Hormone Replacement Therapy - A Sordid History

by Jeanne Rhodes

The sordid history of hormone replacement therapy began in the early 1940s when drugmakers began mass-producing estrogen from pregnant mares’ urine - hence, the name Premarin - Pre (pregnant) mar (mare) in (urine.) By 1960, the New England Journal of Medicine was recommending estrogen for virtually every woman over the age of 50. And our first estrogen-induced catastrophe took place by the 1970s. The large doses of estrogen that were prescribed were causing uterine cancer in large numbers of women taking the prescription. The severity of the problem was so great, that doctors were calling their patients and telling them to immediately discontinue the drug. Unfortunately, a great number of women died with uterine cancer as a result. Estrogen was removed from the market only to return later in lower doses and with another hormone added (progestin) to help prevent uterine cancer. Estrogen was thereby given a reprieve. The new combination was called Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT.)

In 1966, Dr. Robert Wilson’s famous book, Forever Feminine, helped sell a generation of women on estrogen - a sales project greatly enhanced through promotion and advertising by pharmaceutical companies. According to Dr. Susan Love, most medical professionals get their education from the pharmaceutical industry, and are influenced by ads like the one that shows a wheelchair and a packet of Premarin, asking, “which do you want for your patient?”

Dr. Love states that putting women on lifelong hormone therapy obviously is good business for the pharmaceutical industry. Last year alone, U.S. pharmacists filled some 45 million prescriptions for Premarin and an additional 22 million for Prempro (the same but with progestin.) The sales of these prescriptions were also bolstered as women beyond the age of 50 were repeatedly reminded - almost to the point of harassment - that they were neglecting their health and setting themselves up for heart disease and osteoporosis if they refused HRT. Women have been told for the past 50-60 years that hormone replacement therapy would protect their hearts, bones and overall health. Now the evidence is in, and the Estrogen era is finally over. Or will it be given another reprieve?

The price that women have paid for hormone pharmaceuticals since the 1940s is even greater if we include DES (diethylstilbestrol) - a synthetic hormone related to estrogen, used in the 1950s. Drug companies were claiming that DES could prevent miscarriages and since 20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, this seemed to be good news. It was prescribed for many women to “insure a healthy pregnancy.” Later it was found to have no effect on miscarriages. Even worse, when the daughters of women taking DES reached their teens they were having increased cancers of the cervix, vagina, fallopian tubes and uterus. More recently, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, a 17-year study, found DES may be linked to increased testicular cancers.

Today it is not difficult to imagine how shocking this discovery was, in light of the recent discovery, which is just as shocking.

Three times in the history of hormone use, women have paid an ultimate price - their health and/or lives. Let’s hope our energies and finances will be redirected to studying and using the many healthful alternatives that are available. In the meantime, this latest discovery may be a blessing in disguise if it leads more women to adopt a healthier lifestyle - the best “therapy” of all in dealing with menopause and menopause-related problems!

Rhodes, B.A., M.A., is a Nutritionist, Wellness Lifestyle Strategist, Author and is Director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute in Hagerstown, MD.