Hormones have long been a convenient scapegoat for treating women as second-class citizens.
I have no concrete evidence that cavemen cited hormonal issues to keep women away from wooly mammoth hunts, but there’s ample proof that “feminine nature” has been used to prevent women from voting, playing sports and even remaining single.
The very word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word hustera—uterus. Aretaeus the Cappadocian, a first century Greek physician, wrote that a woman’s uterus was like a separate, living animal inside her body that “moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks…and, in a word, it is altogether erratic.” And honey watch out if that wacky, erratic uterine animal wandered up to the brain because then all hell would break loose.
Nineteen centuries later, hormones are still making us crazy—and I’m not talking biologically.
In fact, when it comes to women and hormonal issues, biology often is ignored. Too many women who consult their gynecologists for hormonal problems, such as PMS or general feelings of malaise, are made to feel like hypochondriacs or, worse, that the symptoms are all in their heads—literally. Gynecologists often prescribe antidepressants rather than investigate the root cause of a woman’s complaints. Antidepressants are now the most commonly prescribed prescription for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Indeed, Dr. Steven Hotze, a Texas physician who specializes in the treatment of hormone problems, calls antidepressants “the holy communion of the modern medical religion” in his book Hormones, Health and Happiness.
But drugging women into a soma-like haze won’t make hormone imbalance go away. In fact, in some cases, it can make a woman’s life markedly worse.
Which is why some women have started taking matters into their own hands. The most famous of whom is Suzanne Somers. Yes, the ditzy blonde from Three’s Company. Ms. Somers has written several books about hormones and their connection to health and wellbeing in women. Her self-described fanatical passion about hormone issues landed her a spot in January 2009 on the holy grail of television talk shows: The Oprah Winfrey Show. Ms. Somers detailed her daily regimen of 60 pills, vaginal injections, and bio-identical hormone creams. The show set off a maelstrom of protests from physicians across the country, and prompted a Newsweek article that accused Ms. Somers and Ms. Winfrey of creating a “spectacle” that dangerously misled women about appropriate hormone treatment.
That may be the case. But if women aren’t getting answers from their doctors —or even being listened to— it should come as no surprise that when they turn to someone else, anyone else, in an effort to feel better.
Luckily, some doctors get it. They’re experimenting with diet, exercise, vitamins, minerals, and bio-identical hormones. They’re listening closely to women and customizing treatments to the patient rather than proffering a one-size (or drug)-fits all approach.
The North American Menopause Society isn’t necessarily on board with some of the new treatments. The group emphatically warns women not to use bio-identical hormone treatments that are not FDA-approved. This includes custom-mixed formulas that are prescribed by a physician and filled by a compounding pharmacy. On its website, the organization states “there is no scientific evidence about the effects of these compounded medications on the body—both good and bad.”
While scientists and medical professionals argue the risks and benefits of various treatments, women must be vocal about what they need to feel better. This means pushing doctors to listen, and insisting on treatments that do more than mask symptoms. It means not being afraid to stand up for themselves and demand to be taken seriously.
For too long women have suffered quietly, enduring the indignity of being called hysterical hypochondriacs. We are neither. And it’s about time we stop thinking of ourselves this way.
Hormone imbalance is real, debilitating, and treatable. So if one doctor can’t help you, find another.
And if all else fails, unleash that erratic little animal inside you—first century medical research shows it can really kick some butt!