The Lowdown on DHEA
Julian Whitaker, MD
I’ve been a champion of DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) since I first started taking it myself and using it in my practice more than 20 years ago. But like an old, trusted friend that you can always depend on, I tend to take it for granted and overlook its value.
The Mother Hormone
DHEA is a steroidal hormone, produced primarily in the adrenal glands. It is often called the “mother hormone” because it is a precursor of other steroidal hormones such as testosterone and estrogen.
Yet DHEA does much more than this. It is active in the central nervous system, encouraging neuronal growth and targeting receptors in the brain that are associated with mood. It gives the immune system a boost by activating T-cell function and dampening inflammation. DHEA also enhances the circulatory system and, by increasing levels of IGF-1 (a marker of human growth hormone), has widespread positive effects throughout the body.
After age 30, DHEA production drops by about two percent a year. Yet within any age group, DHEA-S (a DHEA metabolite and blood marker of DHEA levels) levels vary dramatically. The early research on this hormone focused on these variations and their links to disease. What virtually all of the studies found was an inverse relationship between blood levels of DHEA-S and the incidence of Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other age-related disorders—the lower the DHEA-S level, the greater the risk of disease.
Potent Protection Against Heart Disease
The bulk of the recent research, however, has concentrated on the therapeutic effects of supplemental DHEA. One of the latest studies looked at the effects of moderate daily doses (25 mg) of DHEA in men, average age 54, with elevated cholesterol levels. After four weeks of supplementation, significant improvements were noted in insulin sensitivity, endothelial function, and blood clotting factors—all independent risk factors for heart disease.
The results were so dramatic that the researchers concluded, “These beneficial changes have the potential to attenuate the development of age-related disorders such as cardiovascular disease.” Pretty high praise for an over-the-counter supplement, wouldn’t you say?
Lupus and More
Actually, DHEA has become a standard therapy in conventional medicine for one condition: systemic lupus erythematosus, an often progressive autoimmune disorder that affects a million and a half Americans, most of them women. In a 2002 multi-center trial, 120 women with mild to moderate lupus were given either a placebo or 200 mg DHEA daily for 24 weeks. The women taking DHEA had significantly fewer flare-ups than those on placebo.
Although most physicians have yet to begin recommending DHEA for other conditions, compelling research suggests that it could be a safe, inexpensive therapy for osteoporosis, AIDS, and some types of cancer.
DHEA Reduces Belly Fat
Could DHEA be an answer for abdominal obesity? According to researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis it could. They enrolled 52 men and women, age 65-78, who had low blood levels of DHEA-S, were overweight, and did not exercise regularly. They determined their levels of abdominal fat by MRI, then gave them either 50 mg of DHEA or a placebo daily at bedtime.
Repeat MRIs after six months revealed that the visceral abdominal fat in the women taking DHEA decreased by an amazing 10.2 percent and in the men by a significant 7.4 percent. Subcutaneous abdominal fat was reduced by approximately 6 percent in both genders. DHEA also effected significant changes in several aspects of metabolic syndrome with improvements in insulin sensitivity, leading the researchers to conclude that “DHEA replacement therapy might reduce the accumulation of abdominal fat and protect against development of the metabolic/insulin resistance syndrome.”
These men and women did not begin an exercise program. They did not change their diets. All they did was take an inexpensive, over-the-counter nutritional supplement!
Fountain of Youth?
DHEA has also been touted as an anti-aging therapy, and recent research supports this claim. Cell studies show that DHEA affects the expression of some genes that are typically switched off during aging. In addition, the increase in IGF-1 levels caused by supplemental DHEA most certainly provides broad anti-aging benefits. DHEA has been shown to improve several signs of aging in people over age 70, including muscle strength, bone density, and skin thickness—and if that isn’t anti-aging, I don’t know what is.
Japanese researchers looked at the links between DHEA and longevity by measuring levels of DHEA-S periodically over 27 years. As expected, DHEA sulfate levels fell over time. However, the men whose DHEA fell the least lived longer. In fact, a low DHEA level turned out to be a stronger predictor of early death than high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar!
DHEA Makes You Feel Better
All this research is great, but my primary reason for prescribing DHEA hasn’t wavered over the years: It just makes people feel better. In a survey of men and women ages 40 to 70 taking 50 mg of DHEA daily, 84 percent of the women and 67 percent of the men reported improvements in physical and psychological well-being.
Patients also note enhancement in their sex lives—and that makes them feel better. In a small study of men with erectile problems, taking 50 mg of DHEA daily for six months resulted in impressive improvements. However, it is postmenopausal women who get the best bang for their buck in this area.
Many women report feeling “friskier” and having fewer problems with vaginal dryness. This is because DHEA is readily converted to testosterone in women, and testosterone is the hormone of desire in both sexes. German researchers gave 24 women with low DHEA production either 50 mg of DHEA or a placebo every day for four months, then switched them to the other protocol for another four months. Compared with placebo, DHEA “significantly increased the frequency of sexual thoughts, sexual interest, and satisfaction with both mental and physical aspects of sexuality.”
- Ask your doctor to test your blood level of DHEA-S. If it is low—particularly if any of the conditions discussed in this article affect you—consider supplementing DHEA, at a starting dose of 25 mg a day for women and 50 mg for men. Retest after three months and adjust your dose, if necessary, to maintain levels in the young-adult range. Do not take DHEA if you have a hormone-related cancer, such as cancer of the breast, prostate, or ovary.
- If you’d like a physician at the Whitaker Wellness Institute to design a personalized natural hormone replacement therapy program for you, call (866) 944-8253.
- Kawano, H et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2003 Jul;88(7):3190-5.
- Celac, P et al. Physiol Res. 2003;52(4):397-407.
- Chang, DM et al. Arthritis Rheum. 2002 Nov;46(11):2924-7.
- Arlt, W et al. N Engl J Med. 1999 Sep 30;341(14):1073-4.
Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Copyright 2003. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.