Women of all ages seek to boost their health via supplements and by being open with their practitioners.
Although men and women share some similar health concerns, women can have vastly different needs when it comes to maintaining health and preventing illness. For example, heart disease in women is as prevalent as it is in men after age 65, but women may experience cardiovascular disease symptoms differently. Add on reproductive, fertility and post-menopausal issues, and it is easy to see why some practitioners focus solely on women’s health.
Because women comprise more than half of the U.S. population, and because their needs and concerns may be vastly different, not just from their male counterparts but from each other, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to women’s health.
“The most pressing issue affecting women’s hormonal health is menopause. Approximately 1.5 million women in the United States reach menopause every year. The symptoms of menopause and perimenopause can be far-reaching, the most prevalent being hot flashes and night sweats, which affect 75 percent of perimenopausal women with symptoms lasting between two and 10 years,” said Christophe Merville, DPharm, director of education and pharmacy development with Boiron, a manufacturer based in Pennsylvania.
Younger women are affected by menstrual issues as well.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a common condition that encompasses a broad range of physical and emotional symptoms. “These symptoms can be severe enough to warrant treatment in about a quarter of women,” Merville said.
In their reproductive years, fertility can also be a top concern for some women.
And as women age, many want to stave off such potentially destructive diseases as breast or other cancers, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, while maintaining low levels of stress, maintaining their weight and keeping fit and active. Insomnia, osteoporosis and decreased energy levels are other pitfalls of aging that many women experience. Keeping skin healthy is another concern, particularly for aging women, as well as cognitive function.
Another major issue that affects women of all ages is chronic stress. “Short-term stress can provide the boost of energy and alertness women may need to get through a busy day; however, chronic stress can lead to several health problems, including impacting mood, contributing to abdominal weight gain, speeding up the aging process, and interfering with a good night’s sleep. The 2019-2020 pandemic has created many layers of potentially stressful circumstances for many women,” noted Vanessa Pavey, ND, education scientist for Life Extension, a manufacturer based in Florida.
Women’s health concerns change throughout life’s stages as their bodies change over time. Maintaining the “foundations of health”—adequate, good-quality sleep, a healthy, high fiber, antioxidant-rich diet, regular exercise, good lifestyle choices and stress reduction techniques can go far in preventing chronic degenerative disease and the underlying issues (inflammation, blood sugar control, insulin resistance, elevated cortisol levels) that promote them,” said David Winston RH (AHG), founder and president of Herbalist & Alchemist, a manufacturer based in New Jersey.
Many conventional treatments for various issues involve pharmaceuticals, but that is not always the right solution for everyone.
When it comes to menopause, for example, Merville said that certain therapies can pose health risks and do not offer long-term solutions.
“Traditional or more conventional medicines commonly treat menopause by restoring estrogen to its pre-menopausal levels. Many women believe this hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) is their only option, however, it may not be suitable for women at risk for breast cancer or who have had breast cancer,” he said.
Céline Torres-Moon, science writer for Protocol for Life Balance, an Illinois-based manufacturer agreed that HRT to ease menopausal symptoms is not ideal.
“After a strong rise in use of pharmacological HRT in the 1990s, widely publicized results of a study in the early 2000s showing the potential harm of these treatments have resulted in a sharp decline of their use. While it is difficult to know the exact number, it seems that many women have switched to a more natural approach to manage the symptoms, sometimes disruptive, of menopause,” she said.
For such issues as insomnia, over-the-counter aids or prescription medications can be helpful in the short-term but are not designed for extended use. “For example, sedative mediations like benzodiazepines are often prescribed for stress-induced anxiety and insomnia. Benzodiazepines are only indicated for short-term use and can be associated with side effects like dependency and withdrawal symptoms,” said Dr. Pavey. Similarly, she added, OTC (over-the-counter) antihistamines containing diphenhydramine can remain in the body for a while, leading to next-day drowsiness, while certain prescription sleep aids contain ingredients that could lead to dependency.
“A great deal of time has been spent with patients to understand which medications they have been prescribed and the side-effects that often occur. More and more, woman have the desire to walk away from doctors who reflexively prescribe medications and seek a more natural solution. Women who seek natural care are typically more informed and desire real solutions to problems that affect their health,” said Stephanie Seitz, MT (ASCP), NH, MPH, a practitioner at Natural Kid Doc in Scottsdale, AZ.
As more women educate themselves about the risks of big pharma medications, many are turning to natural therapies, such as homeopathy.
“Homeopathy is one of the most compelling therapies for conditions relating to women because it can help alleviate discomfort without any hormones, toxicity or danger of interference with other drugs or medical conditions. For women going through menopause, it is especially helpful for those not qualified for hormonal replacement therapy, or for women who desire a more natural self-care option that better fits their wellness lifestyle,” said Merville. He said that homeopathy is one of the most compelling therapies for the functional disorders associated with menopause “…because of its ability to alleviate discomfort without hormones or danger of interference with other drugs or medical conditions.”
Homeopathic treatments also can relieve the physical and psychological symptoms that often accompany PMS. “The choice of the best homeopathic treatment is based on two things: First, the patient’s set of symptoms and diagnosis, and the existence of a homeopathic medicine matching these symptoms. The best is always to find a physician skilled in homeopathy and get a prescription,” he said.
Dr. Pavey said that women as a whole are savvy consumers and many are looking for efficacious formulas backed by science.
“Due to potential sides effects, concern for dependency, temporary use and cost, this may drive some women to look for alternative support. Women are looking for a more individualized approaches to meet their health needs,” she said.
For menopause specifically, Torres-Moon said that many women are turning to yoga and relaxation, along with such specific ingredients as black cohosh, red clover, soy/phytoestrogens and evening primrose oil.
For fertility, Dr. Seitz said that supplementation can be used to help with egg quality, along with mind-body integration and dietary changes. Regardless of the issue, she said, “Each woman is treated individually, so combinations of natural treatments are designed specifically for the patient.”
Role of Supplements/Products on the Market
Though not categorized as supplements, Boiron focuses on homeopathic medicines, such as its Cyclease line of specialty products that targets PMS symptoms such as water retention, bloating, breast pain and mood changes. The product can also be taken by menopausal women, as the product can reduce the intensity and frequency of hot flashes and night sweats. Cyclease products are offered in unflavored meltaway tablets. Another product is Yeastaway vaginal suppositories that address symptoms related to yeast infections.
“Homeopathy is a therapeutic method that uses natural substances in micro-doses to relieve symptoms. The active ingredients in homeopathic medicines are diluted plants, animals and minerals that relieve the same symptoms they cause at full strength,” explained Merville.
Life Extension’s Cortisol-Stress Balance in capsule form contains Relora (magnolia and philodendron tree bark extracts) and Oligonol (lychee fruit and green tea leaf extract), ingredients designed to maintain healthy levels of the stress hormone cortisol and helps inhibit inflammation to promote healthy stress response.
Another Life Extension product is Collagen Peptides for Skin & Joints, in powder format, containing hydrolyzed collagen peptides to promote healthy skin and joints.
To promote healthy sleep, Life Extension also manufactures Herbal Sleep PM, a melatonin-free sleep support capsule containing honokiol, a lignan isolated from magnolia tree bark, as well as lemon balm and chamomile.
Protocol for Life Balance carries several products specifically designed for women, including Ortho Multi Softgels for Women, which includes iodine to support healthy thyroid, evening primrose oil, and other ingredients that target women-specific health issues. The company also offers a prenatal multivitamin; a probiotic with clinically evaluated strains to support healthy vaginal health called ProtoDophilus; a progesterone cream derived from wild yam; and a borage oil supplement in soft gel form that contains gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) designed to support a healthy immune system function.
“Other products include OrthoFlora Yeast Support, Calcium D-Glucarate, Iron 36 mg, Myo-Inositol Powder and D-Mannose,” said Torres-Moon.
Herbalist & Alchemist has several clinically tested products designed for women. “All the formulas are tinctures, the vast majority of which we make from fresh herbs, rather than powder or dried. I like this delivery format best because the alcohol helps the herbs enter the system more efficiently,” said Winston.
For general reproductive health, Herbalist & Alchemist offers Women’s Formula which includes such herbs as dong quai, raspberry leaf, ginger, motherwort, among others.
“Not everyone realizes that herbs can be phenomenally effective for emotional conditions,” said Winston. To that end, the company makes Women’s Calmpound, which Winston said “…is designed to help restore emotional balance, especially PMS irritability or peri-menopausal anxiety.” Like its other formulas, this includes a combination of herbs, including such anxiolytic herbs motherwort, blue vervain, skullcap and pulsatilla.
Herbalist & Alchemist has several other products that contain a variety of herbs to target certain female-centric issues, including Women’s Transition Compound for menopausal symptoms; Replenish Compound to correct vaginal dryness associated with menopause; and Women’s Adapt, which combines adaptogenic herbs with nutritive tonics, the latter of which is to support various hormone imbalances.
Depending on the situation, Dr. Seitz will prescribe supplements to her patients. “Supplements are beneficial in treating problems directly and are able to replace medications which often mask the problem,” she said.
Though she maintains a holistic approach, Dr. Seitz often prescribes maca, an herb that supports hormone balancing and fertility; vitex for hormonal regulation; iron with vitamin C to build up iron storage; and vitamin D for immune support. She also said that multivitamins, fish oil and probiotics can lead the way to good health; she looks for products with good ingredients that have a third-party verification.
State of the Market
Expect to see an increase in the growth of the women’s health products market, particularly, as pointed out by Barbara Apps, product manager with Boiron, women drive the majority of the household purchasing decisions.
“They are asking more questions, searching for answers, and open to trying products that address their health issues as they pass through each life stage. Women’s desire to feel their best and live an active life as they age has fueled their interest in self-care and natural products that support their wellness lifestyle and concerns for the environment. Compared to previous generations, women intend to stay healthy and active far later into life and seek products and formulas personalized to their needs at each life stage,” said Apps.
Dr. Pavey added that the pandemic has created large shifts in consumer behavior that could give the market a boost. “With more people working from home and trying to maintain a work-life balance, women are looking for at-home routines to promote relaxation and skin care. With the heavy impact of these societal changes, the need for proactive approaches to managing physiological stress responses and the negative consequences of chronic stress is becoming more important,” said Dr. Pavey.
Women will sometimes choose to buy products from practitioners as well. “Women typically constitute a good share of functional practitioner’s clientele. As the U.S. population is aging the need for health care including functional healthcare will likely increase,” said Torres-Moon.
It is important for practitioners to know the ins and outs of all the products they offer and their benefits.
Many companies offer merchandising support and educational opportunities for those practitioners who choose to carry supplements in their office after recommending them to patients.
“One way of ensuring product quality is to ask the company for a certificate of analysis (CoA), which provides the results for the quality testing,” Dr. Pavey suggested. “We think the best support we can provide practitioners is education, so each month I present a free online class on herbs for specific conditions that our practitioner and wholesale customers are welcome to attend. I discuss herbs and their indications, describing what they do and how they work together with other specific herbs, and answer questions from the participants. We’ve been doing this for years, and customers find it valuable,” added Winston.
For any physician interested in homeopathy, Merville said, “Physicians need to be well-trained in this modality to have the confidence and knowledge to prescribe these medicines. With some practical education, they will be able to offer this therapy to patients who want this option and therefore facilitate a more positive outcome overall.”
App agreed that health care providers need to be educated on natural alternatives and remain open to their use. Partnering with quality manufactures and offering literature, samples and advice to patients is recommended, while women should also feel that they are partners with their health care providers when it comes to their health and desire for self-care. “Practitioners can help be a guide to which products are safe and those that may need to be taken with caution or not at all,” said App.
In general, practitioners should take a proactive, holistic approach as well as realize that women and men can experience the same problem in very different ways. “Health care practitioners must probe for possible underlying causes of health issues and ask about a woman’s level of stress, work, home and child or elder care situations as these can contribute to or worsen health issues,” advised App.
Embarrassment about discussing certain topics, such as gynecological issues, may inhibit some women from speaking frankly with their practitioners. For this reason, suggested Torres-Moon, it is important to establish a trusting relationship with their female patients as well as “… systematically assess for women’s health issues when seeing their patient in consultation by having targeted questions and spending time listening to their patients. Functional health care practitioners are typically well equipped to tackle these issues.”
Not only should a holistic approach be taken but an individualistic approach as well. “Treat each woman who comes into your practice as an individual. Their concerns are unique, and their treatment should be tailored to their uniqueness,” said Dr. Seitz.
Healthy Take Aways
• Women have a variety of concerns throughout their entire life cycle, from the reproductive years to the post-menopausal years.
• Practitioners should work to establish trust with their female patients, ask the right questions, and encourage open communication.
• Practitioners should view their female patients from both a holistic perspective and an individualized perspective.
For More Information:
Bio Tech Pharmacal, Inc., www.biotechpharmacal.com
Herbalist & Alchemist, www.herbalist-alchemist.com
Protocol for Life Balance,www.protocolforlife.com