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Tired? Overweight? Bioidentical Hormone Companies Promise Solutions, But Some Doctors Are Skeptical

Catherine Kelleher, own of Murrysville BeBalanced
Lovely Day Events
Dawn Cutillo, founder of BeBalanced, presents on her company's weight loss program at the opening of the franchise's Murrysville location.

At a Murrysville strip mall last month, more than a dozen people, mostly women in their 50s, 60s and 70s, crowded into a storefront. 

They were there for the grand opening of BeBalanced, a Lancaster-based holistic wellness franchise that claims to help women naturally balance their hormones. 

“I’m just excited about getting my hormones back in balance, and getting back on track,” said Amy Miller of Uniontown.

A breast cancer survivor, Miller said her body hasn’t been the same since her illness, so she’s been looking into holistic alternatives.  

“It’s funny,” she said, “I just did some research online about a month ago. So, when I saw this grand opening … that’s what got me interested.”

While holding colorful cardboard graphs, BeBalanced founder Dawn Cutillo described the BeBalanced program as a natural hormone therapy, which promises to help women lose 15 to 20 pounds in a month.

“If you can keep your hormones balanced, you’ll have a very easy [time],” said Cutillo. “Just like a younger person.”

The company’s target market is menopause-age women struggling with symptoms like weight gain, hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Doctors sometimes prescribe hormones to help with symptoms, though more women are turning to so-called “natural” remedies, known as bioidentical hormone treatments. They've been promoted on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in a popular self-help book by Suzanne Somers.

Cutillo, whose background is in health and fitness, is author of the book "The Hormone Shift: Using Natural Hormone Balancing For Your Mood, Weight, Sleep & Female Health." She argues a combination of lifestyle and lack of progesterone are to blame for many menopausal symptoms.

To help women feel better, BeBalanced offers a sort of hybrid service. It coaches clients to adopt better diet, exercise and sleep habits. But what sets it apart from something like Weight Watchers are treatments such as relaxation "sound wave" therapy, liver supplements and progesterone creams.

“Using this [progesterone cream] is almost like a multivitamin for your hormones,” said Cutillo.

These creams are a type of bioidentical, sometimes referred to as “natural hormone therapy," as they’re often derived from plants. Some bioidentical proponents argue they’re safer than hormones prescribed by a doctor. Many bioidentical products include estrogen and testosterone, though BeBalanced said its products only contain progesterone.

Cutillo said while BeBalanced "is not medical," it can help prevent disease, slow aging, improve mental health and increase libido.

A report from Maximize Market Research found that the bioidentical sector was worth $285.1 million dollars in 2016, and that it is projected to grow to $486.7 million by 2026.

A wide variety of products purporting to balance hormones are available for sale online and at stores like Whole Foods. But some doctors say bioidenticals might not be worth the money, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has warned that the products marketed by some companies could be ineffective or even unsafe.

“They’re sort of promoted like a fountain of youth, like they’re going to make your sex drive like it was when you were 25. That you’ll lose weight,” said Dr. Katherine Scruggs, an OB-GYN at Midlife Health Center at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC where she focuses on menopausal management.

Scruggs said it makes sense that some women see results with BeBalanced, due to its emphasis on stress management, proper sleep and diet. But she said these bioidenticals are no better than synthetic hormones, and that the placebo effect is probably a factor with both.

“Whether it’s hormones or antidepressants or some of the other things to treat hot flashes, in the placebo group about 30 percent [of people] will report improvement,” said Scruggs.

And it’s likely that BeBalanced clients are motivated to adhere to diet and exercise recommendations because of the program’s pricetag: the company said the cost averages a little more than $240 a month.

Scruggs said she often sees patients pay out-of-pocket for bioidentical hormones. But if women need hormone therapy – and some do – Scruggs said she prescribes treatments that are tailored to an individual’s needs and likely covered by insurance.

Scruggs said another reason some women might seek hormone treatment outside the doctor's office is because many physician schedules are usually packed.

"When I was a private-practice OBGYN with 35 or 40 patients on my schedule a day and I saw a patient who wanted to come in and talk about hormones I always had this little kind of groan, because I knew it was going to take more time than was built into my schedule," she said.

Scruggs said that if there were more medical services for women going through menopause, fewer would be seeking out services like BeBalanced.

“The person who’s probably going to give you the best advice,” said Scruggs, “is the person who doesn’t have an incentive to sell you something. I make the same amount of money whether you walk out of here with a prescription or not.”

But BeBalanced founder Cutillo said she’s just as qualified as most physicians, if not more so, and that she witnesses promising results all the time.

“What if we fixed [hormones] in all these women? This one probably wouldn’t have to get breast cancer. This one’s thyroid would balance out. This one would probably be able to go off psychotropic drugs. And the reason that I say this, I see it every day,’ said Cutillo. “We’re not medical. We’re not going to make claims like that. But we are going to tell stories when I see them.”

Cutillo said the company plans to open another 10 stores around the country in the coming year.

WESA receives funding from both BeBalanced and UPMC.

*This story was updated at 7:45am on February 20, 2019 to reflect that the bioidentical sector was worth $285.1 million in 2016 and is projected to grow to $486.7 million by 2026.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.