DHEA - Benefits and Potential Risks
(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
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
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.
on Stress Hormones
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sex Hormones and Drawbacks
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.
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.
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.
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.