DHEA: NIH Says This Anti-aging Remedy Doesn’t Work?
For millennia, people have been hunting for the fabled Fountain of Youth, a mythical spring that could supposedly restore youth and fight aging.
In the 1500s, the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of this legendary locale. (He discovered Florida instead.)
These days, you’re more likely to find marketers touting the anti-aging properties of the latest, greatest natural product: smoother skin, longer life, and fewer chronic diseases.
But is the Fountain of Youth really as close as the supplement aisle of your local health-food store?
Or is one of the most popular anti-aging products really just all washed up?
Of Mice and Men…
Usually known as its easier-to-pronounce abbreviation, DHEA, dehydroepiandrosterone is a substance produced by the body’s adrenal glands and, in men, the testicles. Although DHEA is often called a hormone, that’s actually a misnomer: It is a “parent” hormone, which means that it is converted to estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones.
Scientists first identified DHEA back in the 1930s when it was isolated from human urine, a discovery that was eventually rewarded with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Over the next several decades, investigators learned more about its role in the production of hormones, as well as its effects on rats and other laboratory animals. Based on these findings, DHEA had become widely available in health-food stores by the 1980s.
You wouldn’t know it from the glowing marketing copy, however, but there’s still a lot that researchers don’t understand about DHEA and its impact on human health.
In fact, no large clinical studies of DHEA had been conducted on humans before the 1990s, even though the supplement was for sale on store shelves. Because of this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reclassified DHEA as a controlled substance in 1986.
Yet that same lack of data showing benefits to DHEA led it to be once again reclassified as a dietary supplement in 1994 because there was no evidence of long-term risk, either. If that’s not confusing enough, there’s now evidence that suggests that DHEA may have very different effects in people than animals – and they may not all be beneficial.
Today, DHEA may be back on the market, but the NFL, NBA, and other sports organizations still ban its use in their athletes. The supplement is believed to have similar effects to that of anabolic steroids, although the concern remains theoretical.
One thing is clear: Our levels of DHEA increase until our mid-to-late-20s and then begin a long, slow decline. Perhaps that’s why manufacturers claim that it can help fight aging, even though there is no evidence that the supplement can delay or halt this process.
See, the research to support any Fountain of Youth benefits for DHEA in humans is downright weak.
One placebo-controlled trial suggested that the supplement might make people feel younger, at least subjectively. Researchers found that men and women between ages 40 and 70 who took DHEA had a “healthy outlook” on life.1,2,3
Another study found that DHEA might boost production of collagen – the protein that keeps skin elastic – and decrease the enzymes that destroy collagen. But this was a laboratory study and hasn’t been replicated in a clinical trial of people.1,2,3,4,5
Other research on DHEA and aging have had mixed results. Some studies suggest that the supplement appears to benefit age-related conditions such as erectile dysfunction, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, and heart disease. But again, much of the research on DHEA is flawed, or from small studies that have not been replicated or that have conflicting results.1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
If that’s not enough to convince you, the National Institutes of Health has stated that there is not enough evidence to recommend the supplement as an anti-aging or weight-loss remedy, or to treat or prevent related issues like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, low libido, poor muscle strength, and memory problems.5
A Treatment Dilemma…
Despite the disappointing lack of proof for most of DHEA’s claims, the supplement does show promise in one specific area.
See, some studies have found that high doses of DHEA – when taken along with conventional treatment – may help reduce the frequency of symptoms in people with the autoimmune disease lupus. It also appears to ease lupus-related mouth ulcers and muscle aches and improve bones weakened by prescription corticosteroids. There is even evidence that suggests DHEA might help doctors reduce the dose of medications used to treat this disease.11,12,13
But such positive results might come at a cost: One study that found beneficial effects of DHEA on women with lupus also found that the supplement could adversely alter cholesterol levels and raise levels of the male sex hormone testosterone.
Plus, the doses of DHEA used in these studies – typically 200 mg a day or more – are much higher than the 100 mg limit most experts advise for long-term use.
Too Many Risks…
Still tempted to give DHEA a shot?
Consider this: The supplement may cause a slew of unpleasant side effects, including acne, hair loss in men, growth of body or facial hair and a deepened voice in women, stomach upset, high blood pressure, and changes in the menstrual cycle.
Because of its “parent” hormone status, DHEA may increase the risk of hormone-driven cancers, such as those involving the breasts, prostate, ovaries, and uterus. For that reason, you shouldn’t take DHEA if you have these types of cancer or are at high risk for them.
You should also avoid DHEA if you have uterine fibroids, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, liver dysfunction, depression or other mental health conditions, diabetes, or high cholesterol, or if you are pregnant or nursing.
DHEA may interact with a number of drugs, including those used to treat high blood pressure or diabetes, those that decrease estrogen in the body, and those that are broken down by the liver. Supplemental DHEA may even alter lab tests, such as those for cholesterol, estradiol, and testosterone.
Phew! That’s a lot to worry about.
Although DHEA seems relatively safe in the short-term at doses of 25 to 100 mg a day, we just don’t know about its long-term effects or safety.
For these reasons, stay away from DHEA and fight age-related diseases the old-fashioned way: with a healthy diet and regular exercise: Eliminate all refined carbs and sugar. Stick to high-quality forms of protein (grass-fed, pastured, and free range), and combine that with plenty of low-glycemic veggies. Leafy greens like spinach, chard, and kale as well as broccoli are especially healthy.
Match this with intense, interval training 2 to 3 times a week as often as you can manage.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
7Weiss EP, Villareal DT. Dehydroepiandrosterone replacement therapy in older adults improves indices of arterial stiffness.Aging Cell. 2012 Oct;11(5):876-84.
8Gómez-Santos C, Hernández-Morante JJ. Differential effect of oral dehydroepiandrosterone-sulphate on metabolic syndrome features in pre- and postmenopausal obese women. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2012 Oct;77(4):548-54.
9Christiansen JJ, Bruun JM. Long-term DHEA substitution in female adrenocortical failure, body composition, muscle function, and bone metabolism: a randomized trial. Eur J Endocrinol. 2011 Aug;165(2):293-300.
10Jankowski CM, Gozansky WS. Oral dehydroepiandrosterone replacement in older adults: effects on central adiposity, glucose metabolism and blood lipids. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2011 Oct;75(4):456-63.
11Marder W, Somers EC. Effects of prasterone (dehydroepiandrosterone) on markers of cardiovascular risk and bone turnover in premenopausal women with systemic lupus erythematosus: a pilot study. Lupus. 2010 Sep;19(10):1229-36.
12Hartkamp A, Geenen R. Effects of dehydroepiandrosterone on fatigue and well-being in women with quiescent systemic lupus erythematosus: a randomised controlled trial. Ann Rheum Dis. 2010 Jun;69(6):1144-7.
13Nordmark G, Bengtsson C. Effects of dehydroepiandrosterone supplement on health-related quality of life in glucocorticoid treated female patients with systemic lupus erythematosus. Autoimmunity. 2005 Nov;38(7):531-40.
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