Health Options
Alan Titchenal
& Joannie Dobbs

Monday, June 20, 2005

DHEA could pose risks

E-mail messages are circulating about threats to your right to buy vitamins, minerals and other dietary supplements. Other messages urge you to contact your congressional representatives specifically to protect your right to purchase DHEA as a supplement.

It is true that a bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate by Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley, John McCain and George Allen. But the bill only proposes to add DHEA to the list of controlled substances, such as anabolic steroids, that can be sold only by prescription.

Question: What is DHEA?

Answer: Dehydroepiandrosterone is a chemical compound produced by the body that can be converted into the steroid hormones testosterone or estrogen. To produce these sex hormones, DHEA is first converted into androstene- dione, or "andro," the compound used by baseball slugger Mark McGuire.

Andro was a legal supplement until last year, when Congress added it to the list of controlled substances because it is a steroid hormone precursor. DHEA was spared at that time, but concerns for its use are similar to concerns for andro.

Q: What are the concerns?

A: Any substance that the body can use to produce hormones has the potential for complex and serious effects. DHEA has not been thoroughly studied and conclusions about its effects are contradictory. For example, in July 2003, WebMD published an article, "DHEA may fight heart disease, but how?" Less than five months later, WebMD released the article "DHEA supplement linked to heart disease."

Because DHEA supplementation may increase testosterone and estrogen, it could increase the risk of prostate and breast cancers. Concerns are even greater for adolescents. Manipulation of hormone levels in teens can have irreversible effects on development.

Q: What are the claimed benefits of taking DHEA?

A: It is promoted as an anti-aging supplement that may protect against conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, depression and osteoporosis. Scientific research on these potential benefits is generally conflicting.

In our opinion, people taking DHEA are conducting uncontrolled experiments on themselves. It seems prudent to avoid widespread use until risks and benefits have been more clearly established by solid scientific study.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S. and Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S. are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa. Dr. Dobbs also works with the University Health Services and prepares the nutritional analyses marked with an asterisk in this section.

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