Some folks think that the key to the “fountain of youth” is to hold onto their sex hormones for as long as they possibly can—even through artificial means. And when you think of hormone replacement, estrogen and testosterone are probably the two hormones that come to mind. But there is another hormone, available as an over-the-counter dietary supplement, that’s increasingly getting attention as more evidence emerges of its wide array of possible health benefits. It won’t turn you into a 22-year-old live wire, but it has been known to help relieve depression, slow osteoporosis and improve sex, and when used properly, it may protect you from heart disease, too.
The hormone is dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). It’s actually an essential building block of estrogen and testosterone and the most abundant steroid hormone in the body—at least when you’re young. Bloodstream levels peak at around age 20 and then steadily decline. Sadly, by age 60, your DHEA levels are typically down to 5% to 15% of what they were in your 20s. This loss has got to be tied in with the aging process—at least some researchers think so. Experimental studies have shown that DHEA boosts the body’s production of estrogen and testosterone and may have an anti-inflammatory effect on blood vessels. This means that DHEA could help prevent cardiovascular disease.
Because it’s not a prescription medication, pharmaceutical companies don’t have a strong incentive to conduct expensive, large-scale studies in humans to find out what DHEA can really do. Despite the promising research on the effect of DHEA on blood vessels, the consensus in mainstream medicine has been that, while DHEA might be a mood-booster and help you get your groove on, it probably does not have a strong effect on heart health. But a Swedish study of 2,416 men ages 69 to 81—the largest study yet to be done—suggests otherwise.
The five-year study kept track of participants’ DHEA levels and incidents of coronary heart disease (the cause of heart attack) or stroke. Although no association between DHEA levels and stroke was found, the lower a man’s blood level of DHEA, the higher his risk of coronary heart disease. In fact, low DHEA levels were associated with an 82% increased risk of coronary heart disease.
Whether DHEA supplements would help prevent heart disease has yet to be formally studied, but it seems reasonable given these findings.
WISE USE FOR IMPROVED HEALTH
Some doctors, such as Andrew L. Rubman, ND, Daily Health News contributing medical editor and a naturopathic physician in Southbury, Connecticut, strongly believe that DHEA supplementation is an important key to restoring health. He often prescribes oral drops, which are faster-acting and much better absorbed than tablets. Only about 5% of the DHEA in tablets will survive after being broken down in the stomach, but DHEA in oral drops passes directly into the bloodstream through the lining of the mouth, explained Dr. Rubman, who prepares his own formulation of the DHEA for his patients.
Although DHEA is available over the counter, it should be taken only under the care of a naturopathic physician who is knowledgeable about proper use of DHEA, said Dr. Rubman. Such a doctor can guide you to the best, purest product (not all brands are accurate and honest about what the supplement actually contains or how much of the active ingredient is actually in it), instruct you about appropriate dosage and monitor your use to protect you from side effects. Yes, side effects—DHEA use does come with precautions…
HANDLE WITH CARE
Like all medications, pharma-based and natural, DHEA supplementation has its dangers, especially at high doses or if done for longer than three months without proper monitoring. That’s because, in raising testosterone and estrogen levels, supplemental DHEA can potentially increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast, ovarian and prostate cancer, as well as colorectal cancer.
Besides these risks, women can experience side effects such as loss of head hair, facial hair growth and a deepening of the voice. Possible side effects for men include breast enlargement, shrunken testicles, reduced sperm production and erectile dysfunction. And both men and women can experience oily skin, acne, high blood pressure, insomnia and fatigue.
Monitoring levels of DHEA and associated hormones with blood and urine tests while you are on the supplement helps protect against side effects by ensuring that you are always taking the right amount of DHEA for the right amount of time for the most benefit. Testing frequency will vary from patient to patient and can typically range from every three months to once a year. Dr. Rubman stressed that, when considering DHEA therapy, query doctors to make sure they are very experienced with it. Interpretation of DHEA-monitoring tests requires specialty training. Naturopathic doctors may be more up on it than mainstream doctors, but don’t assume. Be sure to ask about their experience anyway. You can find a naturopathic doctor in your area through the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.