Menopause Therapy Sparks Controversy

menopause, katie couric
Fifty-two-year old Glennis runs her house with brisk efficiency, but there was a time when her days were spent in a mind-numbing fog.

"I found myself very irritable, very tearful, everything would make me cry," Glennis explains.

Yes, it was menopause, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports.

"I was deteriorating into this old, nasty lady," she says, laughing. "I'd feel like I was outside my body looking at myself and my behavior and saying, 'Eww, do you have to be that way?'"

Glennis started taking synthetic hormones, but stopped when the study four years ago warned of the risks. Some experts believe the study was misinterpreted and that low levels of hormones taken over a short period of time are safe.

But many skeptical women turned to something called bioidenticals. These products, derived from soy and yam extracts, are structurally identical to those hormones found in a woman's body, but they are not approved by the FDA.

Dr. Erika Schwartz, author of four books about menopause, is an advocate for bioidenticals, prescribing them to others and herself.

"I have seen people get their sex drive back. I've seen women get rid of their hot flashes, their night sweats, re-capturing their ability to sleep," Dr. Schwartz says.

But critics say there's virtually no difference between bioidenticals and their synthetic counterparts. And now, doctors are concerned that a new bestseller by former actress Suzanne Somers is creating more hype and more confusion.

"These people are claiming that these are natural, that they don't increase the risk of breast cancer, That's absolute nonsense," says Dr. Wulf Utian, executive director of the North American Menopause Society. "They carry exactly the same risks and exactly the same potential benefits as the commercial products."

Critics also say the compounding pharmacies mixing the bioidenticals aren't regulated enough.

"If they're getting something that's mixed in the backroom of a pharmacy, then they're not certain what they're getting," Dr. Utian says.

But the issue, says Dr. Schwartz, isn't about safety. It's about dollars and cents. Since bioidenticals are found in nature and can't be patented, Schwartz says that drug companies have no financial incentive to study them.

"I have no doubt that it's about profit," Dr. Schwartz says, adding that she wants a long-term study on these plant-derived hormones. For now, these women say the relief they're getting from bioidenticals today is worth whatever they may face in the future.

"I'm more worried about the risks if I don't take this," Glennis says.

"It's really just about maybe the second half of your life and being able to get through that feeling as good as you possibly can," says Stacy Pear, another patient.