Controversy is not new to the health food and supplement industry. In 1995, melatonin, a hormone made by the pineal gland, generated much discussion, became big news, and even got its own cover on the November 6th issue of Newsweek. Now DHEA has taken a brighter spotlight, especially since it has become readily available without a prescription. We now have two over-the-counter hormones that can be easily purchased and used (or misused) by the consumer.
If you thought claims about melatonin were hyped, confusing, and controversial… If you thought everybody you asked had a different opinion about its benefits and shortcomings… Just wait and see what researchers and doctors are saying about DHEA.
What does DHEA stand for?
DHEA is short for dehydroepiandrosterone (D-hi-dro-epp-E-an-dro-stehr-own), a hormone made by the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys.
Is DHEA a new hormone that we've discovered?
Scientists have known about this hormone since 1934 and there have been thousands of articles published about it since then. However, only a small percentage of these studies have involved human subjects.
Why all the hype about DHEA?
Back in 1994, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, wanted to find out what would happen to older individuals if they received DHEA supplements (Morales and Yen).
The researchers gave middle-aged volunteers 50 mg of DHEA nightly for 3 months. There was an increase in physical and psychological well-being. The subjects reported enhanced energy, deeper sleep, improved mood, more relaxed feelings, and an improved ability to deal with stressful situations. We'll discuss this study more fully in Chapter 3.
When the results of this study were published, there was a flurry of publicity. Stories about DHEA appeared in newspapers and magazines. Radio picked it up. Many local and national TV shows did segments on it. However, since DHEA was not easily available to the consumer, it didn't become popular as quickly as did melatonin.
One of the reasons that this study caused so much publicity was that it was supported by dozens of previous studies (most conducted in rodents) that found DHEA to have a benefit in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, weight loss, lupus, and a variety of other conditions. Some people started calling DHEA "the fountain of youth."
Before the Morales and Yen study was published, DHEA was already well known in the holistic health community. Articles about this hormone had appeared in many alternative magazines and newsletters.
Is DHEA safe?
Whenever doctors talk about the safety of a medicine they separate it into short-term safety over a few days or weeks, and long-term safety over months and years of use. Dr. Nestler, a researcher at the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, has given 1600 mg of DHEA a day for 4 weeks to healthy young men without any serious side effects (Nestler, 1988). At this dosage there was a lowering of cholesterol and a decrease in body fat, with a greater response in obese individuals. Most DHEA supplements on the market are less than 50 mg.
As to the safety of using DHEA for 5, 10, 20 years or longer, no formal human studies have been published; then again, few long-term human studies have been done for any medicines, hormones, or nutrients.