Your guide to understanding anti-ageing hormones
Ever since aging became an obstacle to the tireless pursuit of pleasure, which baby boomers have claimed as our inalienable right, the search for the fountain of youth has been one of our foremost preoccupations. Hormones, and specifically DHEA and growth hormone, have been touted as panaceas because of alleged magical powers of restoration and rejuvenation.
If you want to preserve the way you looked and felt when you were in your 20s, saddle up with these hormones and your ride along the endless highway of youthful vitality will be guaranteed — or so the logic goes. Both DHEA and growth hormone are used by athletes, body builders and gym junkies for muscle-building purposes and to improve recovery. Are they turning back time or is this kind of faith in these super-hormones misplaced?
DHEA: the mother hormone
A steroid hormone produced mainly by the adrenal glands, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is also manufactured all around the body, in the brain, in the testes of men and the ovaries of women. As with most hormones, its production peaks in the 20s then goes into decline in the 30s so that by the time midlife is reached, levels of this hormone have decreased by 60 per cent. One of the reasons for this is the impairment in the activity of an enzyme called 17,20-desmolase, found in the adrenals and responsible in part for the making of DHEA.
Much of the initial enthusiasm for DHEA was generated by animal studies, which showed that this hormone has anti-cancer, immune-boosting, cognition-enhancing, cardio-protective and anti-obesity properties. Most of its influence seems to be as a pro-hormone, as it converts to both male and female sex hormones, becoming oestrogen in women and testosterone in men. Once the ovaries start to shut down, the primary source of hormones in the female body is DHEA, which is why giving this hormone due consideration is so vital.
Why does nature seek to curb the activity of this potent hormone if, as animal studies suggest, DHEA has a multitude of benefits? It might have something to do with the risk of cancer. Studies have shown that in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women the more DHEA you have the greater your risk of breast cancer. The possibility of developing cancer becomes more complicated in the male experience. While DHEA may protect against the development of prostate cancer if cancer cells are not present, once cancer cells have established themselves in the prostate and a process called inflammation is taking place (often hand in hand with obesity), DHEA can stimulate cancer growth.
The body in its wisdom might be turning off the production of hormones to protect against the development of cancer with aging. Enhancing the presence of hormones needs to be considered with extreme caution. Tampering with nature might lead to unwanted outcomes as we attempt to outwit the unremitting march of time.
As the body ages, DHEA performs a complex little dance with cortisol. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, but this description might undervalue the necessity of this hormone as it provides a ready supply of glucose, or sugar, which energises your body, especially in the morning. Like anything in nature, cortisol also has its downside. It appears to have detrimental effects on the immune system by switching off the thymus, where immune cells are fortified.
In contrast, DHEA augments immune function by promoting the activity of interleukin-2 and natural killer cells, both stimulators of immune function, which help the body to neutralise cancer cells and defend against foreign invaders. Excess cortisol is also known to damage the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for memory — while DHEA is a cognitive enhancer with the capacity to protect the memory centre. As immune and mental function both decline with aging, it would seem prudent to find a way to minimise the effects of cortisol and boost the presence of DHEA.
Both DHEA and cortisol come under the control of the same stimulating hormone in the brain called ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone), which is manufactured in the pituitary. Once either of the former increases, ACTH is then down-regulated (receptors shut down to lessen uptake) to prevent the body from being overstimulated by these hormones.
The solution appears to be blissfully simple. Boost the presence of DHEA to turn off ACTH. This prevents the activity of cortisol, thereby limiting cortisol’s damaging effects. Unfortunately, nature once again is not so easily outsmarted. Research on the hormone function of naturally long-living mammals indicates that those with the highest levels of cortisol have increased longevity. This is a curious finding as cortisol is not only harmful to the brain and the immune system when present in excess, but also damages bones, increases the risk of diabetes and undermines the function of reproductive hormones. There is evidence that cortisol may be responsible for stimulating the production of mitochondria, which are the batteries of the cell where energy is made. As mitochondrial production declines with aging, ensuring that you are supplied with the right amount of cortisol in a balanced fashion might go some way to preserving the presence of mitochondria, which are critical for energy supply.
Do you struggle to rise in the morning then find you can’t sleep at night? If so, chances are you are not producing adequate amounts of cortisol to prod you out of bed, while you are overstimulated by the presence of this hormone in the evening. If you take supplementary DHEA in the morning, this will further reduce your body’s production of cortisol at a time when you need it the most, which will exacerbate your morning fatigue.
Obviously, before replenishing your DHEA levels, you need to be certain your body is manufacturing adequate amounts of cortisol, especially when you commence your day. Ensure you have sufficient intake of the B vitamins and vitamins A, C and E, together with the herbs withania and ginseng, to stimulate adrenal function and cortisol production. A saliva test will provide you with a snapshot of cortisol hormone production during the course of the day, which will allow for the most beneficial interventions to balance your hormone levels.
DHEA supplements: helpful or harmful?
One of the primary functions of your cells is to cater for your energy needs. They do this by harnessing the hormone insulin, which opens up the doors of your cells so glucose can enter, where it is either stored or utilised to power you up throughout the day. DHEA assists with insulin function, but to what extent? Though animal studies show that DHEA lends a hand with weight loss, human trials have been less convincing. Some demonstrate that DHEA increases lean body mass, improves muscular strength and fosters weight loss, while others indicate DHEA might not aid insulin function or make any inroads on weight gain.
The key to these contradictions might be how well insulin is performing in your body. In a landmark study in 2006 — and one which I believe should cast serious doubt on the wisdom of making DHEA freely available over the counter, as it is in the USA — research pointed out that, if insulin’s activity is impaired, taking DHEA will actually trigger a problematic metabolic pathway in your cells. This will raise your blood pressure, worsen the blockage of your arteries and increase the likelihood of heart attack. In short, if insulin isn’t working properly (a condition known as insulin resistance, which often occurs when you are overweight) and your fats cells get in insulin’s way, taking DHEA can be very dangerous.
DHEA is not a miracle weight-loss cure. Instead of self-prescribing this powerful hormone, seek guidance from a practitioner who can first take other steps. They can assess whether you are deficient in nutrients such as B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and iodine and determine whether you are mobilising your fat cells to overcome insulin resistance. You should also consider regular meditation, which is one of the most natural means you can use to increase DHEA.
Under DHEA influence
As DHEA is a major contributor to female hormone status and unquestionably impacts on male hormones, it would be unkind and unjustified to relegate this hormone to the status of a non-event. One study has shown that postmenopausal women taking DHEA experience improvements in libido, sexual satisfaction and wellbeing, so clearly boosting supplies of DHEA if they are flagging might help to revitalise one of nature’s most pleasurable activities. However, this hormone is likely to come into its own more as an immune system stimulator and as a protector of the nervous system against the destructive effects of cortisol, which might help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Other aspects of aging that are influenced by DHEA include the following:
- Skin aging: Research using 0.3%–2% DHEA cream applied twice daily in postmenopausal women resulted in collagen biosynthesis, improved skin texture and structure and improvement in the metabolism of skin cells called keratinocytes.
- Bone health: DHEA improves bone mineral density, but the effects are limited and it would be unwise to employ this hormone as the sole promoter of bone health.
- Brain function: Some studies show that DHEA increases wellbeing, lifts depression, leads to better sleep and makes it easier to manage stressful events. However, more recent, better-controlled studies suggest the benefits of DHEA are limited. In a rather damning review, the Cochrane database, which collates all the acceptable trials and makes recommendations based on the summation of findings, concludes that the data “offer no support for an improvement in memory or other aspects of cognitive function following DHEA treatment”.
- Heart health: The jury is still out on whether more DHEA nurtures the heart. This powerful hormone can be antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, which means it could help prevent heart disease. However, at the same time there is evidence that DHEA can be a pro-oxidant and lower HDL, the so-called good cholesterol, and also raise lipoprotein (a), a fat protein that increases the risk of stroke and a heart attack.
Elixir of youth?
Growth hormone is touted as the anti aging wunderkind, with superpowers of renewal and regeneration. It’s therefore no surprise that as an anti aging therapy it ranks as number one of the health-related internet searches. As its name implies, growth hormone makes things grow, so our torsos and skeletons are dependent on growth hormone to reach adult stature. Once this is achieved, growth hormone production goes into decline in a fashion similar to that of DHEA. Growth hormone levels decrease by 50 per cent every seven years after mid-puberty, which is thought to be one of the reasons for at least the loss of muscle mass if not bony architecture that occurs with aging.
The question remains: why, as we age, does nature seek to reduce the levels of a hormone that might at least prevent us from developing weakened muscles and bones, which lead to a host of disabilities? With regard to growth hormone and insulin function, the evidence is mixed, with some studies showing that growth hormone might interfere with insulin function and raise blood glucose levels, resulting in an increased risk of developing diabetes. Others suggest that low-dose growth hormone treatment at a minuscule 0.1mg/day actually improves insulin sensitivity, making it easier to lose fat while at the same time enhancing muscle mass.
In a systematic review carried out by a range of experts in the USA, analysing 18 studies incorporating growth hormone as a treatment for the healthy elderly, the authors found that over six months growth hormone reduced fat mass by 2.1kg and increased lean muscle mass by a similar amount, on average. Their total cholesterol decreased by –0.29mmol/L. While there was an increase in muscle mass, this did not translate to an increase in muscle strength. The bone density of these elders did not change.
The usual side-effects associated with growth hormone treatment, including fluid retention, swelling of the breasts and pain and numbness in the hands (as a result of the development of carpal tunnel syndrome) were all common features of these studies. The biggest concern, though, was that supplementation with growth hormone raised blood glucose levels, increasing risk of the onset of diabetes. The authors concluded there was little to support growth hormone’s claims as an anti aging therapy.
If you endorse the benefits of growth hormones you will look to those studies that show growth hormone boosts the immune system by stimulating the function of the thymus, as does DHEA. This leads to an increase in T-cells and natural killer cells, both immune system vigilantes. In aging rats, growth hormone is neuroprotective. A chemical called IGF-1, produced as a result of the activity of growth hormone and thought to partner this hormone in its actions, improves brain speed and is thought to ameliorate memory and mental function in aging animals.
There is also evidence that growth hormone improves lung function, exercise capacity and skin texture, increases slow-wave sleep, reduces inflammation, improves heart muscle function and lowers blood pressure. However, the biggest indictment of growth hormone comes out of research in the USA and Europe and shows that those animals and humans who, because of genetic reasons, have an absence or inactivity of growth hormone actually live longer and healthier. In the animal model, this form of genetic alteration keeps the animals healthy and disease-free for longer periods and prevents age-related pathologies.
So lacking growth hormone might extend lifespan and health span. What is of even greater concern is that mice that over-express GH and IGF-1 have a dramatically reduced existence, dying mostly of cancer. There is also evidence that growth hormone is associated with the growth of breast and prostate cancers and liver cancer in animals.
What are you to make of this? I have taken growth hormone myself without any tangible benefits. In my work I am obviously privy to the anecdotal reports of those who have taken this hormone and are singing its praises, yet my advice is to temper your expectations and be mindful of the studies that cast some doubt on growth hormone’s benefits. While growth hormone has bone- and muscle-building effects, which are desirous with aging, the question marks about its overall advantage loom large and demand serious consideration.
It’s clear that supplementing with hormones to hold off aging may cause as many problems as it cures. Before taking that leap, consider the pros and cons carefully. We may be gazing longingly at the alter of immortality, but embracing the so-called hormones of youth as if they guarantee easy passage into the promised land may be more than a touch myopic.
Beyond your libido
Male and female hormones do more than rev up your sex drive. They are pivotal to your long-term wellbeing.
Oestrogen: Women live 5—10 years longer than men, and this might have something to do with the power of oestrogen. This hormone boosts antioxidant defences, protects the mitochondrion (the battery of the cell where energy is made), protects the heart by raising HDL, the good cholesterol, improves sugar or glucose metabolism, preserves healthy bones, protects against bowel cancer, helps with weight loss and prevents Alzheimer’s disease by switching on a gene that protects the brain against this dreaded disease.
Any hormone as powerful as this must have a downside and it is the big C. Oestrogen increases the risk of breast cancer. Should women therefore be taking oestrogen as they get older? The answer is still unclear. However, the risk can be substantially reduced by maintaining a healthy weight, reducing consumption of red meat and alcohol, eating green vegetables in abundance, exercising regularly, seeing to it that iodine, selenium, the B vitamin group, folic acid, zinc, magnesium and vitamin D levels stay within healthy range limits and having regular breast checks.
Testosterone: This doesn’t boast such a litany of advantages, but it does boost muscle and bone mass, helps to reduce fat mass, assists with insulin function and glucose metabolism, supports erectile function and enhances libido. Testosterone may protect against Alzheimer’s-induced dementia.
Are you vitamin D deficient?
Vitamin D stimulates calcium absorption and helps calcium enter your cells, assisting with optimal bone density and preservation. It switches on a host of genes that protect against cancer and limits others that promote cancer. In addition, vitamin D boosts insulin production and helps insulin transport sugar into your cells, lowers blood pressure and augments the immune system and promotes healthy mental and emotional function.
Lack of vitamin D has been linked to cancer, heart disease and weight gain. Yet with the need to avoid too much sun exposure to prevent skin cancer, many Australians are becoming vitamin D deficient. To maximise this important hormone, here’s what you need to know:
- A little sun is healthy: Spend at least 10 minutes in the sun three times a week without sunblock. Enjoy your sunbath between the hours of 10am and 3pm in winter or before 10am and after 3pm in summer. This will help ensure you obtain sufficient vitamin D, which cannot be provided by diet alone.
- Eat fish: Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel as well as egg yolks should provide you with reasonable amounts of vitamin D.
- Maximise minerals: To optimise your vitamin D status, ensure you have sufficient zinc and magnesium. Zinc and magnesium are responsible for making the active metabolite of vitamin D, which is assembled in the kidneys.
- Avoid mega doses: Recent research has shown that men with higher vitamin D levels developed more aggressive prostate cancer. Though vitamin D is generally considered to be protective against cancer, its relationship with cancer is a clearly a complex one and yet to be fully identified and understood.