Despite some bad press about anabolic steroids, DHEA, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, may improve aging skin and improve spinal bone density in menopausal women.
After Orlando Magic All-Star forward Rashard Lewis tested positive for DHEA, this much touted anti-aging steroid hormone, was once again thrust into a negative spotlight.
Yet some studies suggest that DHEA hormone therapy when monitored carefully in users, provides anti-aging benefits such as improving skin collagen in post-menopausal women and increasing spinal bone density.
DHEA Hormone Therapy: Not Just For Men
DHEA or dehydroepiandrosterone, is the most abundant steroid in humans. It is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands (located above the kidneys) and acts as a precursor to male hormones (androgens) and some female sex hormones (estrogens). A small amount of DHEA is also produced in the brain by neurons.
After age 30, DHEA levels begin to decrease and are lower in some people with anorexia, end-stage kidney disease, type 2 diabetes (non-insulin dependent diabetes), AIDS, adrenal insufficiency or people who are critically ill. DHEA levels may also be depleted by a number of drugs, including insulin, corticosteroids, opiates, and danazol. There is sufficient evidence supporting the use of DHEA in the treatment of adrenal insufficiency, depression, induction of labor, and systemic lupus erythematosus. (National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health and PubMed).
Menopause and DHEA Cream for Skin Anti-Aging
In a 2008 study, sixty postmenopausal women participated in a study designed to test the affects of topical DHEA on the gene profile of human skin. Women subjects randomly received a topical application of DHEA cream with either 0% (placebo), 0.3%, 1% or 2% strength.
Results strongly indicated that DHEA may have an anti-aging effect on the skin by stimulating collagen biosynthesis through improved structural organization of the dermis while modulating keratinocyte metabolism.
DHEA For Bone Health in Older Women
Low levels of DHEA have been associated with low bone density. Researchers at Saint Louis University conducted a two year bone density study in 2009 among men and women ages 65 to 75 years old. Previous studies on DHEA and bone density showed little promise. Yet researchers believe because calcium and vitamin D deficiencies, (present in half of older adults), were not addressed during that earlier study it prevented DHEA from improving bone density. The current research included supplementation with both calcium and vitamin D.
Results differed for men and women. Women test subjects who took DHEA the first year experienced a 2 percent increase in spinal bone density compared to control subjects who took a placebo. After the second year, placebo subjects started DHEA and the test subjects continued DHEA use. Both test groups of women had a 2 percent increase in spinal bone density (a total of 4 percent in the original test group).
In the male test groups however, both DHEA and placebo groups experienced a 1 to 2 percent increase in spinal bone density, suggesting the calcium and vitamin D supplements included in the protocol, contributed, not the DHEA.
Researchers found positive results in spinal bone density but not in hip bone density. Edward Weiss, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University’s Doisy College of Health Sciences and lead author of the stud, suggests hips may respond more slowly to bone-enhancing therapies and require additional time to see positive effects with DHEA supplementation.
DHEA’s Additional Health Benefits
Although Weiss suggests consulting with a doctor before taking DHEA he notes, “In addition to its beneficial effects on bone, DHEA replacement may have other benefits including improvements in risk factors for diabetes and heart disease, improvements in immune function, and improvements in psychological health.”
In a 2005 review of DHEA replacement and supplementation studies, J. Bruckel found that with adrenal cortex insufficiency, where there is a definite DHEA deficiency, such as with women suffering from Addisons’s disease or pituitary insufficiency, “substitution makes good pathophysiological sense, and treatment can be useful.”
Risks of DHEA
Dr. Weiss cautions that because few studies have been conducted on the long term effects of DHEA, users should be monitored carefully. DHEA may cause higher than normal levels of androgens and estrogen and increase the risk of prostate, breast, ovarian, and other hormone-sensitive cancers.
“Therefore, DHEA supplementation should be avoided in men and women who have had cancer or who have a strong family history of cancer until further research can establish whether or not it is safe for these individuals,” said Weiss.
Results have been inconsistent on the anti-aging benefits of DHEA supplementation. In a 2009 review, “Dehydroepiandrosterone,(DHEA), review of its efficiency in improving libido and other symptoms of aging,” researchers found positive results with the metabolism of the carbohydrates increasing the efficiency of insulin, but not enough research indicating that DHEA reduces the symptoms associated with aging.
Despite the inconsistent research and negative attention DHEA has received and risks associated with any hormone replacement therapy, some individuals may highly benefit from taking monitored doses of DHEA, such as menopausal women and those suffering from adrenal insufficiency.
Calvo E et al, “Pangenomic changes induced by DHEA in the skin of postmenopausal women,”Journal of Steroid Biochemical Molecular Biology. 2008 Dec;112(4-5):186-93. Epub 2008 Nov 1.
Saint Louis University (2009, May 17). “A Stronger Backbone: DHEA Hormone Replacement Increases Bone Density In Older Women.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 11, 2009.
Bruckel, J., “Replacement and supplementation of DHEA. Is it a wellness hormone?” MMW Fortschr Med. 2005 Feb 17;147(7):30-2. Review. German.
Mendivil Dacal JM, Borges VM, “Dehydroepiandrosterone,(DHEA), review of its efficiency ini the managing of the libido decrease and other symptoms of aging,” Actas Urol Esp. 2009 Apr;33(4):390-401.