to plastic surgeon and blogger Tony Youn, a stem-cell face-lift, explaining her puffy lower face.

This is the state of science and health information on television talk shows.

Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of "Food at Work" and "Bad Medicine." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.