Best Life or Risky Advice?
Things you should know about Oprah's health tips
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In January, Oprah Winfrey invited Suzanne Somers on her show to share her unusual secrets to staying young. Each morning, the 62-year-old actress and self-help author rubs a potent estrogen cream into the skin on her arm. She smears progesterone on her other arm two weeks a month. And once a day, she uses a syringe to inject estrogen directly into her vagina.
The idea is to use these unregulated "bio-identical" hormones to restore her levels back to what they were when she was in her 30s, thus fooling her body into thinking she's a younger woman. According to Somers, the hormones, which are synthesized from plants instead of the usual mare's urine (disgusting but true), are all natural and, unlike conventional hormones, virtually risk-free (not even close to true, but we'll get to that in a minute).
Next come the pills. She swallows 60 vitamins and other preparations every day. "I take about 40 supplements in the morning," she told Oprah, "and then, before I go to bed, I try to remember … to start taking the last 20." She didn't go into it on the show, but in her books she says that she also starts each day by giving herself injections of human growth hormone, vitamin B12 and vitamin B complex.
In addition, she wears "nanotechnology patches" to help her sleep, lose weight and promote "overall detoxification." If she drinks wine, she goes to her doctor to rejuvenate her liver with an intravenous drip of vitamin C. If she's exposed to cigarette smoke, she has her blood chemically cleaned with chelation therapy.
In the time that's left over, she eats right and exercises, and relieves stress by standing on her head. Somers makes astounding claims about the ability of hormones to treat almost anything that ails the female body. She believes they block disease and will double her life span. "I know I look like some kind of freak and fanatic," she said. "But I want to be there until I'm 110, and I'm going to do what I have to do to get there."
That was apparently good enough for Oprah. "Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo," she said. "But she just might be a pioneer." Oprah acknowledged that Somers's claims "have been met with relentless criticism" from doctors. Several times during the show she gave physicians an opportunity to dispute what Somers was saying. But it wasn't quite a fair fight.
The doctors who raised these concerns were seated down in the audience and had to wait to be called on. Somers sat onstage next to Oprah, who defended her from attack. "Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet. She'll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her."
That would be a lot of doctors. Outside Oprah's world, there isn't a raging debate about replacing hormones. Somers "is simply repackaging the old, discredited idea that menopause is some kind of hormone-deficiency disease, and that restoring them will bring back youth," says Dr. Nanette Santoro, director of reproductive endocrinology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and head of the Reproductive Medicine Clinic at Montefiore Medical Center.
They just don't need as much once they get past their childbearing years. Unless a woman has significant discomfort from hot flashes—and most women don't—there is little reason to prescribe them. Most women never use them.
Hormone therapy can increase a woman's risk of heart attacks, strokes, blood clots and cancer. And despite Somers's claim that her specially made, non-FDA-approved bioidenticals are "natural" and safer, they are actually synthetic, just like conventional hormones and FDA-approved bioidenticals from pharmacies—and there are no conclusive clinical studies showing they are less risky. That's why endocrinologists advise that women take the smallest dose that alleviates symptoms, and use them only as long as they're needed.
"It completely blew me away that Oprah would go to her for advice on this topic," says Cynthia Pearson, the executive director of the nonprofit National Women's Health Network and an authority on hormone therapy. "I have to say, it diminished my respect."
Somers says it's mainstream doctors who need to get their facts straight. "The problem is that our medical schools do not teach this," she said in a February interview with NEWSWEEK. She believes doctors, scientists and the media are all in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. "Billions are spent on marketing drugs, and these companies also support academic research." Free from these entanglements, Somers can see things clearly. "I have spent thousands of hours on this. I've written 18 books on health. I know my stuff."
On Oprah's show, there is one opinion more equal than others; and by the end of the program there was no doubt where Oprah herself stood on the issue. She told her audience that she found Somers's bestselling books on bioidentical hormones "fascinating" and said "every woman should read" what she has to say. She didn't stop there.
Oprah said that although she has never had a hot flash, after reading Somers she decided to go on bioidenticals herself. "After one day on bioidentical estrogen, I felt the veil lift," she wrote in O, The Oprah Magazine. "After three days, the sky was bluer, my brain was no longer fuzzy, my memory was sharper. I was literally singing and had a skip in my step." On the show, Oprah had her own word of warning for the medical establishment: "We have the right to demand a better quality of life for ourselves," she said. "And that's what doctors have got to learn to start respecting."
All in all, it was a perfect hour of tabloid television. Who could look away from Suzanne Somers's sad but captivating efforts to turn back time? And if there was a stab of guilt in the pleasure we took in the spectacle, Oprah was close by to ease our minds, to reassure us, with the straightest face, that it was all in the name of science and self-improvement.
Oprah routinely grabs viewers with the sort of tales of the strange and absurd that might be found a few clicks over on Maury Povich or Jerry Springer: women who leave their husbands for other women (another recent Oprah episode); a 900-pound mom (ditto). But there is a difference. Oprah makes her audience feel virtuous for gaping at the misfortunes of others. What would be sniffed at as seamy on Maury is somehow praised as anthropology on Oprah.
This is Oprah's special brilliance. She is a gifted entertainer, but she makes it seem as though that is beside the point. Oprah is not here to amuse you, she is here to help you. To help you understand your feelings; drop those unwanted pounds; look and feel younger; get your thyroid under control; to smooth your thighs, nip and tuck your wrinkles, awaken your senses and achieve spiritual tranquillity so that you can at last be free to "Live Your Best Life."
Oprah takes these things very seriously. They are, after all, the answers she hopes to find for herself. If Oprah has an exquisite ear for the cravings and anxieties of her audience, it is because she shares them. Her own lifelong quest for love, meaning and fulfillment plays out on her stage each day. In an age of information overload, she offers herself as a guide through the confusion.
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