DHEA / Dehydroepiandrosterone is the sole precursor hormone responsible for the production and regulation of every other steroid and sex hormone in the body. It has recently been discovered that bodily levels of DHEA decline with age (a typical 70-year old will have about 5-10% the DHEA of what a typical 20 year old produces), leading to the (logically incorrect, but possible) hypothesis that supplementing DHEA will reverse or halt the aging process.
Dehydroepiandrosterone is a natural steroid hormone produced from cholesterol by the adrenal glands. Dehydroepiandrosterone is chemically similar to testosterone and estrogen and can be easily converted into those hormones. In blood DHEA is found as its derivative dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S). The production of the hormone peaks in early adulthood and its production is declining with age. Interestingly it is the most abundant of all steroid hormones in humans.
DHEA is called "mother of hormones", or prohormone because DHEA is further converted to generate 50 other essential hormones. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is the most abundant androgen (male steroid hormone) secreted by the adrenal glands (small hormone producing glands which sit on top of the kidneys), and to a lesser extent, by the ovaries and testes. DHEA can also be converted into other steroid hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. Considerable interest in DHEA has developed in recent years with reports that it may play a role in the aging process.
DHEA is believed to indirectly affect blood sugar levels, but information remains incomplete and contradictory. Attempts to affect blood sugar levels in humans have led to improvements, no effect, and, at very high amounts (1,600 mg DHEA per day), a worsening of tolerance to sugar.
Given that DHEA levels decline with advancing age, some researchers have investigated whether DHEA supplementation may slow or prevent age-related declines in mental and physical function. Preliminary results from the DHEAge study in France suggest that the hormone may slow bone loss, improve skin health, and enhance sexual drive in aging adults, particularly women older than 70 years of age. Animal studies that have shown a boost in memory for older rats taking DHEA supplements. Results from human studies, however, have been conflicting. Some studies have shown that DHEA improves learning and memory in those with low DHEA levels, but other studies have failed to detect any significant cognitive effects from DHEA supplementation. Further studies are needed to determine whether DHEA supplementation helps prevent or slow medical conditions associated with the aging process.
DHEA is one of the hormones made in the adrenal glands. When the adrenal glands do not make enough hormones, this is called adrenal insufficiency. Women with this condition who were given DHEA supplements reported improved sexuality and sense of well-being (including decreased feelings of depression and anxiety). Only a doctor can determine if you have adrenal insufficiency and if DHEA, along with other hormones, is needed. Adrenal insufficiency can be a medical emergency, particularly when first diagnosed. This is especially the case if your blood pressure is low, which can cause you to experience dizziness or lightheadedness. Another reason to seek medical attention right away in the case of adrenal insufficiency is swelling of the ankles or legs.
DHEA supplementation may help impotent men have and sustain an erection. DHEA cream applied to the inner thigh may boost bone density in older women. Women with anorexia nervosa are at increased risk for bone fractures and can develop osteoporosis at a younger age than women without eating disorders. It has been observed that adolescents and young adults with anorexia nervosa tend to have low levels of DHEA. Some studies suggest that DHEA may help protect against bone loss in people who are anorexic. Although DHEA supplements are widely used by athletes and body builders to boost muscle mass and burn fat, there is little evidence to support these claims. There are no published studies of the long-term effects of taking DHEA, particularly in the large doses used by athletes. Plus, the building blocks of testosterone, including DHEA, may adversely affect cholesterol in male athletes by lowering HDL ("good") cholesterol. Lupus is an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune diseases are a group of conditions in which a person's antibodies attack a part of their own body because the immune system believes the body part is foreign. Studies have shown that DHEA helps regulate the immune system and may play a role in the prevention and/or treatment of certain autoimmune diseases. DHEA levels tend to be low in individuals infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and these levels decline even further as the disease progresses. In one small study, DHEA supplementation improved mental function in men and women infected with HIV. However, studies have yet to demonstrate whether DHEA supplementation can improve immune function in people with this condition. DHEA levels appear to be low in people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. It is premature to say whether DHEA supplements have any impact, positive or negative, on these two bowel diseases.