Once hyped as the fountain of youth hormone, DHEA is no wonder drug. However, neither is it a complete dietary supplemental scam. DHEA stands for dehydroepiandrosterone. It is made from cholesterol, and is the precursor to a variety of hormones in the human body, particularly estrogen and testosterone. Because levels of DHEA decline with age, a prevailing theory was that keeping DHEA levels high would keep the negative effects of aging at bay. However, DHEA has many effects on the body, including effects on cholesterol levels, and therefore, it is not clear that DHEA supplementation is beneficial for normal, healthy individuals.
How DHEA is Made
Cholesterol is a precursor to the production of DHEA. According to a 2002 article published in the scientific journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, the pathway for DHA synthesis begins when cholesterol enters the mitochondria. Cholesterol is then converted to pregnenolone. Pregnenolone is converted to 17-OH pregnenolone and then to DHEA.
DHEA Effects on Cholesterol in Rats
Studies with Wistar rats, published in a 1983 article in the scientific journal Pharmacological Research Communications, showed that DHEA affects cholesterol in several ways. Rats fed DHEA showed increased serum cholesterol levels, but their serum triglyceride levels remained unaffected. Liver triglyceride levels, however, were lower in DHEA fed rats than in controls. In addition, DHEA also inhibited cholesterol absorption.
DHEA Effects on Cholesterol in Monkeys
A 1995 study published in "In Vivo" states that DHEA lowers serum cholesterol in rhesus monkeys, particularly the low density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol. There were no significant differences in serum cholesterol or plasma LDL concentrations between monkeys given DHEA or the placebo while on a high fat diet. However, on a regular diet, the DHEA monkeys had significantly lower LDL and cholesterol than the monkeys given a placebo. Therefore, while DHEA could lower "bad" cholesterol, a high fat diet consisting of 30 percent or more of fat per day, masks any cholesterol lowering effects of the DHEA supplementation.
DHEA Effects on Cholesterol in Humans
According to the University of Maryland, DHEA decreased levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol in women. This means that DHEA can increase the risk of heart disease associated with high cholesterol. Interestingly, however, the University of Maryland also reported that DHEA lowered levels of LDL along with total body fat.
According to Medline Plus, preliminary studies indicate that supplementation with DHEA benefits patients experiencing hardening of the arteries, also known as cholesterol plaques. However in patients with heart failure or diminished blood volume pumped from the ventricles of the heart, known as diminished ejection fraction, the evidence is contradictory. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that an increase in DHEAS, the sulfate ester of DHEA, in men over 50 correlated with a 36 percent decrease in death from any cause and a 48 percent reduction in mortality from cardiovascular disease, after adjustment for a variety of factors, including differences in serum cholesterol levels.