Some advocates call it the fountain of youth. Although the claim may be overblown, DHEA has shown promise in combating certain age-related diseases. More study is needed, however, to learn the exact effects – as well as to identify those who could benefit most from it.
What it is?
Known widely as the 'mother of hormones'. DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is needed by the body to produce many types of other hormones, including oestrogen and testosterone. DHEA is secreted by the adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys. Although women make less DHEA than men, in both sexes DHEA production declines dramatically with age: levels are 80% lower at the age of 70 than at the age of 30. The significance of these falling DHEA levels, however, has not been determined.
What it does?
There has been plenty of hype surrounding DHEA, so it's difficult to separate wishful thinking from sound scientific evidence. DHEA has been said to stimulate weight loss, increase libido, enhance memory and prevent osteoporosis – but these claims are unsupported. Studies do indicate, however, that DHEA may improve general well-being in older people (although just how isn't clear), reduce the risk of heart disease, ease symptoms of the auto-immune disease lupus, help to manage diabetes and boost immunity.
Having blood levels of DHEA sulphate on the high end of normal may lower the risk of heart disease of older men. In one study, men with naturally high DHEA levels had less body fat and higher HDL ('good') cholesterol levels than men with low DHEA levels. Those with high DHEA levels also did better on an exercise stress test, which measures the condition of the heart during physical exertion. These associations weren't seen in women, however. In fact, women taking DHEA seemed to have a slightly higher risk of heart disease. Other research suggests that DHEA may help to 'thin' the blood and so reduce the likelihood of blood clot formation and heart attack.
Some evidence of DHEA's immune-boosting action was noted in a US study of older people who had received flu shots. Their immune response to the weakened flu virus in the injection was significantly increased after taking DHEA. Researchers are hopeful that DHEA can improve immune responses in people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
A small study of postmenopausal women indicated that those taking DHEA had lower levels of triglycerides (a blood fat related to cholesterol) and were able to use insulin more efficiently than women not given DHEA. This finding suggests a possible role for the supplement in the treatment of diabetes.
DHEA has also been reported to have beneficial effects on patients with lupus, an auto-immune disease. It relieved some symptoms and reduced the amount of medication needed.
- May lower risk of heart disease.
- Aids in glucose management in some people with diabetes.
- Boosts the immune system.
- Relieves some lupus symptoms.
- May help people with HIV/AIDS.
- DHEA is a hormone; as such, it may be linked to the development of some cancers, such as prostate. Anyone who has this form of cancer, or is at risk for it, shouldn't use DHEA without consulting a doctor.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
DHEA supplements should be taken under medical supervision and only to raise hormone levels to within a normal range – not to exceed those levels. It's usual to start with a low dose (5 mg for women; 10 mg for men) and slowly increase it to achieve the desired effect. The maximum dose should not exceed 25 mg a day unless you are taking it for a specific disorder, such as lupus or HIV. It's best to take DHEA in the morning. Healthy people under the age of 50 don't need the supplement at all.
Guidelines for use:
DHEA is available only on prescription in Australia and New Zealand, since it is more potent than many other nutrients or herbs. The long-term effects of DHEA supplementation are simply not known. Not all doctors are familiar with the use of this nutritional supplement, so you may need to ask around to find one who is.
Before prescribing DHEA, your doctor should check for prostate cancer (in men) or breast cancer (in women), because such cancers are influenced by hormone levels in the body. You should be given a blood test to determine your current DHEA sulpate levels, and take this supplement only if your blood level of this hormone is low. After three weeks, you should have another blood test to assess whether your dosage needs adjusting. Once established, a satisfactory blood levele can often be maintained with as little as 5-10 mg of DHEA a week.
Possible side effects
When used to excess, DHEA supplements can cause acne, extremely oily skin, hair growth in women, deepening of the voice and mood changes. In addition, one animal study has demonstrated an association between liver cancer and excessively high doses of DHEA.
- DHEA is available only on prescription in Australia and New Zealand.
- The labels on wild yam products sometimes claim that the herb contains substances that are converted to DHEA or other hormones once within the body. in fact, this conversion can be achieved only in a laboratory, not by the human body.
- Although there's no evidence that DHEA will lengthen your life, it may enhance your quality of life. In a recent US study, older men and women taking DHEA reported increased feelings of well-being, improved sleep, more energy and a greater ability to handle stress. More than 80% of the women and 67% of the men had a positive response to DHEA, compared with less than 10% of the people taking a placebo.
- Recent Australian research suggests that taking 600 mcg of biotin three times a day (with food) increases DHEA sulphate levels in some people who have lower-than-normal levels of this hormone. Biotin has no known adverse effects, making it a very safe option for such people. (But you must have a blood test to determine if your level is low enough to justify the treatment.