DHEA has found its way into a favored position in the lives of many of our senior citizens. It is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, much like adrenaline. The reason for its popularity is quite simple. It boosts energy.

Its scientific name is dehydroepiandrosterone. The andosterone portion of this name suggests that it is a male-type hormone. As such, some women who take this hormone may experience masculinizing symptoms such as sore breasts, uncommon hair growth and acne which would suggest too high a dose for that person, as would a rapid heartbeat.

There are a few common substances, such as this, that decline rather rapidly in our later years. Consider B12. This vitamin depends on intrinsic factor, produced in the parietal cells of the stomach, to get assimilated into our bodies. These are the same cells that produce the hydrochloric acid needed to digest protein in the stomach. Unfortunately, these parietal cells are a weak area in our population and can deteriorate as we age.

Another substance that is essential for good energy and commonly decreases with age is CoEnzyme Q10. Though it is found literally everywhere in the body (its scientific name is Ubiquinone), it often declines rapidly after the age of 50.

DHEA falls into this category of substances that are recognized for their rapid depletion, again, after the age of 50. Call it planned obsolescence if you like.

Once it was discovered that DHEA decreased with age, marketers found an opportunity to exploit the situation. A person who supplements with DHEA can quickly feel an increase in energy. It’s like a big jolt of coffee, and it’s “natural”!

Marketers love being able to sneak the term “natural” in because the general population has caught on to the value of using substances that are compatible with their natural bodies.

The caution with using a hormone like this is that the pharmaceutical industry has experienced the over marketing of other isolated hormones in the past with some unfavorable consequences. The most notable hormone of ill-advised use was estrogen. A number of years ago it was introduced as the magic bullet for relieving the unwanted symptoms of menopause.

Estrogen had a quick and desired effect. The problem was that, after 20 years of use, it was recognized that, in some individuals, unopposed estrogen (estrogen not balanced with its associated hormones such as progesterone) over-stimulated hormone receptor sites on certain cells and ended up causing a large number of uterine cancer cases.

With DHEA we have a supplement that can boost the weaning energy of a large segment of the population yet holds uncertain risks. This being said, it has been in wide use for more than 20 years now with no apparent ill effects.

Even with this good record, I counsel middle aged individuals to consider this supplement with some caution.

Older persons have a different situation. Of course, this is only one piece of a complex picture. However, I sometimes suggest that, even though there may be risks that surface in the distant future, one might consider the attraction of living an active, energized 10 years versus a sedentary 12 years.

Dr. Miles practices Naturopathic Medicine alongside other holistic practitioners at the Catalina Clinic of Integrative Medicine in Catalina, Arizona.

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