Dehydroepiandrosterone — DHEA — is a powerful hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. Estrogen and testosterone are made from it. However, DHEA secretion peaks at 25 then diminishes with age. By 80, only 15% of the youthful amount is still being made! But long before that, perhaps decades, you would have noticed a vague sense that something is lacking, that youthful vitality may be ebbing. Do you need supplemental DHEA?
If I’m going to take DHEA, I need to know what it does first!
DHEA has wide-ranging effects. Studies already completed conclude that DHEA:
- Decreases cholesterol
- Increases secretion of growth hormone
- Modulates the stress reaction by decreasing cortisol
- Improves immune function, stimulating NK cells and enhancing thymus function
- Improves insulin sensitivity and decreases risk of metabolic syndrome
- Enhances both cognitive function and mood
- May help fight obesity
However, the aspect of DHEA that has proved most seductive for an aging population is the hormone’s reputed anti-aging powers. Countless studies confirm that DHEA is of fundamental importance for brain development in childhood and that its disappearance in later adulthood correlates with poor memory, and perhaps rising risk of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease patients have only half the DHEA of healthy adults at the same age!
Equally important to DHEA’s appeal for men is the hormone’s reputation as a muscle builder. An overwhelming majority of both men and women using DHEA report increased energy, deeper sleep, and fewer aches and pains. Some have gone further, suggesting that DHEA may extend lifespan!
How does DHEA do all of that?
Even if DHEA is not a latter day “Fountain of Youth,” it could be a most useful addition to the diets of many people. However, the precise mechanisms underlying some of DHEA’s most powerful effects are poorly understood. Scientists know that DHEA and cortisol are inversely related. Consequently, as DHEA production tails off in later years, cortisol rises, and cortisol is both a marker and cause, of the stress reaction.
Left unchecked, chronically elevated cortisol contributes to insulin resistance, reduced immunity, and weight gain. Adrenal insufficiency eventually follows, and health declines further. Supplementary DHEA helps to level off cortisol production and give overtaxed adrenals time to recover. However, caution should be exercised in beginning, and dosing, DHEA.
Is DHEA safe?
DHEA is safe for most people if its use is carefully monitored. Before beginning supplementation, you should have a blood test to determine your fasting level of DHEA sulfate, the inactive, circulating form of the hormone. If women test at 120 mcg/dL or less, or men 350 mcg/dL or less, supplementation is often recommended. Another round of blood tests is then ordered upon completion of the DHEA regimen.
DHEA is not recommended for those less than 30 years of age. Pregnant women or nursing mothers must similarly abstain. All those at elevated risk for uterine or reproductive cancers should proceed with caution. If DHEA is used moderately, and with forethought, it can correct hormone imbalances and reduce risk factors for several major diseases, improving the quality, perhaps even the quantity, of life.