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 growth.
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 taking DHEA.
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.