Published in MastersSport Magazine 12/02/96

DHEA? Doubtful

By Tom McCullough MEd., MSS

"We Have DHEA!" crows the sign in the corner health food store. To which masters athletes should reply, "So what?"

But it may be hard to resist. This supplement seems aimed right at the over-35 athlete, with its alleged ability to help build muscle, burn up body fat, and "slow the aging process"--never mind the extraordinary miracles that have been claimed in its name, like slowing the AIDS virus down and reversing Alzheimer's disease.

As an elite level masters powerlifter who's been in the sport for 17 years, I'd be more than happy to take a pill and get stronger and faster with less work. And a legal, natural, and harmless alternative to anabolic steroids might be very nice indeed. It's no trick to find claims like this for DHEA in the current muscle magazines. But my advanced degrees in nutrition and kinesiology keep me from joining in that hopeful fat burning, muscle building frenzy. Before I stock up on strength pills, I need to know the science behind them. And so should you.

Until recently, the question was academic: Dehydroepiandrosterone, known by its less dizzying initials DHEA, wasn't even approved for sale by the FDA. Now it's in practically every health food store and gym. But what, exactly, is it? Endless hours spent reading research studies have taught me as an athlete that DHEA is what's called a "precursor hormone," an intermediate hormone in a chain reaction that gives rise to a more stable product. DHEA is normally produced in the adrenal glands, and its more stable products are suspected to be none other than testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and some 15 other hormones that are said to be essential for good health.

So if we already have DHEA in our bodies, why do we need more? Because, say researchers, we seem to be programmed to start reducing the natural production of DHEA sometime between the ages of 20 and 25--the official onset of "aging." As we hit 30, we are apparently making about half the DHEA of our younger selves. And in our 60's? Barely detectable. Science to the rescue. Researchers have been working for a few years now at a solution to this diminishing DHEA dilemma, and have now produced a synthetic form. Limited injections of synthetic DHEA have been tested in laboratory conditions, with encouraging results.

Unlike vitamins and minerals, you can't just load up on DHEA from everyday foods you eat. However, some American scientists are now claiming that a plant called dioscorea, often called the Mexican yam, contains a DHEA precursor compound which our bodies can use to manufacturer their own DHEA.

Just think, the Fountain of Youth in a Mexican yam! No need to grow old, get fat, or get cancer. Some muscle magazines are even saying that DHEA supplements work better than anabolic steroids at increasing muscle and building strength. A recent article goes so far as to cite a Virginia Commonwealth University clinical study that actually gives the specific amounts of body fat losses and muscle gains to be expected by using DHEA. The subject men reported average body fat loses of 31% and average lean body mass gains of 7% in 28 days!

Breathtaking for sure. Especially when you sharpen your pencil and figure out what it means for a 200 pound man, at 20% body fat. In 28 days, he would actually reduce his body fat percent from 20% to 13.8%. That's a loss of 12.4 pounds of fat in 28 days, or almost a half pound of fat per day! Better yet, he would also pack on a total of 11.2 pounds of muscle in 28 days or 0.4 pounds of muscle every day. Not bad!

Killjoy that I am, I just had to examine some of this so called scientific evidence, and here is what I found. DHEA is in fact an intermediate compound in the production of testosterone. But it has never been shown to significantly raise serum testosterone levels. In fact, there's a chance it may even be a so called antiandrogen, meaning it competes with testosterone. (The effects on females, because of their relatively low levels of testosterone, is even less certain.)

And the claims DHEA decreases body fat? Not according to another study, which found that any DHEA the body had not itself produced had no significant effect in reducing fat in obese men. So whatever our own DHEA does for us may have nothing to do with what the stuff we take orally does--or doesn't--do.

The list of disappointing research is already a long one. In another study examining the effects of DHEA on humans, DHEA failed to influence energy, and protein metabolism. Translation: It did not help anyone burn fat or build muscle, much less do it without going to the gym or reducing calories.

Maybe that's because the body is not so easily fooled by "look alike" chemicals. In yet another study was buried the unsurprising but possibly important fact that nonprescription capsules of DHEA contained no adrenal DHEA at all. The pill form all comes from the yam, not from the gland. So while many studies have in fact suggested the important effect the DHEA produced in our adrenal glands may have on aging, obesity, memory, cancer, tissue growth, and hormone production, it seems that's not the DHEA found on the shelves of our health food stores in nonprescription form. And this is where the research gets real sketchy, because little if any research has been done on the benefits of the Mexican yam to humans.

If you want to do your own research, the experiment won't necessarily be cheap. Most places sell 60 DHEA tabs, 50mg each, for around $30. At the suggested daily dose of 100mg to 300mg, that will last anywhere from 10 days to a month.

After reading all of these contradictory findings, I got even more curious about who these breathless DHEA enthusiasts are. Well, one article's author turned out to be the manager of a mail order supplement warehouse. I also checked some other articles, and found every one written by either a supplement company or someone trying to make money from the sales of DHEA. Is that scientific evidence or shrewd marketing? I don't have to ask. So even as a serious weightlifter--not a sport that's exactly squeamish about trying pills and powders--I've decided to leave the DHEA on the shelf. I can get yams a lot cheaper, and they probably do me just as much good.


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