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Endocrine System and Health

hormones, supplements, anti-aging

What You Should Know About DHEA

By Dr. W. Gifford Jones

Monday, February 6, 2006

"Should I take DHEA to help me lose weight?" Or "Does DHEA slow down aging and increase bone strength?" These are two of the many questions I've received from readers about this hormone. So what is fact and what is fiction about dehydroepiandrosterone? (Little wonder it's known by its initials!)

DHEA is one of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands perched on top of the kidneys. The body converts DHEA into the female hormone estrogen and the male hormone testosterone and many less known ones. DHEA reaches peak production around 25 years of age and then decreases every year. By age 70 there's little or none produced.

DHEA has had a checkered past. For years it was marketed in the U.S. as a weight-loss pill. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) later ruled it could only be sold as a prescription drug. But in the 90s DHEA slipped through a bureaucratic loophole in the U.S. and was classified as an unregulated dietary supplement. And it returned to the market as an anti-aging medicine.

A report from Harvard best summarized what happened, "It's an old shameful sales tactic to gather the slenderest pieces of suggestive evidence and ballyhoo them into scientific proof. DHEA and countless other products have been sold that way". I'd say "amen" to that.

Proponents of DHEA argue that taking this hormone fights aging, increases muscle and bone strength, burns fat, bolsters immunity, improves brain function and protects against many chronic diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease.

Critics claim there's no scientific proof that DHEA supplements do any of these things.

What started the DHEA ball rolling were experiments in rats that showed it could decrease fat accumulation in both genetic and fat induced obesity. But what happens in rats may not occur in humans.

The National Institute of Health in the U.S. then funded a study on slightly overweight adults between the ages of 65 and 78. Half of the 56 volunteers took 50 milligrams (mg) of DHEA, an average dose, while the rest took a placebo.

The results in pounds were not dramatic. Those on DHEA lost on average five pounds while those on the placebo gained about four pounds.

The effect of DHEA on abdominal fat was more encouraging. MRI images of the abdomen were done at the end of six months. These showed that women taking the hormone had lost 10 per cent of abdominal fat. The men lost seven per cent. This may seem an insignificant amount, but any abdominal fat lost is helpful since fat in this location increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

The study also showed that DHEA increased the level of the male hormone in females that might increase sexual desire and the level of the female hormone in both sexes.

Researchers reported their findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association. They concluded that their study was too small to reach any decision about the use of DHEA.

At the moment DHEA is being marketed to older people with the promise that they will look and feel younger. Young men, on the other hand, are taking it to boost their testosterone levels and enhance athletic performance.

I admit these promises are very tempting and there are days when I think, "Hmmm, maybe a little DHEA would be just what I need to put more tiger in the tank." But then sanity returns and I remember that it's rare to get something for nothing.

Some studies show that even when used for short periods DHEA may cause liver damage. It can also result in unwanted facial hair, acne and deepening voice in women. There is also concern that it may trigger cancer of the breast and prostate gland.

I discussed this matter with several authorities. The general consensus was that taking DHEA is a high-risk gamble based on insubstantial evidence. Moreover, considering DHEA as a dietary supplement is stretching the truth. Rather, it should be considered a hormone that according to Dr. Peter Casson of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston could be "a recipe for disaster."

In other words, don't push your luck.

Medical Archives after 2008
Medical Archives before 2008

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of Harvard. Dr. Walker's website is: Docgiff.com

My book, “90 + How I Got There” can be obtained by sending $19.95 to:

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Pre-2008 articles by Gifford Jones