I didn’t think I’d start this blog with talk of horses but last night I was haunted by the thought of thousands of pregnant mares who are confined to their stalls, barely able to move. Their purpose is to give us what we need, so we restrict their movement and water intake, strap sacks to their groins for months on end and collect their urine for the production of the synthetic hormone ‘Premarin’, PREgnant MAres urINe.
Another strike against humanity. And certainly a huge strike against Big Pharma, the puppeteer pulling the strings.
Of course, the majority of women who take synthetic hormones wouldn’t know that the urine from 750,000 mares makes up part of their HRT and neither, perhaps, would their prescribing doctor … it’s one of those questions we’re not good at asking, “What is my medicine made of?” And, “How is it made?” We’re much more focused on the end result – the need to feel better – than to pay any heed to the process of getting there, which is why, perhaps, Premarin is still widely prescribed today, along with a host of other synthetic hormones.
Since its introduction in 1949, Premarin has ruled the roost in the hormone therapy world, in spite of its chequered history. In the 70s, by the time it had become the 5th leading prescriptive drug in America, conclusive research started to link it to uterine cancer. Taken by itself (or unopposed by a synthetic form of progesterone) it increases the lining of the womb and raises the stakes fourfold for uterine cancer. So after this discovery, oestrogen replacement therapy (ERT) quickly became HRT, where it was combined with Provera (synthetic progesterone) and repackaged as preventative medicine. The drug companies were keen to find a way to hang onto their cash cow and new studies began to appear that showed the combination of Premarin and Provera prevented osteoporosis, colon cancer, heart disease and a host of other killers. Oh, and it also helped with menopausal symptoms.
At the turn of the century, there was more trouble ahead for Big Pharma and HRT. In the early 90s, after years of pressure from the women’s movement for an unbiased study, the US Government funded the Women’s Health Initiative and so began a ten year study into the effects of hormone therapy. The study was cut short for ethical reasons when the data clearly began to show that women on the synthetic hormone combination were more at risk of breast cancer, heart attacks, clots and strokes. In 2002 the big, global news was that the benefits of HRT did not outweigh the risks and since then, women have stopped taking it in their droves. Interestingly though, it’s still fairly standard for doctors to prescribe it. The drug companies have not given up, of course, and the most favoured drug, to keep menopausal women on medication, is currently … drum roll … antidepressants, which is ironic as this was the case in the 60s, prior to hormone replacement.
It was back in the 60s, when the contraceptive pill was approved, that women became more vocal about their sexuality, physical needs and concerns. We had been liberated! It was also around this time that menopause was deemed to be a medical problem – a deficiency disease – that needed treatment. Interestingly, this has been a very Western response to menopause, to want to ‘cure’ it with man-made products. In China and India however, this stage of life is viewed through a much more positive lens, with more respect for and trust in the female body.
As Christiane Northrup notes in her book, “The Wisdom of Menopause”:
At the end of the day, here’s what we’re left with. After decades of trying to convince all women that menopause was a deficiency state that could be “cured” by hormone therapy, we finally realised the truth. There is no magic bullet, one-size-fits-all hormone prescription or drug regimen of any kind that is right and healthy for all or even most women to take indefinitely. And because each of us is an individual with differing needs, consititution, beliefs, and environment, there never will be – no matter how many studies are done. pp.156
Until I started reading up on this subject, I had no idea that my endocrine system is as unique as my fingerprint or that there’s a fine and delicate balance that’s needed if the dance between oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone is to be a happy one. And then there’s the thyroid function – complicating things even more! As my own hormones are signalling they’re moving to a different tune, it’s time to start taking more responsibility for my knowledge and subsequently, my health. My body is asking for this. The pregnancy migraines I suffered when I was carrying all three of my babies have returned. That fine balance, I’ve taken for granted for most of my life (bar pregnancies) is starting to go out of whack.
The great news is, there’s a lot more support and information around than there used to be. From naturopaths to acupuncturists to integrative doctors; from nutrition, to herbs, to supplements and all sorts of ways to de-stress, from yoga, to meditation, to dance. And books! Lots of them, talking about menopause being a time of power and an opportunity to transform. In the library I discovered the book, “It Must Be My Hormones” by Dr Marion Gluck (the hormone doctor) and Vicki Edgson (the nutritionist), who describe what happens to our hormones during menopause and what we can do to restore the balance. Dr Gluck is a fan of women being active participants in their health and she also promotes bio-identical hormone therapy, another new piece of the puzzle for me. Whilst I won’t be rushing to take it, it’s good to know there are plant based, natural options out there. What isn’t clear is how long you stay on them, once you start … the idea of being ‘on’ anything, other than food for the rest of my life, is a choice (and a privilege) I hope to hang onto.
The reason we don’t know more about bio-identical hormones is because they can’t be patented by Big Pharma as they are a natural product. There’s no money in it for them. It’s as simple as that and proves how “…embedded the devaluation of female bodies is within our culture, and how powerfully this devaluation influences the practice of medicine and the science that supports it”, pp152, “The Wisdom of Menopause”.
I’ll be travelling this transition that’s overflowing with physical and psychological changes with as much consciousness as I can. And asking lots of questions. Another pertinent one being, “Who carried out that study?” And, “Who was it funded by?” It’s time to take the blinkers off and step up with regard to our bodies and actively caring for them. I think there’s more hope of this at the moment, than there is for those mares having their collection sacks removed from their groins and being set free.
Finally, a quick afternote about the pill, in case you missed it in the news: a study came out last week from Denmark. This was the headline in The Guardian: “The pill is linked to depression – and doctors can no longer ignore it”, followed by, “A newly published study from the University of Copenhagen has confirmed a link between hormonal contraceptives and depression.”