The synthesis of steroid hormones begins
when the body uses cholesterol to make Pregnenolone, the basic hormonal substance. From
Pregnenolone, the body makes DHEA and Progesterone. The hormones in the Progesterone
pathway, including cortisol and Progesterone itself, are not directly derivable from DHEA.
From this we can rightly intuit that although DHEA can be a remarkable help in the case of
DHEA, estrogen, or testosterone deficiency, the truly balancing hormonal
substance is Pregnenolone. In fact, even when taking DHEA, better results may be obtained
by taking Pregnenolone as well.
Here are some of the possible health benefits for DHEA:
Improved immune function
Lower risk of heart disease
Enhanced mood, memory, and REM sleep
Longer lifespan and enhanced quality of life
Possible treatment for cancer, lupus, and possibly HIV
Weight loss aid
"DHEA is most abundant in the human bloodstream. Research has
found it to have significant anti-aging effects. DHEA levels naturally drop as people age,
and there is good reason to think that taking a DHEA supplement may extend your life and
make you more youthful while you're alive. Additionally, DHEA may be an important player
in cognitive enhancement." - Dr. Ward Dean, M.D.
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is the most prevalent natural
hormone secreted from the adrenal glands. It circulates in the body largely as a
water-soluble form called DHEA-sulfate (DHEAS). Discovered in 1934, scientists now know
that it is produced by only a few living creatures, specifically humans and other closely
related primates. In its role as a precursor to other hormones in the body, it is
estimated that as much as 50% of androgen (e.g., testosterone) hormones in men and
approximately 75% of estrogen in women (and close to 100% after menopause) are derived
Even before birth, a baby produces DHEA. After birth,
however, DHEA production stops until about age seven. DHEA levels peak at the age of 20 or
30, after which the body begins a lifelong decline. By the age of 60, DHEA is generally
only 5-15% of its peak level.
Recently, research funded by the National Institutes of
Health and conducted by Dutch scientists determined that DHEAS levels in the "oldest
old," that is, men and women 85 years old and older, were approximately four times
lower than in the group of young adults (age 20-40). It was found that DHEAS levels were
higher in healthy individuals, compared to unhealthy men and women. Other studies
confirm that men with the highest DHEAS levels retain the best functioning abilities.
And recently, when the prestigious New York Academy of Sciences sponsored an international
conference (June 17-19, 1995) on DHEA and aging, researchers suggested that levels of DHEA
and DHEAS may serve as a marker of successful aging, and that maintaining high levels of
DHEAS may translate into increased longevity.
Dr. Samuel Yen, an endocrinologist from the University of
California School of Medicine in La Jolla, conducted a double-blind, crossover study in
which he supplemented 13 men and 17 women (age 40-70) with a nightly dose of 50 mg. DHEA
or a placebo during the six-month study. Dr. Yen found that levels of DHEA and DHEAS were
"restored to those found in young adults within two weeks of DHEA replacement and
were sustained throughout the three months..." of the study.
Only 10% of the subjects in this study taking the inactive
placebo reported an improved sense of well-being, whereas, 82% of the women and 67% of the
men attested to enhanced feelings of wellbeing while on the DHEA supplements. Improved
well-being was described by the study participants as improved quality of sleep, feeling
more relaxed, increased energy, and a better ability to handle stress.
According to research from another of Dr. Yen's studies,
this one involving eight men and eight women 50-65 years old taking 100 mg. of DHEA or a
placebo over the course of a year, DHEA may help prevent age-related declines in lean body
mass, muscle strength, immune function, and other signs of advancing years.
Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor conducted a study in 1986
which indicated that DHEA may prevent heart disease in men over 50 years old. Men with
higher DHEAS had half the incidence of heart disease, compared to men with low DHEAS
levels. Unfortunately, the link is not quite as good for women. Higher DHEAS levels may
slightly increase the risk of heart disease in women.
Dr. David M. Herrington, M.D., from the Bowman Cray School
of Medicine in North Carolina, believes that DHEA prevents heart disease and
atherosclerosis by inhibiting excessive cell growth or buildup along blood vessel walls.
Studies have also shown DHEA supplementation to lower cholesterol levels - particularly
the "bad" LDL cholesterol - and inhibit platelet aggregation, both of which are
associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
Dr. M.E. Weksler from Cornell University suggests that the
decline of DHEA levels with advancing years may be linked to the breakdown of the immune
system. Influenza is a major cause of illness and death in the elderly. Consequently,
public health officials recommend flu vaccination for this age group. But the vaccine
fails to stimulate an immune response in about one-third of older people. DHEA may provide
a much needed immune system boost in these elders at risk for the flu. Researchers from
Israel found that age-related immune system defects are reversed in mice supplemented with
DHEA, allowing for successful flu vaccination. Regardless of age, DHEA levels drop
whenever a person experiences an illness. Future research is needed to determine if DHEA
supplements will aid in illness recovery for the general population.
The research about DHEA and cancer has been somewhat
controversial. A strain of mice bred to be susceptible to breast cancer, according to
researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, do not develop breast cancer
if they are taking DHEA supplements. Other animal research indicates that DHEA inhibits
the activation of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).
Arthur Schwartz, Ph.D., from Temple University School of
Medicine in Philadelphia, after reviewing the literature, notes: "Administration of
DHEA to laboratory mice and rats inhibits development of experimental tumors of the
breast, lung, colon, liver, skin, and lymphatic tissue." However, he believes that
"therapeutic use of DHEA in humans may be limited by its sex hormonal side
effects." A synthetic form of DHEA may soon be available that still acts as an
anti-cancer agent, but without the hormone side effects. Finnish researchers have
expressed similar concerns that DHEA does not protect against cancer across the board.
They suggest that DHEA may inhibit tumor growth in premenopausal women, but stimulate the
growth of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
DHEAS has been used as a treatment for some forms of
psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia. Recently, researchers from the
University of California, San Francisco discovered that when patients suffering from
depression were supplemented with 30-90 mg. of DHEA daily for four weeks, significant
improvements in their depression were noted. Other studies suggest DHEA may help
with memory enhancement, and studies are currently underway at the National Institute of
Mental Health to determine if DHEA may be helpful in Alzheimer's disease.
Other promising research for DHEA pertains to the treatment
of lupus. When 10 women suffering from systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) took 200
mg. DHEA daily for three to six months, they showed significant improvement in their
symptoms. The only side effect reported in this study were some mild cases of
acne. Natural DHEA production, in adolescents, contributes to this common problem in
From all of the above, it seems that older men and women
appear to have the most to gain from supplementing with DHEA, in order to restore DHEAS
levels to that of their younger years. Other groups also appear to have depressed DHEA
levels, including those with infectious diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, burn
injuries, cancer, and vegetarians.
Pharmacological doses of DHEA should not be used
indiscriminately, especially by women. In one study, a woman taking 100 mg. of DHEA daily
for a year started to develop facial hair, presumably as a consequence of DHEA
contributing to male hormones and triggering male secondary sex characteristics. Consequently,
some researchers suspect that women (especially postmenopausal women) limit DHEA intake to
no more than 50 mg. daily. Other researchers caution that DHEA, in anyone, may be
linked to liver damage or even liver cancer. Until more is known about DHEA, it would be
prudent for individuals with a family history of hormone-related cancer (e.g., breast or
prostate cancer), to avoid DHEA supplements.
"DHEA is currently being investigated as an
anti-aging hormone. New evidence suggests this hormone is so beneficial that it may turn
out to be the most important advance of the decade." - Dr. Alan R. Gaby,