DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), sometimes called the "anti-aging hormone," is the most abundant hormone found in the human body. Like HGH (human growth hormone) and melatonin, DHEA has been shown to have wide ranging effects that help combat both aging and disease. While knowledge of this hormone has existed for almost 75 years, the debate over using it as a supplement has raged for decades and still continues to be a topic of much controversy even today.
First discovered back in 1934, DHEA became classified as an endogenous hormone, meaning that it is produced within the human body. It is secreted by the adrenal gland and serves as a precursor to androgens and estrogens (male and female sex hormones).
While it is naturally occurring in the body, DHEA levels tend to peak around the age of 25 and then begin to decline as aging progresses. For instance, men who are young produce approximately 31mg daily while women produce about 19mg. By the age of 65 most only produce about 10-20% as much.
The decline rate for DHEA, after reaching its production peak in the mid-twenties, happens at about a relatively constant 2% per year. DHEA levels in the elderly are virtually non-existent by the time of death. Low levels are also often observed in people suffering from anorexia, type 2 diabetes, end-stage kidney disease as well as in those who are critically ill. A number of drugs including insulin, corticosteroids and opiates also tend to deplete levels.
What DHEA Does
DHEA regulates the body's production of other steroid hormones. This includes the sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) and stress hormones (cortisol and norepinephrine). It also plays a vital role in burning fat, increasing lean muscle mass and stimulating bone growth. Some cells in the human body also have DHEA-specific receptors which suggests it has a direct effect on body tissue and physiology.
The primary purpose for using DHEA supplements is to restore circulating levels of the hormone to those common with younger people in the 20-30 age range. Some of the potential benefits of this include:
- Weight Loss
- Enhancing the Immune System
- Increasing Brain Function
- Improving General Sense of Well Being and Combating Depression
- Elevating Sex Drive (approximately 30-50% of total androgens in adult men are derived from DHEA)
- Reducing Impotence (high levels of DHEA in men correlate with low incidence of impotence)
A Bumpy Road
Back in the early 1980's, DHEA was primarily marketed as a nonprescription weight loss supplement and sold in health food and vitamin stores. In 1986 however, the FDA reclassified it based on a lack of knowledge regarding long-term risks associated with the supplements. Then in 1994 the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act helped to change its regulatory status again so that DHEA could once more be sold without prescription.
Now just recently in March of 2007 a new bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate (S. 762) that attempts to classify DHEA as a controlled substance under the category of anabolic steroids. Incidentally, this bill is cosponsored in part by John McCain, current Republican front-runner for President of the United States.
Why So Much Controversy?
It should be stated that no studies on the long-term effects of DHEA have been conducted as of this publication date. Some have postulated that very high doses of DHEA over long periods may suppress the body's natural ability to synthesize the hormone. Others theorize that since it elevates testosterone and estrogen levels in the body, it may also increase the risk of certain hormone-sensitive cancers. Ultimately, there is no conclusive data to confirm any of these assumptions.
Why have there been no in-depth studies into the potential benefits or ill effects of DHEA? In short, it's not worth it to the big pharmaceutical companies. In the U.S., the value of drugs or therapies are determined by large, double-blind, placebo-based clinical studies which happen to be very expensive. Since DHEA is a naturally occurring substance produced by the human body, it cannot be patented. Therefore, there is no incentive for 'Big Pharma' to invest millions of dollars of their own money on clinical trials to determine its effectiveness.
There have however been numerous small-scale studies done by researchers that have shown great promise for DHEA. Coincidentally(?), there have been reports recently of pharmaceutical firms testing their own synthetic forms of DHEA for their effect in treating AIDS and Alzheimer's. If findings turn out to be positive, you can rest assured the end-products will be "by prescription only."
Natural Sources of DHEA
The only food source that contains the precursor substance to DHEA is the extract of wild yams (diosogenin or discorea). It is also available in some popular all-natural supplements such as Provacyl™ (see Provacyl Ingredients). It is generally agreed that large doses of the substance is not required nor recommended and a range of 10-20mg per day is more than sufficient. As always, consult your physician if you intend to try any natural remedies.
Posted by PRS
Sunday, February 17th, 2008
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