DHEA and Antiaging

In a quirky “Far Side” cartoon, an aging and grizzled Superman pauses at the window. Instead of flying off faster than a speeding bullet, he turns to an equally graying Lois Lane and asks, “Dang, where was I going anyway?”

While we might chuckle at the thought of Superman losing his edge as he gets up in years, it’s probably less amusing to imagine ourselves becoming forgetful or less vigorous as time goes on.

Would dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) help Superman remember where he was going? Restore his youthful build? For that matter, what can it do for us ordinary mortals? DHEA has been touted by some as a miracle, anti-aging substance. Others are skeptical about its so-called “wonder drug” properties. Let’s take a look at the evidence on both sides.

The Foundation of All Hormones

Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, testes in men or ovaries in women, and the brain. It is called a precursor hormone or foundation hormone because it is produced in large amounts in the body and because other steroid hormones are made from DHEA, including estrogen and testosterone. DHEA was once believed to be inert in the body, but recent interest in its therapeutic effects has grown.

More Birthday Candles = Less DHEA

In both men and women, the body’s production of DHEA increases dramatically before puberty. DHEA levels usually peak when we’re in our mid-20s, and drop off as we age. Normal levels of DHEA are 200 to 400 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl) in women, and 500 to 700 mcg/dl in men. By the time we hit our 40th birthday, most of us have DHEA levels below 200. Some researchers have theorized that waning DHEA is related to, or even causes the aging process.

Research – Of Mice, Men, and Women

What does the research on DHEA tell us about its ability to counter the effects of aging? Here are some of the significant findings:

  • Low DHEA sulfate (DHEA-S) levels in the blood are associated with increased death rates from heart disease in men.
  • Low DHEA-S levels correlated with a greater risk of developing breast cancer in mice.
  • A possible link between DHEA-S levels and bone density in women has not been proven.
  • In mice, DHEA reduced or delayed the onset of certain viral infections, suggesting that it may have a role in boosting the body’s immune response.
  • One study showed that high doses of DHEA lower cholesterol, decrease body fat, and increase muscle mass. However, these results were not duplicated in a subsequent study.
  • Men and women reported a “greater sense of well-being” after taking DHEA replacement for six months.

The exact effect DHEA has on the body’s cells is unclear. There is some suggestion that restoring the body’s levels of DHEA to young adult levels in middle-aged men and women increases cells’ ability to synthesize protein. In addition, DHEA may act on the arteries leading to and from the heart, giving it a role in reducing heart disease.

Ragab El-Rashidy, Ph.D., President of Pentech Pharmaceuticals in Wheeling, Illinois, explains DHEA’s effect on the heart this way: “When a person develops atherosclerosis, more commonly known as clogged arteries, those arteries fill with a crystalline-like substance, almost like sand. We think that DHEA prevents those crystals from sticking together like glue and blocking the arteries.”

DHEA’s protective effect against heart disease is true for men but not for women, says Deborah Goodman-Gruen, M.D., of the University of California School of Medicine in La Jolla, California. “DHEA sulfate has been shown to reduce heart disease in men by 15 to 20 percent,” she says, “but we didn’t find that in women.” Why does DHEA help men prevent heart disease but not women? “We really don’t know,” Dr. Goodman-Gruen says. “We know that DHEA is an androgen, or male hormone. It may be that male hormones are good for men and bad for women.”

DHEA also acts on insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, reducing the severity of diabetes in mice. Again, the exact pathway in the cells is not clearly understood, nor is it evident that DHEA supplements in humans will have the same effect. The role of DHEA is also under investigation in treating lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and AIDS, but there still isn’t enough information to be able to consider DHEA a viable treatment option.

Reversing the March of Time

DHEA’s anti-aging properties are said to include better memory, less fatigue, more energy, relaxation, and increased ability to handle stress. Men and women between 40 and 70 who took 50 mg of DHEA per day for six months as part of a study at the University of California Medical School at La Jolla said they slept better, felt more relaxed, and could handle stress more easily. The same feelings of increased well-being were not reported by those taking placebo in the same study.

The authors of this DHEA study suggest that the findings merit further research, but stop short of recommending it as an across-the-board way to turn back time. In Dr. Goodman-Gruen’s view, we’re not ready to use DHEA as an anti-aging substance yet. “I think it’s premature for the general population to start taking DHEA sulfate. When the risks of too much [DHEA] are not really known, we need to evaluate and monitor its use in a controlled setting.”

Dr. Goodman-Gruen also observes, “The studies suggesting DHEA may increase longevity are very small. They have no control groups and the measures are not concrete. Increased well-being is hard to quantify.”

DHEA Facts and Figures

DHEA is taken in capsule form in dosages of 25 to 50 mg per day for women, and 50 to 100 mg per day for men, says Marla Ahlgrimm, R.Ph.. The capsules contain micronized, or very small particles of DHEA, she explains.

Ms. Ahlgrimm recommends having DHEA levels measured by blood or saliva test to determine if the amount of DHEA in the body is low. “Sometimes a physician will suspect an adrenal insufficiency if DHEA levels come back low in a person who isn’t responding to stress well,” she notes.

Rules and Regulations

DHEA is available by prescription from a physician. It can also be sold over-the-counter, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now considers DHEA a dietary supplement. With over-the-counter DHEA, the label won’t tell you how much DHEA is actually in the product. That means the amount of DHEA in an over-the-counter product could be too low to provide any benefit, or potentially high enough to cause unwanted masculinizing side-effects in women, such as increased facial hair.

If you use DHEA as hormone replacement therapy, for best results you may choose to work with your physician instead of purchasing DHEA over-the-counter, because blood levels may be involved and DHEA significantly influences the levels of other hormones.

Is DHEA Safe?

Yes, says William Regelson, M.D., professor of medicine at the Medical College of Virginia. “I’m 70 years old and have been taking DHEA for nine years. My wife’s been on it for 16 years.” He says, “We don’t take it for any major effect. We take it to replace the value in our body to what it was when we were 20. It’s a subtle effect, not dramatic.”

Dr. Regelson scoffs at the study that showed high levels of DHEA linked to liver cancer in rodents, calling it “a scare tactic.” High DHEA levels beyond what the body would produce do not provide a fair comparison, he says. “DHEA is benign.”

Rather than make exaggerated claims about DHEA, Dr. Regelson suggests considering replacing the body’s level of DHEA to what it was during our 20s. “The question is not whether we are going to live longer,” he says. “The question is: Will we live in a youthful state?”


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