DHEA: What Doesn’t It Do?

By Ron Hunninghake, M.D.

F or the past thirty years, research has been accumulating on the topic of dehydroepiandrosterone or, for short, DHEA. DHEA is the most abundant hormone in the body made by the adrenal gland. Out of this one substance over 15 different hormonal structures and substructures can be made. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as a master or mother hormone.

The DHEA level of an 80 year old is only 10% of that of a 20 year old.

The over 4,000 studies document a wide range of benefits that together have been described as “antiaging.” Most of the diseases that modem civilization has to deal with are degenerative in nature, that is the body deteriorates as we age. Cancer and heart disease alone contribute to 80% of the cause of death in western civilization.

While modern medicine has had quite spectacular benefits in the area of infectious disease control since the tum of the century, the problem of progressive mortality and morbidity from degenerative illness has been quite another problem altogether. To this point, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle have appeared to be the best ways of reducing one’s risk for these chronic degenerative illnesses. Now with the advent DHEA, an important hormonal handle looks quite promising.

The DHEA level of an 80 old is only 10% of that of a 20 old. There is a linear decline DHEA levels as one ages, making a quite reliable age marker.  Many studies show that replacing DHEA back to blood levels equal to that a 20 year old causes a a dramatic lowering of risk for multiple illnesses.

DHEA reduces coronary disease symptoms and risk of attack. It appears to treat high cholesterol and atherosclerotic hardening of the arteries. DHEA boosts the immune system. Many studies point to enhancement of T-cell and B-cell function. This slows atrophy of thymus, even with chemical challenge, and improves survivability of the AIDS patient.

A high DHEA level has been shown to correlate with a lower risk of various type of cancers, including lung cancer and colon cancer. These studies have been done in large population groups. In addition, patients with these cancers, when allowed to take DHEA and raise their blood levels of DHEA, have shown improved survival times.

One of the areas that is generating much interest is that of memory dysfunction and the ability of DHEA to reverse it. Many elderly patients are more afraid of Alzheimer’s than they are of death. A good DHEA level has proven itself as a means of reducing one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

DHEA apparently is helpful for chronic fatigue syndrome and autoimmune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. DHEA reduces anxiety and depression as well. Patients on DHEA report a greater sense of well-being and improved energy levels with greater results in their normal day to day activity.

The best way to begin DHEA is under a doctor’s supervision. It is a medical prescription and a blood test is needed to assess one’s current level. If the blood test comes back less than that of what would be expected for a young adult, it is reasonable to start a low dose and gradually build on an every day basis until a repeated blood level shows improvement into the young adult range. Men who are at risk for prostate cancer should have a PSA level and consider taking supplemental saw palmetto as a protection against prostatic hypertrophy from the increasing amount of testosterone that accompany more DHEA intake.

Post-menopausal women who can benefit from DHEA as a means of strengthening their bones, if they are. on estrogen, take melatonin in order to block the excessive uptake of estrogen by breast estrogen receptors. Women with uterine fibroids or history of uterine bleeding or a tendency to viralization should also be wary of DHEA, since it can have these side effects.

All in all, DHEA has been described as the medical discovery of the decade in that it can help alleviate and/or reduce one’s risk for multiple chronic degenerative illnesses of the type that characterize the majority of patients now seeking medical care. DHEA holds both the ability to reduce risk and to potentially improve functioning for those who are already afflicted with many of these illnesses.