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DHEA: The Promise of Youth

Living to age 100 is now achievable, but most Americans would pass on the chance, according to a recent survey from the American Association of Retired Persons. The primary reason: fears of failing health. But what if you could take a pill that would slow the aging process--keeping you disease-free, sexually vital, mentally sharp, and full of energy?

Proponents of DHEA claim this inexpensive supplement can do all this and more. But compelling questions persist about DHEA's effectiveness and safety. Such concerns are particularly relevant because many Americans are currently taking this antiaging supplement.

Often touted as a "fountain of youth," DHEA--short for dehydroepiandrosterone--is actually a naturally occurring hormone produced by the adrenal gland. DHEA is sometimes referred to as the "mother of all steroid hormones" because it is converted in the body into several different hormones, including estrogen and testosterone. DHEA levels rise during puberty, reach a peak at about age 30, and then drop off dramatically in both men and women as they age. By age 80, people are producing only about 5% of the DHEA they were churning out at age 30. In addition, DHEA levels may also drop significantly in conditions associated with chronic stress, such as fibromyalgia.

Some investigators have suggested that replacing dwindling DHEA levels can stave off various diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and lupus. DHEA proponents also cite evidence that the hormone can help aging men and women increase muscle strength and lean body mass, regain youthful vitality, and just feel better.

Potential Antiaging Benefits
Animal studies have provided tantalizing hints of the promise of DHEA. In mice and rats, for instance, DHEA can enhance immunity, promote weight loss, and protect against cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. There is, however, a crucial caveat: Normally, only humans and other primates--not rodents--produce significant amounts of DHEA, so these findings may not apply to people.

Trials of DHEA in humans are scarce and have produced conflicting results. One recent long-term study by a group at the Medical College of Wisconsin found that higher levels of DHEAS (a sulfur-containing form of DHEA produced in the body) protect older men--but not older women--against heart disease. In an earlier study, investigators found that older men and women taking DHEA daily for three months reported feeling happier, more energetic, and better able to handle stress. Researchers at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco, also reported recently that six weeks of DHEA therapy greatly benefited some patients with major depression.

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego observed that older men--but not older women--taking 100 mg of DHEA daily for six months lost fat and gained muscle, but several other studies in both men and women found no change in body fat. A group at the University of Tennessee noted that DHEA enhanced insulin sensitivity in postmenopausal women, suggesting it may help protect against non-insulin-dependent diabetes. And several new studies have reported that DHEA eases symptoms of lupus.

Possible Cancer Link
However, like most hormones, DHEA may have side effects. In women, excess DHEA can produce such unwanted side effects as flare-ups of acne. And several studies have raised a red flag about a potential cancer risk. Higher levels of DHEAS appear to be linked to an increased risk for ovarian cancer (in both pre- and postmenopausal women) as well as breast cancer (in postmenopausal women). In addition, because DHEA is converted to testosterone, there is concern that long-term use of DHEA supplements may raise the risk for prostate cancer or, in those who have the disease, hasten its progression.

A Safer Form?
A new DHEA-related supplement called 7-keto DHEA became available in mid-1998. This compound is not converted to estrogen or testosterone in the body and may therefore be safer for those at risk for hormone-sensitive cancers of the breast, ovary, or prostate. Dr. Henry Lardy, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, remarks that in animal studies 7-keto DHEA "induces weight loss, enhances immune function, and stimulates memory in old mice." Studies are under way to determine whether similar benefits occur in people.

Suggested dose
DHEA, like other hormones, is more potent than many nutrients or herbs and is best taken under the care of a doctor familiar with its use. Have a blood test to see if you're deficient in this hormone. If blood levels are low, start with a low dose (5 mg a day for women; 10 mg for men). Have a second blood test after three weeks to see whether you need a higher dose. The daily dose shouldn't exceed 25 mg, though higher doses (up to 100 mg a day) may be needed for a specific disorder such as lupus. An adequate blood level can often be maintained with as little as 5 to 10 mg a week. It's best to take DHEA in the morning. Healthy people under age 50 generally don't need to take DHEA at all.

Further reading
Ray Sahelian, M.D., DHEA: A Practical Guide (Avery, 1996); Stephen A. Cherniske, The DHEA Breakthroug Ballantine, 1998)

For more information
See our library entry on DHEA.

Date Posted: 02/26/2001

Date Published: 07/13/2005
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