Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) Explained
DHEA is an androgenic hormone produced in the adrenal glands. In the body, DHEA is converted into other hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone or cortisol. Some natural products include wild yams as a source of DHEA. A metabolic precursor to DHEA, DHEA-S (dehydroepiandrosterone-3-sulfate) can be converted to DHEA and vice versa. DHEA levels are known to decrease with age – particularly after the age of 40, but perhaps as early as ages 20 – 30.
Because DHEA levels decline with age (up to 90% reduction) and functions as a direct precursor to testosterone and estrogen, it is often promoted as a “fountain of youth” type of supplement. The theory is that by boosting blood DHEA levels, sex hormone levels can be elevated and some of the conditions associated with aging can be alleviated. Such conditions as muscle wasting, bone loss, loss of strength and endurance and reduced sex drive may be potential targets for DHEA supplementation.
DHEA supplements, at 50 – 100 mg per day, have been shown to increase muscle mass and improve overall feelings of well-being among a group of 40-70 year old subjects who took the supplements for 6 months. Another small study (9 elderly men) showed a link between 5 months of DHEA supplementation (50mg/day) and improvements in markers of immune system function (lymphocytes, natural killer cells and immunoglobulins). Several studies have shown an increased serum testosterone levels following regular DHEA supplementation (50-100mg/day).
The FDA banned the sale of DHEA as a therapeutic drug in 1996 until its safety and value could be reviewed. DHEA products on the market as dietary supplements are regulated under a 1994 law, the dietary supplement health and education act (DSHEA). Although it is difficult to show clear side effects from DHEA supplements, several publications have raised concerns regarding of altered hormone profiles, liver abnormalities, increased cancer risk (prostate in men and breast in women) and other steroid-like effects (increased facial hair, acne, mood swings). Since DHEA is converted into testosterone, there have been concerns that chronic use in men might worsen prostate hyperplasia or even promote prostate cancer.
Of the potential adverse effects associated with high dose DHEA supplements, virilization in women may result from increased testosterone levels, while gynecomastia may result in men from an elevation in estrogen levels. Because of these potential adverse effects, DHEA dosages should be limited to between 25 and 100 milligrams daily. If you take DHEA, you should inform your physician. It is important to note that although such concerns are certainly possible and logical, they are only suspected risks – which may not apply for all individuals who may derive benefits from DHEA supplements.
DHEA supplements tend to be relatively inexpensive and widely available from a number of manufacturers. A recent publication, however, analyzed several DHEA products on the market and found a dramatic difference between the amount of DHEA stated on the supplement label and the amount actually present in the product. The range of actual DHEA present was over 150% to zero. Only 7 of the 16 products (44%) analyzed were found to have a DHEA content within the typical pharmaceutical product specifications of 90-110% of the labeled claim. Of the remaining products, no DHEA was detected in 1 product, and trace amounts were detected in 2 other products. The latter 2 were labeled as containing naturally occurring DHEA, with no specific amount indicated on the label. This finding underscores the importance of choosing your supplements from a reputable manufacturer that you can trust to perform adequate quality control and ingredient analysis.
Effective doses have ranged from 50-100 mg per day, depending on the condition under investigation. Based on the current positive findings with 50-mg dosages and the adverse effects that may be associated with excessive DHEA supplementation, a daily dose of 50 mg per day seems reasonable.
NOTE: Competitive athletes should be aware of the potential for DHEA supplementation to alter the testosterone-epitestosterone ratio so it exceeds the 6:1 limit set by both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and NCAA in their screening for testosterone doping.
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