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Is DHEA dangerous?

Posted Aug 24 2008 3:44pm

The Fountain of Youth , Louis Cranach the Younger (1546)

In the Track Your Plaque program, we sometimes use the adrenal hormone, DHEA. It is a fascinating and--surprisingly--an over-the-counter hormone that can be useful and safe when used properly.

DHEA can be useful for:

--Reduction of Lp(a)--Though more effective in females, it can also be useful in males. In the women, DHEA often reduces Lp(a) 15-18%, somewhat less in males. The lower the starting DHEA, the greater the Lp(a) reduction.

--Improved libido--in both men and women. The effect is modest. It's magnified when used with other strategies. Although this is not specifically a goal in the program, it sure helps to get side-benefits like this, rather than unwanted side-effects.

--Increased energy and mood--The boost in mood is, for many, the most perceptible effect: More ambition, more stamina, greater staying power in work and exercise.

--Reduction in abdominal (visceral) fat--A modest effect, but one that, over a long period of use (>6 months) can yield improved insulin responses.

Most commonly, I will suggest DHEA supplementation when blood levels allow. Some people, however, Google "DHEA" and come back horrified that I would suggest such a dangerous supplement.

"I read that it makes women grow mustaches and makes their voices deeper!"

And it does--if you take a lot.

10-15 years ago, when the benefits of DHEA became apparent, some people wanted to believe that DHEA was the fountain of youth. People interested in the anti-aging potential for DHEA figured that, if 50 mg per day made you feel energized and vigorous, what would be the effect of 1000 mg, 2000 mg, or 3000 mg per day - A number of clinical trials were conducted using these doses and, interestingly, depression can lift, men and women increase muscle mass, there is a slight increase in bone density, even pain symptoms from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus may improve. But . . . women grow mustaches, become sexually aggressive, and develop deep voices. Men can become hyperaggressive or overly emotional.

No wonder: Any hormone taken in extraordinary, supraphysiologic doses will exert wacky effects. Imagine taking testosterone or estrogen at 50 times the usual dose .

The doses we use for the above benefits, including Lp(a) reduction, range from 25-100 mg per day; most people do fine with 50 mg. We also adjust doses to starting blood levels. In this dose range, I have never seen any of the above side-effects.

The only side-effects I see at these doses are 1) excessive assertiveness or crabbiness, and 2) insomnia if taken at bedtime.

In my experience, DHEA is a benign hormone, provided it is taken in limited doses and not abused. An occasional female younger than 55 years old will be able to tolerate only 10-20 mg per day before developing the edgy side-effects, but I've never witnessed masculinizing side-effects at these low doses, nor have I ever seen excessive increases in testosterone in men or women. (Women can raise testosterone levels slightly, but almost never enough to exert much effect beyond modestly increased libido.)

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