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DHEA, i.e., dehydroepiandrosterone, is a natural steroid hormone produced from cholesterol by the adrenal glands. DHEA is chemically similar to testosterone and estrogen and is easily converted into those hormones. DHEA production peaks in early adulthood and declines in production with age in both men and women. Thus, many diseases which correlate with age also correlate with low levels of DHEA production. Advocates of DHEA recommend it to prevent the effects of aging. There has been no scientific evidence, however, that low levels of DHEA is a significant causal factor in the development of diseases associated with aging. Nor is there any evidence that increasing DHEA slows down, stops, or reverses the aging process.
For years DHEA was promoted as a miracle weight loss drug, based upon some rodent studies that indicated DHEA was effective in controlling obesity in rats and mice. Other rodent studies found similar promising results for DHEA in preventing cancer, arteriosclerosis and diabetes. Studies on humans have not yet duplicated these results. Despite the lack of sufficient scientific evidence, DHEA supplements are being promoted as having therapeutic effects in many chronic conditions including "cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, obesity, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, disorders of the immune system, depression, and osteoporosis." The healthy truth is that very little is known about DHEA. Long-term effects of self-medicating by using DHEA supplements may be beneficial, neutral, or harmful, but it is unlikely that DHEA supplements will affect each individual in the same way. Increasing DHEA may well increase testosterone, which in men may lead to prostate enlargement and in women may lead to facial hair. Increasing estrogen may help prevent osteoporosis or heart disease but may increase the risk of breast cancer. In short, taking DHEA is a high-risk gamble based on insubstantial evidence.
The research of Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, professor and chair of the department of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, is cited by promoters of DHEA as evidence that DHEA is effective in fighting cardiovascular disease. However, Dr. Barret-Conner says "DHEA is the snake oil of the '90s. It makes me very nervous that people are using a drug we don't know anything about. I won't recommend it" (Skerret 1996).
The main voices in favor of DHEA as a miracle drug are those who are selling it or who make a good living selling books or programs advocating "natural cures."
books and articles
Barrett, Stephen and Kurt Butler (eds.) A Consumers Guide to Alternative Medicine : A Close Look at Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Faith-Healing, and Other Unconventional Treatments; edited by (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992).
"DHEA: Ignore the Hype" by P.J. Skerret (1996)Quackwatch on "Dietary Supplements," Herbs, and Hormones DHEA: - Mayo Clinic:
"Evidence suggests that DHEA may help treat depression, obesity, and osteoporosis. However, more research is needed to support its use for hormonal disorders, sexual function, and lupus (an autoimmune disorder that affects the skin and organs). DHEA has been studied for the treatment of HIV, schizophrenia, and severe injury.
DHEA may cause side effects related to other hormones. Women may experience symptoms such as oily skin, increased unnatural hair growth, a deep voice, irregular periods, smaller breast size, and increased genital size. Men may experience breast tenderness, urinary urgency, aggression, or reduced size of the testes. Other side effects that may occur in either sex include acne, sleep problems, headache, nausea, skin itching, and mood changes. DHEA may also affect levels of other hormones, insulin, and cholesterol. Safety information is lacking on the long-term effects of DHEA. DHEA may increase the risk of prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers. It is not suggested for regular use without a health professional's care."