Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is an adrenal steroid which can be converted in the body to more active androgens.  It has been referred to in the lay press as “the fountain of youth pill”.  DHEA is produced in response to ACTH stimulation, but unlike other corticosteroids there is no feedback control of DHEA secretion at the hypothalamus-pituitary. DHEA does not have any androgenic activity nor does it bind to androgen receptors.  However, numerous tissues contain enzymes which can convert DHEA to testosterone or 5-alphadihydrotestosterone (DHT); these sites include bone, muscle, breast, prostate, skin, and brain.  Maximal concentrations of endogenous DHEA are reached in the third decade of life, then there is a slow, steady decline of 2% per year, reaching a level of 10-20% during the eighth decade. Many men are availing themselves of androgen replacement therapy, the most prominent being DHEA.

DHEA is commonly available in health food stores, pharmacies, and many groceries. DHEA is a steroid hormone made by the adrenal glands that acts on the body much like testosterone and is converted into testosterone and estrogen. DHEA and its sulfate (DHEAS) are abundant in the body, but their normal roles are not fully understood.

And it does seem that large doses of DHEA can help fight the bulge — at least if you’re a dog. In a study to be published in Obesity Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists Ilene Kurzman and Gregory MacEwen fed a group of dogs a low-fat, high-fiber diet. Half of the dogs — chosen at random — also got a high dose of DHEA, but their identity was not known to the researchers during the study.

DHEA worked: while the control dogs lost 5.5 percent of excess body weight per month, the group treated with DHEA lost 10 percent, says Kurzman.

It’s not known whether DHEA is actually a hormone, or just a precursor (“raw material”) for the hormones testosterone and estrogen. If it’s a precursor, then taking supplements could be dangerous — since estrogen and testosterone can both speed the development of cancers. Indeed, MacEwen says, the only side effect seen in his dog study was an increase in aggressiveness, as the dogs “tended to take on male characteristics toward other dogs.” And that’s a sign that DHEA is being converted into testosterone.

While low doses of dehydroepiandrosterone are often well tolerated, high doses can cause significant side effects, including (but not limited to):

  • Acne
  • Facial and body hair growth (hirsutism)
  • Hair loss
  • Deepening of the voice
  • Menstrual irregularity
  • High blood pressure (hypertension).

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