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Supplements Descriptions

by Gary F. Zeolla

DHEA is short for dehydroepiandrosterone (D-hi-dro-epp-E-an-dro-ster-own). Supplementation with DHEA has many purported benefits, like reduction in body fat, increase in lean body mass, increased energy levels, increased sex drive and performance, improved feelings of well-being, and improved sleep patterns.

Those younger than 40 generally make plenty of DHEA on their own, but since endogenous DHEA levels gradually drop as a person ages, supplementing with it is only recommended for those over 40. This is why it is considered an “anti-aging” supplement. It is usually listed under this heading on online supplement stores and placed on “anti-aging” shelves at brick and mortal supplement stores.

But DHEA is a controversial supplement. The reason for this is DHEA is a hormone in its own right and a precursor to the hormone testosterone. The pathway in which testosterone is formed is: cholesterol pregnenolone DHEA androstenedione testosterone.

Androstenedione is better known as “andro.” It become popularly known when baseball slugger Mark McGwire was reported as using it in 1998. But the US congress through the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) later banned andro due to claims of deleterious effects. It was banned at the same time as ephedra was, which was also banned due to claims of deleterious effects. These bans went into effect January 20, 2005.

At the time that andro was banned, it was also proposed that DHEA be banned. But Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said he would not support the ban on andro if DHEA were included. This was because his state is home to many supplement companies that sell DHEA. They convinced him that DHEA did not carry the same health risks as andro, so to get his support, DHEA was left untouched by the ban.

First, let me say, yes there are some risks associated with DHEA supplementation. The most serious is heart palpitations. And if someone tries DHEA and experiences this problem, they most definitely should immediately discontinue use and contact your doctor. But usually, this only occurs when excessive amounts are taken. The other main possible side effects are acne and unwanted hair growth. But these effects mainly occur in woman, and again, only when excessive amounts are taken. Other claimed but not proven possible side effects are a reduction in HDL (“good”) cholesterol and an increased risk of prostrate enlargement and prostrate cancer.

Since DHEA is a hormone in its own right, some of the purported benefits are possibly due to its own actions as a hormone. But the exact effects of DHEA in the body are not fully known, so it is also possible that some of these beneficial effects are due to an increase in testosterone. And this could also explain the side effect of unwanted hair growth in women.

It is possible that providing the body with exogenous precursors of testosterone will induce the body to produce more testosterone. This was the reasoning behind the use of andro. However, I never tried andro when it was still legal as the research I did at that time showed it simply did not work that well at actually raising T levels. Similarly with DHEA, the research is conflicted about whether supplementing with it actually elevates T levels or not. One of the problems is that along with being a precursor to testosterone, DHEA is also a precursor to estrogen. As such, supplementing with DHEA could elevate estrogen levels rather than T levels, and this is an effect a man would not want.

Even more problematic would be supplementing with pregnenolone (PO). It is also available in supplemental form. But along with being in the testosterone pathway, PO is also a precursor to the “bad” hormone cortisol. Therefore, supplementing with it could have the deleterious effect of increasing cortisol levels, so supplementing PO is not effective nor advisable.

That said, since I was still struggling with fatigue and insomnia, and since DHEA is purported to help with these problems, I decided to try DHEA. Before doing so, I did some research on whether DHEA was on the banned substance lists of sports organizations. And it is on the banned substance list for most organizations, such as International Olympic Committee (IOC), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), but it is not banned by Major League Baseball (MLB).

As for my sport, powerlifting, it is banned in some federation, such as in the International Powerlifting Federations (IPF) since the IPF follows the IOC’s doping rules. But at this time (2005), I was competing in the International Powerlifting Association (IPA). And DHEA is not on the banned substance list for the drug-tested, amateur division of the IPA. I even double-checked on this by contacting Ellen Chaillet, former wife of the president of the IPA, and she confirmed that DHEA usage was legal in the IPA.

As such, I decided to try it. But first, I did some additional research. One encouraging point I came cross is that unlike with testosterone and other hormones, taking exogenous DHEA was said not to cause the body to shut down its own DHEA production. That means, starting and later stopping should not a problem as it is with the exogenous administration of most hormones.

Another good point is that DHEA is rather inexpensive. Also, it was interesting to find mention that unlike with many supplements that have been tested, supplements of DHEA generally contain what the labels say they contain regardless of brand. I guess, since it is so inexpensive, there is no reason for companies to skimp on the product.

I also did some research on how much should be taken, and what I got was some confusing answers. DHEA is sold in anywhere from 5 to 100 mg capsules, and recommendations for dosages range from 5 to 200 mg. But most commonly, recommendations are for men to take 40-50 mg a day, and for woman to take 20-30 mg. And probably the soundest recommendation is to take the smallest effective dosage.

I purchased 10 mg capsules. I started by taking one a day, first thing in the morning. I did so as from what I read, many find they cannot take DHEA later in the day since it disturbs their sleep. But I didn’t notice any effect, so I increased to two a day, then three, and finally four a day, taking one with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and at bedtime. And with that amount, I noticed a very beneficial effect; I began sleeping better than I ever have. This is not a minor point, as getting a good night sleep has always been a major problem for me, and especially so in recent years. I have experimented with many different supplements, but they always are either ineffective or leave me drowsy during the day.

I used the DHEA for a couple of weeks. But then I began to sleep too much, up to nine hours a night. This was strange given my lifelong problem with insomnia. And eventually, I began feeling drowsy during the day, even with nine hours sleep. Also, I began to gain weight, and not the kind I wanted to. I gradually reduced how much I was eating, but I still was gaining body fat. The DHEA was apparently lowering my metabolism. This is the opposite effect many report from using it. Why this was, I wasn't sure, but whatever the case, I stopped taking it.

Altogether, I took it for about a month. And when I stopped taking it, I really had problems sleeping for a couple of nights. It also took about a week for my metabolism to come back so I could go back to eating as much as I had been without gaining weight. Therefore, there probably was some down-regulation of my body’s production of DHEA, and it took that long to come back, or maybe it just took hat long to get it out of my system.

Later I tried taking just one capsule, just at bedtime, thinking that maybe it would help me sleep without the side effects. But it had the opposite effect; I couldn't sleep at all, so I stopped taking it altogether.

But later, I remembered there was a section on DHEA in a book I have on growth hormone, so I checked it. The info was enlightening:

As is the case with other hormones, more DHEA is not better. Super-physiologic levels of DHEA can overwhelm the adrenal glands and cause excess production of estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones while creating down-regulation and a dependence on DHEA. Clinically, we have found that the use of a uniformly released DHEA that is dispersed in microgram amounts over a twelve-hour period (zero-order release) prevents the excess production of secondarily hormones (Jameison, pp. 99-100).

This made me think the side effects I experienced were due to an increase in estrogen, which might be avoid if I used a time-released version at a lower dosage. Therefore, I ordered 5mg time-released capsules. If figured I would try DHEA in this time-released versions at the lowest dosage possible. But I still had the same problems, so I stopped using it. And now that I am competing in the Natural Athletes Strength Association (NASA), I definitely will not be using it since DHEA is banned in NASA.

That’s the background to DHEA as I have researched it, and my story of its usage. The reader, of course, will have to decide for yourself if it is worth trying. But given the risk of negative side effects, its being banned by most sports organizations, and my own negative experiences, I do not recommend it.

DHEA products are available at iHerb and Amazon.
For iHerb, when checking out, use referral code HOP815 to receive $5.00 off your first order.

Atkins, Robert. C., M.D. Dr. Atkin's Age-Defying Diet. St. Martin Griffin: New York, 2001, pp. 124-163.

Faigin, Rob. Natural Hormonal Enhancement. Extique Publishing: Cedar Mountain, NC. 2000, pp. 47, 329.

Honest DHEA Information by Ray Sahelian, M.D., DHEA Benefits and Side effects.

Jamieson, James and Dr. L.E. Dorman. Growth Hormone: Reversing Human Aging Naturally. Published by J. Jamieson: St. Louis, MO, 1997, pp. 99,100.

Korblut, Anne E. and Duff Wilson. How One Pill Escaped Place on Steroid List.

Natural Pharmacist: DHEA.

Watkins, Mitch. "DHEA, A Powerful Alternative to Anabolic Steroids." Powerlifting USA, July 96, p. 44.

And various other Web sites that I didn’t bother to bookmark.

DHEA - Supplement Descriptions. Copyright 2005, 2008, 2017 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this site November 13, 2005.
It was last updated June 15, 2017.

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