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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

DEHYDROEPIANDROSTERONE: By Any Other Name would be Just as Confusing

Chelsea Phillips

What exactly is dehydroepiandrosterone? Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is one of the hormones secreted by the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys in human beings. DHEA has been toted as everything from "chemical trash" to "the fountain of youth drug". Thousands of studies on DHEA have been conducted, but few have been long-term, and even fewer have been done on humans. Despite this, however, many people continue to use DHEA as an over-the-counter medication for heart disease, to combat the aging process, cancer, obesity and many other ailments. What is the biological role of DHEA? Is it a viable possibility that DHEA really is a miracle drug?

DHEA is the most abundant steroid hormone found in the human body, and is used in the synthesis of other hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen. Levels of DHEA in the human body peak around 20-25 and steadily decline with age. One of DHEA's most important functions is counteracting the presence of high levels of cortisol, a chemical that "accelerates the breakdown of proteins to provide the fuel to maintain body functions"(1) while the body is under significant stress. Cortisol is designed to allow the body to react quickly when threatened, but can be damaging when produced for a long period of time. DHEA works as a buffer between the body and cortisol, and is triggered by the same stress that stimulates production of cortisol. As age increases, and DHEA levels decrease, the body has fewer defenses against the effects of cortisol, hence the idea of supplementing the body's reserves. However, there is wide debate within the medical community about the consequences of taking DHEA supplements because of the lack of long-term testing on humans.

While the information on humans is non-forthcoming for the moment, there are many interesting theories about the effects of DHEA based on studies done with laboratory animals- mainly mice and rats. DHEA was also found to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and to help genetically obese mice lose weight, as well as aiding strength, agility and memory in older mice. While the conclusions are very exciting for the rodent community, the question remains as to whether or not these results can be duplicated in humans. "For 50 years we've studied estrogen replacement therapy in women, and look at how much anxiety the latest studies on estrogen are causing. We have no equivalent ... studies for these other substances. We just don't know." (6)

Based on the information gathered from these studies on rodents, DHEA is thought by many to be an essential chemical for the body's tissues. It is theorized by one man (no indication that he is a doctor or scientist could be found!) that bringing the body's levels of DHEA up to those of a 25-year-old, the course of Alzheimer's can be slowed, and the immune system can be stimulated to fight cancer, degenerative diseases and AIDS(5). While this information is tempting to believe, and very convincing in theory, there simply is no proof to back it up.

While levels of DHEA do appear to have negative correlations with aging, disease, and immunity on the surface, the blasť attitude with which it has been marketed is highly inappropriate. Rats and mice are not human, they do not have levels of DHEA even approaching ours, and just because you feel good now does not mean that you will in a year, or five, or ten. Interestingly enough, some of the many side effects thought to come from long-term use are breast and prostate cancer because DHEA is used in the synthesis of testosterone and estrogen; therefore, too much can actually cause tumors. The presence of tumors in mice was significantly reduced because they have very little DHEA naturally, but the physiology of humans (because of the already high levels of the hormone) may trigger the reverse effect. Our country's culture is obsessed with being youthful, healthy and thin and marketers tote DHEA as the cure-all, despite the lack of conclusive evidence to support their claims.

The time may come when appropriate, long-term trials indicate that there are benefits that outweigh the risks of taking DHEA. It is important to bear in mind, however, that while reduction in DHEA levels occurs with age, it does not necessarily follow that supplements will prevent disease or inhibit the aging process. Our culture, perhaps from genetic predisposition, craves youth and the health that goes with it; the idea of something that will keep you young is too tempting, and far too eagerly accepted. Many other factors play into the aging process, including diet, exercise, genetics, and environment, and the effects of these factors cannot just be erased by taking a pill.


1) University of California, Berkeley Homepage , a resource from the medical courses offered at UCABerkeley

2) The University of Montana Research and Scholarship Page , a resource from the University of Montana

3) Cognitive Enhancement Research Home Page , CERI Homepage

4) DiagnosisTech International, Inc. , DiagnosisTech Information Page

5) The DHEA Homepage , Interesting site linking DHEA to human maladies

6) AARP Home Page , An article from the AARP

7) Quackwatch Home Page , An article from HealthNews

8) Anti-Aging Revolution , A chapter from "DHEA and Pregnenolone: The Anti-Aging Superhormones"

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