DHEA Gains More Stature
In Latest Test Results
NEW YORK - If an over-the-counter pill that was Viagra and Prozac all in one, and was specifically targeted at the needs of baby boomers, it would be sold by the crateful.
If you believe the hype, a supplement called DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) fits the bill. As the building block for hormones like testosterone, estrogen and androstenedione " Mark McGwire's formerly favored muscle booster " DHEA is clearly powerful stuff.
Proponents say it can boost libido, cure depression and have people in their 40s and older feeling like young pups.
Hyperbolic Web sites selling DHEA go futher than that: It's "associated with the ability to maintain lean body mass by drastically reducing fat stores and increasing muscle tissue," promises Price's Power International. "DHEA was shown to provide 100 percent protection against the potentially lethal effects of stress on the immune system," says
DHEA is widely sold at a range of prices, both online and in stores that sell dietary supplements. The hormone does not require Food and Drug Administration approval.
Beyond the Hype
Aside from the claims of DHEA marketers, there's new research suggesting DHEA can actually do some good.
A placebo-controlled study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine found that women with underactive adrenal glands showed less depression, anxiety, hostility and obsessive-compulsive behavior after being treated with DHEA for four months.
And then there was the sex: Women reported they had more sexual fantasies, increased libido and greater sexual satisfaction several months after beginning treatment with DHEA.
German researchers determined the hormone was worth of a strong recommendation: "DHEA improves well-being and sexuality in women with adrenal insufficiency." That's fine for women who fit those criteria, but what about the rest of us? To answer that question, we need to understand how DHEA works.
Fountain of Youth?
The reason the hormone is being touted as an over-the-counter fountain of youth is that DHEA levels, after peaking in the mid-20s, tend to take a serious dip as people age, falling about 20 percent every 10 years.
And a shortage of DHEA may mean a shortage of testosterone, especially in women. Women produce a small amount of testosterone - just as men produce low levels of estrogen - and DHEA is the reason why. It is broken down by enzymes in the adrenal gland into various hormones, including testosterone and estrogen.
Although sexual function is a complicated mix of hormones, blood flow and emotion, a number of studies have shown that more testosterone equals more sex. DHEA itself may be the cause of their increased mental well-being, although its effect on neurostransmitters that govern moods is as yet unknown.
A study in April's American Journal of Psychiatry found that a significant percentage of patients with major depression and bipolar disorder showed definite improvements after taking 30 mg of DHEA daily for six weeks.
"Five of the 11 patients treated with DHEA, compared with none of the 11 given [a] placebo, showed a 50 percent decrease or greater in depressive symptoms," the study concluded.
For now, DHEA is one of the much-hyped substances that have emerged in recent years that may prove to be effective but aren't quite ready for primetime.