DHEA is vital to health
Dehydroepiandrosterone (pronounced dee-hi-dro-ep-i-an-dro-stair-own), or more commonly called DHEA, is the most abundant steroid found in the human blood stream. It is also one of the most reliable bio-markers of aging.
DHEA is secreted by the adrenal glands, and also produced in the gonads (testes and ovaries), and brain. It is sometimes called the "mother of all hormones" because it is the building block from which estrogen and testosterone are produced, and is vital to health.
Thousands of scientific articles have been published on DHEA during the last 50 years, but a clear picture of its role in human health didn't begin to emerge until the 1990's.
DHEA exhibits an amazingly wide diversity of effects
DHEA has been reported to have anti-diabetic, anti-dementia, anti-obesity, anti-carcinogenic, anti-stress, immune-enhancing, anti-viral and anti-bacterial, anti-aging and anti-heart disease effects. 1 2 3 In addition, research has shown that DHEA:
- is an antioxidant
- is a hormone regulator (it helps regulate the thyroid & pituitary glands, and enhances thymus gland function)
- decreases cholesterol
- stimulates the production of human growth hormone
- boosts immunity by stimulating killer cell activity
- increases the sensitivity of cells to insulin
- assists in returning the body to a balanced state after a stress reaction
- improves cognitive function, bone formation and libido
- enhances mood by increasing the brain's serotonin levels
DHEA levels decrease with age
Your DHEA levels vary throughout your life, and naturally decline as you get older. We produce large amounts of DHEA when we're young, and research shows that children's brains require a significant amount of DHEA to grow and develop. DHEA levels peak at age 25 and decline at a rate of about 2% a year, thereafter. It isn't until the mid-forties, however, that we being to feel the effects of lower DHEA levels. By age 80, most people's DHEA blood levels are only about 15% of where they were during the 20s. By the time we're 90, DHEA levels are down to 5%.4
According to Michael Galitzer, M.D., co-founder of the American Health Institute in Los Angeles, California, symptoms of a DHEA deficiency include: poor memory, poor resistance to noise, anxiety, decreased libido (especially in women), decreased armpit and pubic hair, and dry skin, eyes or hair.5
Very low levels of DHEA have been linked to cardiovascular disease in men, some cancers, trauma, and stress; low levels are also associated with old age, particularly in the unwell, institutionalized elderly. Research has also shown a correlation between low DHEA levels and a declining immune system. Also, Alzheimer patients have exhibited low DHEA levels, when compared to their healthy counterparts.
Other factors that contribute to decreased DHEA levels
- nutritional imbalances
- a vegetarian diet low in cholesterol and healthy fats 6
Replacement of low levels of DHEA through regular supplementation has been proposed as a way to indirectly slow down the aging process and improve quality of life. In addition, DHEA is known to stabilize nerve-cell growth and is being tested in Alzheimer's patients. And since you can't obtain DHEA from food, supplementation is recommended in order to maintain adequate levels for optimal health.7
In animal studies, replacing DHEA has had startling anti-aging effects. Large doses of the hormone have restored older animals' strength and vigor.
How does DHEA work in the body?
Although it's still unclear exactly how DHEA works, scientists believe this is what happens: Circulating through the blood stream in an inactive form called DHEA sulfate, this hormone becomes active when it comes in contact with a specific cell or tissue that "needs" it. Consequently, the sulfate is removed and it is then converted to androgens and estrogens.
One of DHEA's most over-looked, but vital roles may be its ability to counter-balance cortisol — when DHEA is low, cortisol levels are high and vice-versa. Cortisol, one of the few hormones that usually increases with age, induces stress. And when it circulates at high levels for long periods of time it may affect many bodily functions, including damaging insulin resistance and the endocrine system, and the hypothalamus. Maintaining healthy levels of DHEA for aging and stressed individuals may be its most important role due to its ability to lower cortisol levels.8 9
Recent studies highlight DHEA's role as "molecular superpower"
DHEA is currently being used in the fight against HIV, cancer and senile dementia. Here are a few study highlights:
An important DHEA study published in 1997 demonstrated the effects of DHEA on the immune systems of nine healthy "age-advanced men" (mean age: 63). The men were given 50 mg of DHEA daily for 20 weeks, after a two-week treatment with a placebo. The results showed that DHEA rejuvenated the immune system by increasing the number and potency of natural killer cells, which normally decrease (in numbers and potency) with age — and which are a key part of the immune system, constantly on the lookout for viruses and cancer cells. There were no adverse effects noted from the DHEA.10
Comparable findings were reported in a similar study with eleven postmenopausal women.11
Insulin resistance and syndrome X contribute to aging, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other health problems. A growing body of evidence indicates that DHEA plays a significant role in reducing age-related increases in insulin levels, insulin resistance, and blood glucose —which in turn helps reduce the risks of syndrome X, obesity, CVD, and diabetes.
A 1995 30-day double-blind, placebo controlled study with 22 men (mean age:57), using 100 mg DHEA nightly showed that serum insulin decreased from 35.3 to 25.8 mU/ml, while serum glucose declined from 93.4 to 88.9 mg/ml. Serum insulin and glucose did not change significantly in the placebo group.12
In a three-study with 15 postmenopausal women (mean age:62), 50 mg of DHEA was also found to decrease age-related increases in insulin resistance.13
Increases energy, improves well being
A 6-month placebo /double-blind crossover trial in which 13 men and 17 women, age 40 - 70 were given 50 mg. of DHEA daily, showed that 67% of the men and 84% of the women felt more relaxed, had increased energy, were able to handle stress more easily, and experienced deeper sleep. Also five subjects reported marked improvements of pre-existing joint pains and mobility during DHEA replacement.14
Protects brain cells from Alzheimer's disease
People with Alzheimer's disease have been found to have 48% less DHEA than matched controls of the same age.15
A major study on DHEA and the elderly published in 1990 compared DHEA-S levels in 50 independently-living men, age 55 - 94 with the DHEA-S levels in 61 men, age 57 - 104, who were living in a nursing home. The results showed that DHEA was significantly lower in the men who were living in the nursing home (and who were generally more debilitated) than in the men living independently.16
How safe is DHEA?
Although the specific mechanisms of action for DHEA are only partially understood, and very little is known about long-term human use, no serious side effects have been reported in more than 5,000 scientific studies.17 There is also strong reason to believe that DHEA supplements may improve overall health and even extend life span.
The biggest concern over DHEA supplementation is the issue of androgen/estrogen production from DHEA. Various tissues can convert DHEA to either androgens (testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, androstenedione) or estrogens (estrone, estradiol). DHEA studies have reported significant androgen increases in women, at a 50 mg and higher dosage 18 19 20 21 and a decreased testosterone level in men, combined with an increase in estradiol 21, which can result in acne, oily skin, facial hair growth in women, and irritability, insomnia, fatigue, and breast enlargement in men
Also, DHEA is NOT recommended for people under 30 years of age, unless indicated by blood testing; or for pregnant or nursing women; or people at risk for breast, uterine or prostate cancer.
How much should you take?
Ideal DHEA dosages can vary dramatically from person to person. Age is a strong factor, but other biological influences may be significant.
Perhaps the best answer is to be cautious and use low doses of DHEA on a regular basis. For the most accurate information, ask your doctor to do before-and-after tests of blood DHEA and DHEA-sulfate levels.
Testing for DHEA blood serum levels
Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., a board certified internist, director of the Annapolis Research Center for Effective CFS/Fibromyalgia Therapies, and author of From Fatigued to Fantastic! (Penguin Putnam, August 2001) recommends that your blood be drawn before 9 a.m., and that you don't eat or drink anything besides water that morning. He prescribes DHEA supplementation if the DHEA-S is less than 120 mcg/DL in a woman or 350 mcg/DL in a man.
For a fraction of the cost of laboratory blood tests, you can also do a home saliva test. Salivary drug testing has been an acceptable research tool for several years, and can be a reliable procedure.
Generally, when you order a test kit, you'll receive one or two collection tubes, a pre-paid return mailer, as well as identification forms, labels and packing materials. Then, you simply expectorate saliva into the collection tube(s), filling the tube(s) to the specified line. Finally, complete the forms, mail the package and wait for the results.
Hormone test kits and related laboratory services are available through:
Powerful anti-aging tool
DHEA can be a safe, effective way to increase your energy, improve your mood, and protect your immune system and brain cells. Although DHEA supplementation is still relatively new, it's been found to be safe, as long you stay within the recommended guidelines we provided. DHEA supplementation for those 40 years of age and up may very well prove to be one of the most powerful tools for slowing down the aging process and maintaining health.