It is no accident that youth is associated with high levels of hormones. Produced throughout the body, sex hormones are critical to maintaining vibrancy and good health. In recent decades, scientists have begun to understand the powerful benefits of replacing hormones lost to aging. However, there are serious questions about the safety of conventional hormone replacement therapy, which relies on hormones that are synthesized from animals (e.g., Premarin®) or created in a lab (e.g., Provera®). Most recently, the widespread prescribing of these two hormones among menopausal women has come under scientific scrutiny because of the increased risk of stroke and heart attack.
As an alternative, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy may be one of the best things aging people can do for themselves because of the wide-ranging benefits of bioidentical hormones on everything from the cardiovascular system to the aging brain and bones. What is required, however, is an approach that harnesses the wisdom of the body and relies on bioidentical hormones to replace those that decline with age.
In 1981, Life Extension introduced dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in an article that described the multiple anti-aging effects of this steroid hormone. At the time, DHEA replacement therapy was almost unheard of. Today, DHEA replacement therapy has been studied extensively, and decreased DHEA levels have been implicated in heart disease, high cholesterol, depression, inflammation, immune disorders, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, HIV, and osteoporosis (Hauffa 1984; Valenti 2002; Valenti 2004).
What is DHEA, and how does it work? DHEA is the most common steroid hormone in the body. It is produced mainly by the adrenal glands, and to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the body (including fat cells). DHEA is metabolized from pregnenolone, the body's “master hormone,” which itself is metabolized from cholesterol. DHEA can be metabolized into other sex hormones, including testosterone, estrogens, and up to 150 individual metabolites.
Although there are still important research questions to answer, there is no question that youthful DHEA levels are closely associated with good health, and that low levels have been connected to various diseases. Unfortunately, after about age 35, DHEA begins to decline (Pavlov 1986; Nafziger 1998). Women, who tend to have lower levels, lose DHEA much more quickly than men as they age. Concentrations remain roughly 30% higher in men (Orentreich 1984). DHEA levels also vary according to ethnicity (Orentreich 1984; LaCroix 1992; Hornsby 1995). By age 70, DHEA levels may be only 20% of young-adult levels (Belanger 1994).
Modern hormone replacement therapy strives to recreate the youthful balance of hormones in the body—and this is where DHEA's value really stands out. Because it is metabolized into other hormones, supplementing with DHEA may allow the body to choose which hormone is needed, then synthesize that hormone from available DHEA. This may account for the astonishing range of benefits that many researchers attribute to this hormone. DHEA's separate metabolites, including 7-Keto DHEA, have also been shown to have individual benefits, including lowering cholesterol, burning fat, and boosting the immune system.
There are many provocative theories that may one day help explain DHEA's role in certain diseases. For instance, many elderly people suffer from high cholesterol levels, which are a risk factor for heart disease. In this age group, the rate of heart disease rises much more rapidly among women than men, partly because of the loss of hormones during menopause. Clearly, there is a link between heart disease and sex hormones, and this phenomenon raises an intriguing possibility. Because sex hormones are synthesized from cholesterol, perhaps elevated cholesterol levels represent the body's attempt to supply more of the raw materials for hormone production. Indeed, one study showed a drop in cholesterol levels after comprehensive natural hormone therapy (Dzugan 2002). More information on this topic can be found in Life Extension’s Hormone Replacement Therapy protocols for Men and Women.
As part of a comprehensive approach to fighting the diseases of aging, Life Extension suggests that people monitor their blood levels of DHEA and strive to reproduce hormone levels of a healthy 21-year old. Fortunately, supplemental DHEA is well-tolerated with only minimal side effects, even at relatively high doses.
What You Have Learned So Far
- DHEA is a hormone that is produced from the synthesis of pregnenolone. It may be metabolized into other sex hormones including testosterone and estrogen. DHEA is the most prevalent steroid hormone in the body.
- Low DHEA levels are clearly associated with a range of diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, Alzheimer's, and others.
- DHEA levels drop dramatically as people age. There are pronounced differences in the average DHEA levels of men and women, with women on average having lower DHEA levels.
- DHEA replacement therapy can restore youthful DHEA levels.