New research that every woman should know about

Like many of you, I’ve been a little off-track lately. This week I’ve tried my best to get back into my normal routine at home and at work, with mixed results.

But I’m coming back to the realization that, now more than ever, we need to focus on our health. One thing that struck me today was how much important health information I had missed in just one week. Like, for instance, a study published in the September 10 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine – one that could have implications for women all over the world.

In this original research, scientists in the Netherlands found significant evidence that both birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy increase a woman’s risk of developing a condition called microalbuminuria. People with this condition have increased levels of protein in their urine, which is an early marker for kidney disease. And a Canadian study published in JAMA this past July concluded that microalbuminaria was a risk factor for heart disease, based on its analysis of more than 9,000 people age 55 and older.

The study included 4,301 Dutch women. After adjusting for a whole host of confounding factors (like age, hypertension, obesity, and smoking), the women who had taken the Pill or HRT in the past year had nearly twice the risk of high urine protein levels than did non-users. Some of the HRT users took straight estrogen, while others took pills combining estrogen and progestin. In all cases, the risk of developing protein in the urine rose with years of medication use; in fact, they found that women who had taken either type of medication for more than five years had more than two and a half times the risk of non-users.

I can think of dozens of women I know who have taken either birth control pills or HRT (or both) for more than five years, some for decades. I’m sure you can, too. Worldwide, the numbers must reach well into the hundreds of thousands – maybe even into the millions. Even if only half of them develop this condition, it’s a serious thing.

Granted, this is just one study, and the research team didn’t follow the women long enough to see how many of them actually developed kidney or heart disease – or whether protein levels dropped after discontinuing use. But other studies have produced evidence that supplemental estrogen can increase the risk of heart disease, as well as breast cancer and other diseases.

At the very least, it is one more check in the “Con” column when deciding whether or not to take HRT. For years, doctors have been telling women they should take HRT, not only to counteract the effects of menopause, but also to combat everything from heart disease to osteoporosis. Now we’re finding that not only do these “value-added” claims come with a serious caveat, the drugs may also do as much harm as good. Even the American Heart Association acknowledged in its recently revised guidelines, “we’re not sure if estrogen helps or harms the heart.”

This news comes on the heels of the soy controversy, which we’ve discussed in recent messages. Concerns about the safety of phytoestrogens, like the isoflavones found in soy, may have women questioning whether they should use natural menopause formulas like genistein after all. And now with yet another reason not to take prescription HRT, it’s easy to feel like they aren’t any safe options left.

But if you’re looking for a way to address the changes we experience during menopause, synthetic HRT and isoflavones aren’t your only choices. There are some alternatives that you can easily find at any local health food store or online supplement retailer right now.

Herbal supplements like black cohosh, dong quai, chaste tree berry, and evening primrose have been used safely for centuries. These natural approaches can help normalize hormone levels, diminish hot flashes, and relieve the insomnia and anxiety that many women experience.

Nutritional supplements like bioflavonoids, vitamin E, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, and magnesium can help reduce heavy bleeding during perimenopause, minimize hot flashes, increase energy, and relieve fatigue. There may be other options available to you as well; talk to your doctor about what else might work in your situation.

The study doesn’t provide a recommendation for anything women who fall into the over-five-years category can do to mitigate their risk. We’ll continue researching it and will ask our panel for possible treatment options. But if you’re concerned, ask your doctor to analyze your urine-protein level. It can’t hurt, and it might help you recognize a serious threat to your health. Also, please feel free to pass this on to any women you know who may be taking HRT or the Pill, so they can fully understand the potential risks that were previously unknown.