DHEA is the acronym for dehydroepiandrosterone, a hormone produced naturally from cholesterol in the adrenal glands of males and females. It is a precursor to the male sex hormone testosterone. It is also sold as an over-the-counter dietary supplement.
The human body produces very little DHEA until about the age of seven, when production soars. It peaks in the mid-20s and starts to decline in the early 30s. By the mid-70s, DHEA production has dropped by about 80-90%. At all ages, DHEA levels are slightly higher in men than women. The optimum DHEA level in a healthy adult is 750-1,250 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) for men and 550-980 mg/dL for women.
DHEA was first identified in 1934 and was sold over the counter mainly as a weight loss aid until the late 1980s. Then the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified DHEA as a drug, making it available by prescription only. The FDA reversed itself in 1994, reclassifying DHEA as a dietary supplement obtainable without a prescription.
A 1994 study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego looked at 30 middle-age men and women who took 50 mg of DHEA a day for three months. The test subjects generally reported an improved sense of well-being, increased energy, enhanced sex drive, and an improved ability to deal with stress. The results were widely reported by the mass media, with several referring to DHEA as the "fountain of youth hormone."
Despite hundreds of studies of DHEA over the past three decades, researchers are still unclear on how the hormone works or exactly what it does in the body. Although it is know DHEA decreases with age, it is not known whether this constitutes a deficiency or is because the body needs less DHEA as it ages.
The main reason so little is known about DHEA is because the hormone is not patentable, so drug companies are unwilling to spend money doing further research on it. Much of the research today in funded through universities and the National Institute on Aging that maintains a skeptical philosophy about DHEA supplementation.
Originally marketed as a weight loss supplement, DHEA is now promoted as being beneficial for treating a wide variety of medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and AIDS. It is also purported to have anti-aging qualities. Studies in rodents and test tubes have shown daily doses of DHEA can prevent or benefit such conditions as cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, lupus, obesity, and viral infections. Far fewer long-term studies have been done in humans and the results are often conflicting. In general, DHEA supplementation seems to be more beneficial to men than women.
Proponents of DHEA also say the hormone has anti-aging properties that can slow the aging process and lead to longer life. In his book, The DHEA Breakthrough: Look Younger, Live Longer, Feel Better, biochemist Stephen Cherniske, states that DHEA supplementation along with proper diet, vitamins, and exercise, can prolong life. "After all, the human body is designed to last about 120 years, and with proper care they can all be vibrantly healthy years. What DHEA provides is the missing link in your longevity program. It gives you a better-than-fighting chance against the diseases that cause more than 75 percent of premature deaths."
Most DHEA is derived from Mexican wild yams through a chemical process. Eating the yams will not
Several studies have shown DHEA may increase the risks of prostate cancer in men and endometrial cancer in women. Medical experts suggest before taking DHEA supplements, individuals should have a blood test to determine existing DHEA and other hormone (testosterone or estrogen) levels. Also, men taking the supplement should have regular PSA tests and women should have periodic mammograms since DHEA may promote the growth of breast cancer.
There are several warnings associated with DHEA use. It should not be taken by men who have a history of prostate problems or by women with a history of breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer. It is not recommended for anyone under age 40, or by women who are pregnant, nursing, or who can still bear children. Women who are taking an estrogen replacement, who have a history of heart disease, and anyone with other significant health problems should consult their doctor before taking DHEA.
Some side effects have been reported and are usually associated with doses of 5 mg a day or more. These include acne, body and facial hair growth in women, enlarged breasts in men, scalp hair loss, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, mood changes, and fatigue. It can cause menstrual irregularities in women under age 50, and may decrease HDL (good cholesterol) in women. A few cases of irregular heart rhythm have been reported in people taking 25-50 mg a day of DHEA.
DHEA functions similarly to pregnenolone, so the two should not be taken together in full doses.
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Ken R. Wells