Research suggests supplements of the natural hormone DHEA can boost immunity as well as predict, treat or prevent age-related disease. Dr Carlos A Roman surveys the evidence
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is often called the “mother” hormone because it’s the precursor for the other adrenal hormones, including adrenal steroids such as the stress hormone cortisol, and sex hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Of all the biomarkers, DHEA is perhaps the most telling.
As we age, the level of DHEA is probably the most rapidly declining hormone, starting in our mid-twenties. The lower our DHEA, the more likely we are to have degenerative diseases associated with accelerated ageing: atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and lowered immunity. To put it more bluntly, the lower our DHEA, the more likely we are to die from an age-related disease.
Conversely, high levels of DHEA may protect from or even reverse the same diseases. The higher our DHEA level, the better we feel—with a greater sense of overall well-being and a better ability to deal with emotional and physical stress.
DHEA is the most abundant hormone in the body. Human beings make around 25–30 mg of it every day. If DHEA production drops, so does the production of all other related hormones. Adrenal glands manufacture DHEA from cholesterol and very small amounts of DHEA are also made in the testes or ovaries.
This is the same cholesterol that consensus medicine insists is a dangerous substance that has no business being in the blood. Yet if blood levels of cholesterol are inadequate, the body doesn’t have the essential raw material to make the crucial hormone that’s the precursor for over 40 other critical adrenal hormones. The cascade of hormone production is seriously disrupted, with predictably serious consequences for health.
Almost every patient I’ve given DHEA to—young or old—has shown dramatic improvement as soon as their DHEA level was restored to an optimal level. Levels of DHEA peak between the ages of 20 and 25. After that, the amount of DHEA produced declines naturally at the rate of around 2% a year.
By the age of 40 , we’re making only about half the DHEA we did at the age of 20. At 65 years old, we’re down to around 10–20% of our peak. At 80, we’re only making about 5% of our peak. In general, women make 10–20% less DHEA than men; however, their rate of production still declines at the same 2% a year.
Low DHEA is a much better predictor for heart disease than high cholesterol or a heart attack, yet doctors are very unlikely to test DHEA levels. In fact, doctors will probably treat high cholesterol with a statin drug that works by preventing the manufacture of cholesterol and thereby further reduces the production of DHEA.
The opposite approach is far better. Taking DHEA supplements will also lower the LDL cholesterol, but without the side effects of statin drugs. At the same time, the DHEA will lower the chances of having a dangerous blood clot. Of course, the patient will also be enjoying all the other benefits of increased DHEA levels.
There is a definite correlation between DHEA levels and coronary artery disease. To give just one example, a particularly interesting study of patients about to have coronary bypass operations showed that the higher their DHEA, the less severe their coronary artery disease was.
A twenty-year-old can quickly shake off a cold or flu that would keep a sixty-year-old sick for a week. As we age, the immune system gets weaker, making us more susceptible to illness and infection. The ageing immune system also makes us more susceptible to degenerative diseases such as atherosclerosis and autoimmune diseases. The immune system can be restored to its youthful level with DHEA. This amazing hormone has been shown to increase the production of antibodies and increase the activity of infection-fighting immune cells such as monocytes and natural killer cells.
In 1997, a careful study of healthy older men showed just how well DHEA enhances immunity. The test subjects took 50 mg of DHEA a day for twenty weeks. At the end of that time, all the men showed remarkable increases in immune components in the blood. Most notably, their levels of white blood cells—or monocytes—increased, on average, by 45%.
I see the evidence for the immune-enhancing function of DHEA every day in my patients. At the Clinica Integral de Medicina Complementaria, we prescribe it for all patients with impaired immunity. It’s particularly effective for patients with chronic fatigue syndrome or with autoimmune ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Virtually all of these patients have surprisingly low levels of DHEA. However, after they have been on DHEA for just a few weeks, I can see a strong improvement in their overall immune function. The patients feel better and symptoms such as depression and fatigue are usually much improved.
DHEA and cancer
While it’s not a cure, DHEA could actually help cancer from occurring in the first place. Animal studies show that DHEA prevents cancers of the breast, colon, liver, lungs, prostate, lymphatic system and skin. I first learned about using DHEA for medical purposes in the 1970s, when alternative oncologists in Germany began using it successfully with their cancer patients.
The chances of getting cancer rise as DHEA levels fall—people with bladder cancer and women with breast cancer almost always have much lower DHEA levels than normal. Even if we’re still awaiting definitive studies, much of the evidence points towards a strong role for DHEA as a cancer preventive.
However, there is one known exception; a man at risk of prostate cancer, or one who already has it, needs to be very cautious about using DHEA. I believe he can still benefit from this helpful hormone, but he needs to be monitored carefully by a physician. DHEA can increase testosterone production, which in turn could feed prostate cancer. To use DHEA safely, he would need to have frequent prostate-specific androgen (PSA) blood tests to monitor his risk of prostate cancer.
A useful alternative here would be 7-keto DHEA, a variation that leads to the development of adrenal hormones but not testosterone production, or that of any other sex hormones.
As well as cancer prevention, DHEA not only can stop osteoporosis; it can reverse it. The hormone increases the activity of bone-building cells called osteoblasts and inhibits the activity of osteoclasts, or bone destroying cells.
People with osteoporosis generally have much lower levels of DHEA than people who don’t. Similarly, among older adults, the people with the highest DHEA levels have the densest bones. We know from animal studies that DHEA supplements can actually restore lost bone density. I use DHEA supplements to create optimal blood levels for all my patients—male and female—who are at risk for osteoporosis.
The evidence suggests we should be aware of DHEA levels and supplement it if it’s low. I have found no problems when trying to restore the blood levels of my patients to what is optimal for a thirty-year-old. In older patients, the goal is to achieve the level of someone in their twenties or thirties. For women, that’s ideally between 200–300 units; for men, between 300–400.
Dr Carlos A Roman is a specialist in complementary medicine who has focused his practice on nutritional medicine and metabolic lesions. E: email@example.com; T: San Jose (506) 2257-2493