The acronym DHEA, which stands for dehydroepiandrosterone,
is often confused with DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act) or
DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). That’s ironic, given the fact that
certain legislators believe that DHEA, like other prohormones, should be banned
under DSHEA, and that everyone who uses it should be punished by the DEA.
Fortunately for anyone interested in improving anything from muscle mass and
fat loss to health and mood, DHEA’s long history of safety and effectiveness
has kept it on supplement store shelves.
DHEA is produced mainly by the adrenal glands, but also by
the gonads, the gastrointestinal tract and even the brain in the bodies of men
and women. DHEA is the most prevalent hormone circulating in the body because
it gets converted into about 20 different hormones, with the two main end
products being the sex hormones: testosterone and estrogen. But don’t panic,
boys. In order to convert to estrogen, DHEA requires certain bodyparts, namely
breasts and a pair of ovaries, while in the testes, liver, adrenal glands and
even skin, DHEA is readily converted to testosterone.
But DHEA is not all about the
steroid hormones. The DHEA that is produced by the brain has been shown to have
direct effects on brain function and the central nervous system, which can lead
to a sharper mind, improved mood and better energy levels. DHEA also may
improve insulin sensitivity and aid fat loss.
I’ve Fallen, and I
Can’t Get Up
So why worry about supplementing with a compound that the
body makes on its own? The problem with our natural DHEA levels is that they
start to decline with age — and not even advanced age. Research shows that DHEA
levels peak between 20 and 24 years old and drops steadily after that.
Furthermore, age isn’t the only
thing that lowers DHEA levels. Studies have shown that periods of intense
training and physical stress can lead to decreases. By supplementing with DHEA,
you can maintain the levels you had in your early 20s and reap all the benefits
that higher DHEA levels offer.
What are those benefits? The most obvious, for men, is
elevated testosterone levels. While several studies have shown that DHEA can
help increase testosterone levels in older men, the most interesting study shows
that even young men can experience a testosterone boost with DHEA
supplementation. Iranian researchers had 20 young (19- to 22-year-old) male
soccer players take either 100 milligrams of DHEA or a placebo every day for
four weeks, and they measured the subjects’ testosterone levels before and
after the four-week experiment. As reported at the 6th European Sports Medicine
Congress in 2009, the athletes getting the DHEA experienced a significant boost
in testosterone levels. Because testosterone levels lead to greater muscle
growth and strength, and of course sex drive, DHEA is a must-have supplement
for any guy.
But it gets better. In addition to
boosting testosterone, DHEA also may increase muscle size through its ability
to increase levels of a compound called insulin-like growth factor-1. IGF-1 is
critical for muscle growth and strength gains in men and women.
Research in animals and humans has found that DHEA helps
reduce body fat. Studies in overweight adults have reported that not only do
subjects taking DHEA experience significant losses in body fat but that the
majority of the fat comes off the abdomen.
One way that DHEA does this is by
turning on a receptor known as peroxisome proliferator-activator receptor
alpha. Activating PPAR alpha works to turn on genes that increase fat oxidation
(burning) and genes that decrease fat storage.
But DHEA also increases insulin
sensitivity. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St.
Louis found that subjects taking 50 milligrams of DHEA per day for six months
not only lost more abdominal fat but also had lower insulin levels following an
oral glucose tolerance test. That improvement in insulin sensitivity means that
the insulin their bodies did secrete was better able to drive glucose into the muscle
cells. Less insulin means less fat storage and better fat burning, and improved
insulin sensitivity also can boost muscle growth because insulin is an anabolic
hormone that turns on the process in the muscle cells that results in muscle
Health Benefits, Too
Of course, a reduction in insulin levels can help reduce the
risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and obesity, but DHEA also offers numerous
other health benefits. DHEA has been found to reduce atherosclerotic plaque
buildup in the blood vessels of animals. University of California, San Diego,
researchers reported that in 250 men more than 50 years old, those with higher
levels of DHEA had a 50 percent reduced risk of death from cardiovascular
disease. And Japanese researchers found that middle-aged men taking just 25
milligrams of DHEA per day for four weeks experienced better blood-vessel
function, meaning that their blood vessels were able to dilate better and
deliver more blood to the body. This may be because of a mechanism involving
nitric oxide, meaning that DHEA may help improve NO levels, along with the
benefits that come with increased NO — increased energy, strength and muscle
growth. The Japanese team also found improved insulin sensitivity in the group
DHEA also provides an antioxidant
benefit, which not only can improve overall health by preventing free-radical
damage to critical organs and other tissues but also can help aid muscle and
joint recovery. Hungarian researchers reported that rats fed DHEA had higher
activity of critical antioxidant enzymes. And DHEA has been found by
researchers at the Minnesota Applied Research Center to improve immune
function. They reported that older subjects taking DHEA for four weeks had
improved function of critical immune cells. This can obviously help keep you
from getting sick and missing workouts. Research also suggests that DHEA may
have chemopreventive and antiproliferative actions on some cancerous tumors.
And if all that weren’t enough, remember that DHEA also has been shown to
improve brain function and mood.
If you’re older than 25 and train intensely, there’s a good
chance that your DHEA levels are subpar. Try taking 50 to 100 milligrams of
DHEA twice per day to boost your testosterone and IGF-1 levels, increase muscle
size, burn more body fat, and improve your general health and well-being.