We’ve all heard about hormone supplements that claim to offer the benefits of a proverbial fountain of youth, but what is actually behind these claims? Is there any hard science to support those ads for DHEA, estrogen, and testosterone?
DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone that is normally produced by your adrenal glands and naturally starts decreasing between age 25-30. By age 70, DHEA levels typically have fallen by about 80 percent.
DHEA supplements are sold as over the counter, non-prescription medication in the United States and are typically advertised as an aid for people who want to “reverse” aging, boost their immunity, improve their brain function and mental sharpness, and improve muscle strength. But studies do not support DHEA actually providing any of these benefits.
As men age, the amount of testosterone in their bodies gradually decreases beginning after age 30 and continuing throughout life. As many as 4 in 10 men over 45 have lower-than-normal levels of testosterone, symptoms of which include loss of energy, reduced sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and loss of muscle mass and strength. But in studies of testosterone replacement, results are mixed at best.
One major investigation, the TEAAM Study, revealed no significant change (versus placebo) in the openness of major blood vessels, overall sexual function, mental acuity, or quality of life. However, the testosterone therapy did lead to undesirable side effects.
Estrogen is another hormone that normally decreases over time in women, and is known to be associated with bone density loss, skin changes, hair thinning, and (perhaps) changes in mind sharpness. At menopause, hot flashes, sleep disturbances, and vaginal dryness can prompt many women to consider whether hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could be helpful for them.
Two large studies in the 1990s raised concerns regarding the safety of HRT, indicating extended use may increase the risk of breast cancer. Subsequent painted a more complex picture.
The apparent increased risk for breast cancer was only found in those who had taken HRT before entering the study, and re-analyses of different age groups showed no increase in heart disease in women starting hormonal replacement within 10 years of menopause. In fact, a large trial in 2012 demonstrated healthy women taking combined hormonal therapy for 10 years immediately after menopause had a reduced risk of heart disease.
Studies regarding estrogen’s possible effects on mental sharpness have been contradictory, but generally do not suggest a benefit.
Estrogen use has been shown to have the most positive effects on women’s skin, increasing thickness and skin moisture. In one study, an estrogen cream applied to the face for 24 months produced significant increases in skin thickness and decreases in wrinkles, while a different study, in which subjects took 0.01 percent estradiol (manufactured estrogen) versus 0.3 percent estriol for six months, produced no changes in systemic hormone status, but both dosages increased skin elasticity, skin moisture, and firmness, and reduced wrinkles.