Around 1998 a number of women began telling me about a `natural hormone cream' called progesterone that they rubbed on their bodies which had transformed their lives for the better.
I'd never heard anything previously about the cream – despite my background as a registered nurse specialising in gynaecological work, nor my many years investigating and writing about natural therapies as a health journalist.
Suddenly it seemed like natural progesterone was repeatedly being brought to my attention.
The first time I had an inkling something was going on was on a flight to England. I was sitting next to a businesswoman from Papua New Guinea. She glanced up from the magazine she was reading and asked, "What are these hot flushes my friends and I keep reading about?"
It took me a moment or two to realise she was deadly serious. I'd heard that the plant-based phyto-hormones in the diets of different cultures stopped women suffering from menopausal symptoms.
Now here was living proof.
Two days later I was working alongside a colleague who began to tell me about a `wild yam cream' that had transformed her life.
Tragically and without her full permission, Cilla had both her ovaries and her uterus surgically removed at age 28 for severe endometriosis. She told me the progesterone cream had made a huge difference to her facial skin, energy, self-esteem and sexuality, all of which had been abruptly altered by surgically-induced menopause.
A few weeks later I was sitting in a beauty therapy waiting room when the woman on the couch opposite leaned forward and asked what I did for a living.
When she head I was a journalist she replied emphatically, "Well then, you should be writing something to let women know about natural progesterone cream!"
Again I was told about the huge difference this cream had made in the lives of this woman and her friends. She arranged to send me information about natural progesterone and the names of women who were using it so I could investigate.
The subsequent four-page article I wrote for a national magazine had the phone ringing off the hook for three days and the receptionist complaining bitterly about the work it caused.
It was clear this was an important subject so I wrote the book, Progesterone: The Natural Hormone.
Mimics woman's own hormones
I learned natural progesterone cream was formulated in a laboratory from a plant steroid (usually diosgenin in wild yam or from soya beans) and had exactly the same molecular structure as the progesterone produced naturally in a woman's body during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.
Synthetic versions of progesterone – called progestogens and found in products like Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and the oral contraceptive pill – have a different molecular structure than that of the human body.
This different molecular structure is due to the fact pharmaceutical companies can't patent and `own' a natural molecule, therefore it makes better business sense to create new molecular structures, even though they come with a range of potential side-effects.
I also learned that doctors in America and Britain have successfully been using natural progesterone for over 20 years with no problems and, it seemed, virtually no side-effects.
What's more, a 30-year retrospective study by John Hopkins University found that women deficient in progesterone had 5.4 times the chance of developing breast cancer and a ten-fold risk of cancers of all kinds.
Natural progesterone was helping women with a myriad of complaints that reduced the quality of their lives – migraines, terrible PMS, endometriosis, hot flushes, insomnia, poor memory, painful breasts, heavy periods, loss of libido, bloating.
The women I spoke to had compelling stories - women like Jocelyn, who at 59 had suffered a heart attack, then a stroke following what was essentially medical mismanagement, including inappropriate HRT therapy. She was seriously ill, yet after several months on progesterone cream said she felt better than she had in decades.
Jocelyn's diabetes had improved so that she now needed only minimal medication, her poor memory had dramatically improved, her skin was better, her libido had returned ... even her hair was returning to its natural colour and thickness.
Another woman I spoke to was a health worker. The woman had gone to her doctor complaining of migraines, but when the doctor heard she wasn't eating many dairy products, he ordered a bone density scan, told her the report looked ominous and put her on HRT.
The headaches went, but the woman was left struggling with weight gain, bloating, vaginal pain and an ongoing discharge. The doctor tried to regulate the medication and several weeks prior to the following incident put her on oestrogen patches.
The woman was home vacuuming when her vision suddenly fractured: the pictures were on the ceiling, the door at a 45-degree angle.
A battery of tests proved inconclusive, through the general consensus was that it was due to `too much oestrogen'. On natural progesterone, the woman's hot flushes dramatically improved, her mind cleared, her memory improved and her vision, although it never fully recovered, improved significantly.
Restricting progesterone availability
The women I spoke to were devastated and angry. They had finally found something that really helped them and just as they were getting word out to their friends their source of natural progesterone was drying up.
Health departments in both Australia and New Zealand were making progesterone only available on prescription – ostensibly to safeguard patient welfare.
Previously women had been able to buy the cream direct from health practitioners – visit the USA today and you'll still find a range of natural progesterone creams freely for sale in health food stores and other outlets.
Now women who wanted access to natural progesterone had to pay to visit the doctor and, because the majority of doctors know little about natural progesterone, women had to take responsibility for educating them ... then hope they would prescribe it.
Interest in the subject of natural hormones grew expodenially following the 2002 release of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) report which linked HRT use with increased risk of invasive breast cancer, coronary heart disease, strokes and pulmonary embolism.
No `wonder drug'
I've always been clear I don't want to suggest that natural progesterone or the other bioidentical hormones are some kind of magic solution for all womankind.
I don't think any medication has that kind of power. That said it seems to me that these natural or bioidentical hormones are something incredibly important for all women – and men – to know about.
Used in conjunction with dietary and lifestyle changes, a true holistic regime that looks at all aspects of nutrition, stress, toxins and lifestyle factors – natural progesterone and the other hormones seem to have a very important role to play.
Natural or `bioidentical' hormones
That women across the world are now beginning to know about natural progesterone, in fact a whole range of natural hormones – oestrogen, testosterone, pregnenolone, hydrocortisone and others – is due to a handful of committed biochemists and doctors who began to see that there might be a better way.
Chief among them was Dr John Lee; an American physician (now deceased) who used natural progesterone for 20 years on his patients.
It was these women's successes (as well as a growing body of scientific research) that convinced Dr Lee of the importance of this previously little-known, nature-identical hormone.
In the last few years I've spoken with hundreds of women from New Zealand and overseas who have been in contact about the cream.
I've heard countless stories about shockingly poor medical assistance: it seems almost unbelievable to me that so often when women seek help for a range of hormonal problems they are prescribed an antidepressant as a first option.
However change is imminent as an army of informed women are driving change and a small but growing band of intelligent doctors are educating themselves about natural hormone therapy.
Who controls health?
On my journey I've learned that our ancestors knew all about healing women's ailments in ways that were gentle and effective.
This rich tradition of healing, for centuries almost totally wiped out by the power of church and medicine, has only returned to our shores in recent decades.
It seems if we are not careful guardians of our own healthcare, then many vested interests are happy to do that for us.
It leaves me wondering if we will we let the pharmaceutical and petro-chemical complexes and the circles they control do the same in our modern age?
If we will allow them to have power over our health care, our supplements, over the integrity of our food and our seeds?
Or if we will we corral the vast power at our disposal, through our thinking and networking, through our collective strength, through the way we spend our consumer dollars, to give voice to the future we would rather see.
Power people: at the end of the day, we are the agents of change