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DHEA

 

The search for a magical anti-aging potion may have ended with the discovery of DHEA ... at least that's what some people think. Others think of it as a modern day "snake oil" that claims to cure everything with no real evidence that it works. Some experts think it may significantly lengthen your lifespan. One of the first studies on DHEA claimed that men who increased their DHEA levels reduced their risks of death from any cause by 36 percent and their risks of death from heart disease by 48 percent.


DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone that acts like a chemical chameleon in your body, changing according to your needs. It is sometimes called the "mother hormone" because your body converts it into whatever hormone it needs most at the moment, like testosterone, estrogen, or adrenaline.


DHEA also shows its versatile nature by producing different results under different circumstances. For example, men who take it seem to lose weight while increasing muscle, but women don't, at least not in the studies so far.


Levels of DHEA peak around age 20 and then decline steadily throughout the rest of your life. In fact, DHEA levels are known to be one of the most reliable measures of aging. Many scientists think that older people may be able to bring back their youthful vitality by increasing the amount of DHEA in their bodies.


Softens the blow of "male menopause." At a certain age, a woman's reproductive system shuts down, sending her hormones into a tailspin. Although men don't experience a crash in hormone levels like menopausal women, their hormone levels do decline with age. They also lose muscle mass and bone mass. Their testicles shrink, their sperm production slows, and most men begin to experience at least occasional impotence. Many experts call this period "andropause" or "viropause." Some doctors prescribe testosterone replacement therapy for men experiencing viropause, but testosterone is expensive and requires a prescription. DHEA may provide an alternative to drug therapy.


Although both men and women produce DHEA, like testosterone, it is considered mostly a male hormone. Because DHEA helps your body produce hormones, particularly testosterone, it can have similar, although milder, effects. It supposedly helps improve mood, boost sex drive, increase muscle mass, and strengthen your immune system. Not all of these benefits have been proven, however, and the long-term effects of DHEA sup. plementation are not known. One study found that DHEA caused severe liver damage in laboratory rats. Whether it would have the same effect on humans is not known, but this should be considered when making the decision to take supplements.


Controversy over DHEA can be compared to the controversy over estrogen replacement therapy. Estrogen replacement has many benefits for women trying to get through menopause, but it also has proven risks. Women and their doctors must weigh the benefits against the risks when deciding whether to begin estrogen therapy. Perhaps men will now have to face those same difficult decisions when considering supplementing with DHEA.


Stops heart disease cold ... for men. Heart disease cuts short the lives of more men than any other disease. According to the American Heart Association, almost half a million men die from heart disease each year in the United States alone, accounting for over 40 percent of deaths. Cancer, which is the second leading cause of death, accounts for only about 25 percent of deaths in men. DHEA may be able to cut heart disease risk in half, allowing more men to enjoy life a little while longer.


Several studies have found that DHEA can reduce the risk of death from heart attack. A 12-year study among men ages 50 to 79 found that an increase in DHEA reduced the risk of death from heart disease by almost half. Another study that followed men ages 30 to 82 for 19 years resulted in similar findings. However, this same study found that high levels of DHEA resulted in a small increase in risk of heart disease death in women.

Battles breast cancer ... sometimes. In keeping with its chameleon-like qualities, DHEA may either increase or decrease the risk of breast cancer. According to researchers, high levels of DHEA may protect against breast cancer in premenopausal women, but after menopause, high levels of DHEA can increase a woman's risk of breast cancer.

Obliterates obesity? DHEA may help keep your pet rat or dog from putting on excess pounds, but can it help you? Animal studies have discovered that DHEA reduces body fat, and many people who take it agree, even though the evidence for this reported benefit is skimpy. The few studies that suggest DHEA reduces fat while preserving lean body mass are more favorable to men than women.

Ditches diabetes? DHEA may help treat non-insulin-dependent diabetes. People with non-insulin-dependent diabetes have increased insulin resistance. This means their bodies are insensitive to insulin, and the insulin can't do its job properly, which is to move glucose from your blood into your body's cells to be used as energy. One study on the effect of DHEA in diabetics found that it improved insulin sensitivity by about 30 percent.

Builds better brains. Quick! Can you remember what you had for lunch last Tuesday? If you can't remember, maybe you need more DHEA. Research has found that DHEA improves memory in mice and increases the speed of brain functions. This could indicate that DHEA may help you think faster and remember longer. Brain tissue contains more DHEA than any other part of your body, so adequate levels of DHEA may be particularly important to your brain. Studies also show that people with Alzheimer's may have almost 50 percent less DHEA than people who don't have Alzheimer's.

Enhances immune system. As you age, you become increasingly susceptible to infectious diseases. Studies show that DHEA may strengthen your immune system by controlling stress hormones. Other studies find that DHEA may increase the effectiveness of vaccines for diseases like influenza in elderly people.

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