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DHEA – The mother of all hormones


Accademia del Fitness – Wellness – Antiaging / july 2012

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is the steroid contained in the highest percentage in the human body. It is involved in the production of testosterone, estrogens, progesterone and corticosterone. The levels of DHEA increase until the age of 25, when its production starts decreasing. The decrease in DHEA is parallel to the one of GH, so that at the age of 65 the body produces about 10-20% of what it used to produce at 25. In the same way as melatonin and GH, the decline of DHEA is associated to a series of degenerative pathologies connected to ageing. According to doctor Samuel Yen, endocrinologist and head of an important study on DHEA at the University of California in San Diego: “DHEA may help the people age more gently”. The benefits of DHEA, on the basis of recent scientific studies and theoretical speculations, may be summarized as follows:

  • it stimulates the immune system against infections
  • it reduces the risk of tumors, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and diabetes
  • it favours fat loss and the increase in the lean mass
  • it is useful in treating Alzheimer’s, Lupus, HIV infection, EPSTEIN-BARR and CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome)
  • it improves the symptoms of menopause, depression, memory, learning deficit disorder
  • it increases life expectancy

Personally, I had already been interested in DHEA back at University, that is, over 20 years ago, when I found a 1988 study reporting surprising results on obese people. In this study a high dosage of DHEA (1,600 mg per day) was given for four weeks to obese people, causing a 31% reduction of the body fat in four out of five subjects without changes in the body weight. This means that the muscle mass had significantly increased. That is, the body weight lost in fat had been replaced by lean mass. Unbelievable! At that time on the market there was a product based on DHEA whose name was Astenile. It was made of 10 mg DHEA ampoules for intramuscular use and it was advised as an antidepressant. Then Astenile was withdrawn from the market and it was replaced by more specific and expensive antidepressant medicines. DHEA reappeared in 1995 when the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) authorised DHEA as a prohormone, liberalising its sale as an integrator. Since then, DHEA – above all in the USA – has been widely used and the majority of studies and anecdotal evidence have demonstrated its capacity in improving the patients’ psychological wellness as well as their sleep. Moreover, it also helped fighting stress. Some studies have demonstrated the possible benefits of DHEA on patients suffering from many diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson. Since then, the media have widely talked of DHEA as the “hormone of youth”.

Sometimes it is said that DHEA – as an androgenic steroid hormone – can be dangerous for the risk of prostate cancer. On the contrary, there are many respectable studies which suggest, instead, that DHEA has anti-tumour properties. Some studies demonstrate that supplementation with DHEA (Ciolino H.    Dheydroepiandrosterone   inhibits the expression  of carcinogen activating enzymes in vivo – Int. J. Cancer 2003) can actually help prevent prostate carcinoma and prostatic hypertrophy, while separate studies carried out at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore and at the Humboldt University Medical School in Berlin have found significantly lower levels of DHEA in patients suffering from prostate carcinoma. Going back to the effects of DHEA on body fat and muscle mass, it is well known that with ageing fat tends to increase and muscle mass tends to decrease. Many hormones have the effect of reducing fat and improving the lean mass. DHEA does it, too. Several studies have found low levels of DHEA associated to obesity. Some researchers believe the anti-obesity effect of DHEA is caused by its ability to stop a specific enzyme called glucose-6-phosphatedehydrogenase (G6PD). The inhibition of this enzyme stops the capacity of the body to deposit and form fat. Moreover, DHEA acts on mitochondrial respiration increasing the thyroid functionality and favouring energy waste rather than accumulation.

Another way in which DHEA can act against fat accumulation is its anti-glucorticoid effect (Wright 1992), that is, by contrasting cortisol (this is why DHEA also has a high anti-stress effect) it stops the activity of the enzymes tirosin-aminotransferase and ornithine decarboxylase , favouring the loss of fat.

A recent study indicates that one of the mechanisms through which DHEA favours the loss of fat may be the increase of serotonin in the region of the hypothalamus, which increases the release of cholecystokinin (CCK), the hormone of satiety. As a consequence, lower food intake favours the loss of body fat. At present in Italy DHEA can be only taken upon medical prescription of galenic type and it is mainly used in anti-ageing medicine in case of evident deficit or deficit associated to therapies with corticosteroids to contrast their catabolic effect.