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DHEA - Benefits and Potential Risks

Dehydroepiandrosteron (DHEA) is a steroid produced b the adrenal gland, and it is pronounced D-hi-dro-ep-E-an-dro-stehr-own. Claims have been made that this hormone is the "fountain of youth" due to the numerous health benefits it is reported to enhance. There are also some potential side effects that we need to be aware of when considering recommending supplementation of DHEA.

DHEA is often referred to as the "mother hormone" because it is the precursor to androgen, testosterone, estrogen and other sex hormones. In reality, cholesterol is the real precursor or building block of other hormones. In the cell, tiny power packs called mitochondria manufacture a hormone called pregnenolone from cholesterol and pregnenolone is in turn converted to progesterone, DHEA and cortisol steroids. These pathways are complicated, ahd how they are regulated depends on the body's needs and state of equilibrium. There are hundreds of hormones that effect the way we think, feel and look.

Despite the fact that DHEA is the most abundantly produced steroid hormone in the body, as we age, the level of DHEA decreases substantially. For example, by age 50, our levels may only be at 50% of what we had in our youth and at 80 years old only 5%. A decline in the DHEA level has veen correlated by DHEA advocats with an increase in blood pressure, heart disease, breast cancer, Parkinson's, chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity and other degenerative diseases. In our pursuit to stay young, this hormone has become one of the latest alternative health fads, but we must proceed with caution until more is known about the long-term effects of its supplementation.

DHEA Affects on Stress Hormones
Probably DHEAs most important role is in the regulation of stress hormones. DHEA is an inhibitor of the biological action of corticosteroids (stress hormones), especially cortisol. Stress hormones play havoc with our mental cognition, memory and attention span, blood sugar balance, blood pressure and heart rate and eicosanoid production.

Cognition, Memory and Attention Span
An area of the brain called the hippocampusis effected by stress hormones impairing the processing of memories and learning. Excess stress hormones have been shown to damage the hippocampus, in fact, elevated levels of stress hormones are a significant cause of age-related memory impairment as in Alzheimer disease.

Blood Sugar Balance
The blood sugar hormones (insulin and glucogon) regulate fat storage and burning, plus energy flow and stamina. The balance of insulin to glucogon is extremely important for prevention of disease. Excess sugar in our diet weakens our immune system as pathological microorganisms and cancer cells feed on glucose. Also, if one becomes insulin resistant from over abuse of the insulin response to glucose, problems with circulation, obesity, vision and other signs of diabetes can develop.

Blood Pressure and Heart Rate
An increase in blood pressure and heart rate is natural during a stress response because of the adrenal flight-fight reaction. When our adrenal glands fire from stress, fear or any other stimulant like caffeine, the stress hormones (corticosteroids) increase speeding up our respiratory and cardiovascular rates. Naturally, this is the right reaction for the body to take, but if induced often enough, problems with blood pressure and cardiovascular disease may ensue.

Eicosanoid Production
The reduced eicosanoid production caused by stress hormones is a subject that takes a more detailed explanation to fully understand. According to Dr. Barry Sears, eicosanoids are the hormones that are key to anti-aging. In his book entitled "The Anti-Aging Zone," Dr. Sears identifies 8 subgroups of eicosanoids, which contain over 100 eicosanoid messengers. He explains eicosanoid messengers as the molecular mediators of a stress response for a cell. Whether it is a response to cancer inflammation, infection or platelet aggregation, the eicosanoids need to be present to facilitate the healing response. A balance of hormones in our system may be more important than the quantity of hormones. A balance of "good to bad" eicosanoids is important to the health of a cell, just like insulin needs to be in balance with glucogon an dcholesterol needs a high to low-density balance. An imbalance of eicosanoids has been associated with heart disease, hypertension, adult diabetes, inflammation, cancer, depression and autoimmune diseases. Corticosteroids (stress hormones) block eicosanoids ability to prevent aging and DHEA contra-acts this by inhibiting the biological action of corticosteroids. Both an improved eicosanoid balance and sufficient DHEA are said to increase energy, reduce the risk of heart disease, creat fat loss and improve memory, mood, cognition and immune system function.

DHEA - Sex Hormones and Drawbacks

DHEA Supplementation in Men
The fact that DHEA is a precursor to sex hormones is also a subject for discussion. Primarily, DHEA is a precursor to androstenediol, testosterone and a small amount of estrogen. In fact, DHEAs main pathway but is as a precursor in the androgen - males hormonal pathway. Androgens are important to the growth and repair of muscle tissue. Body builders report increased strength when supplementing androgens and some experience increased sex drive and overall well-being. DHEA in high doses, however, can induce excess androgens that may cause acne, scalp hair loss, excessive facial hair, abdominal fat, aggressiveness, irritability, increase in heart disease and insulin resistance. Additionally, an increased DHEA level can increase the hormone testosterone, which in men may stimulate prostate cancer. How a person is effected by hormonal supplementation depends on their biochemical individuality and hormonal make-up.

DHEA Supplementation in Women
For the female, DHEA, like estrogen, has been shown to decrease bone loss but has not been proven to promote the build up of new bone. Although the DHEA pathway is more active in men than women for sex hormone production, at menopause the adrenal DHEA pathway becomes more active in women. DHEA is rarely a precursor to estrogen in women, so if a women supplements with DHEA, it is the male hormones that are more likely to increase and this can cause some unpleasant side effects. For menopausal women, a supplement of natural progesterone would be more effective than DHEA to reduce the effects of male hormones, estrogen dominance and bone loss.


So should we recommend DHEA to our clients, and if so, how much would be safe? First before administering DHEA, have a DHEA-sulfate and testosterone blood test to check the levels. These test will check the levels of DHEA and testosterone circulating in the blood and can be compared with age related "normal" ranges determined by medical data. If a man has a prostate problem or has high levels of testosterone already, DHEA supplementation would be prohibitive. If a man shows low levels of DHEA-sulfate for his age or if they are older and have minimal amounts present and feel a lack of vitality, DHEA could be of help to his overall well-being.

I do not think DHEA is the hormone of choice for women, but rather a natural source of progesterone could be considered, expecially during and after menopause. Progesterone serum and estrogen levels can and should be checked as women are reaching menopause and be monitored thereafter.

If someone wants to take DHEA, it can be started in small doses of 5 to 10 mgs a day, but blood levels should be checked every few months to monitor progress. The important thing is to make sure your client is educated to the benefits and as importantly, potential risks of DHEA supplementation before they decide to try it.

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