Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplements have become widely available in the past two years. The most common steroid hormone in humans, DHEA plays several roles in the body, many of which have only recently become known. One such role is acting as a precursor for other hormones, like testosterone and estrogens. This sounds both good and bad for bodybuilders of both genders, and scientists have focused much attention on whether DHEA can raise testosterone, and thus be an anabolic agent.
If DHEA can raise testosterone, then can it cause or hasten long-term health problems associated with higher testosterone levels, like heart disease and prostate cancer for men? This is an important question, given the fact that DHEA is taken by millions of people, including bodybuilders.
Fortunately, enough evidence strongly concludes that more DHEA won't lead to more prostate cancer in men and, in fact, probably leads to less prostate cancer and maybe less benign prostatic enlargement. How do we know? Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland), in conjunction with the National Cancer Institute, has followed 25,000 regular blood donors in Washington County, Maryland, since 1974. A steady supply of blood has been drawn from each person and is available for testing.
Between 1974 and 1987, 81 prostate cancer cases were diagnosed in this population.
Another 81 men were matched for age and race, and everyone's DHEA and DHEA-sulfate (DHEAS) levels in stored serum were analyzed. DHEAS, the usual form of DHEA found in the bloodstream is present in about 500 times the amount of plain DHEA in the blood (although DHEA itself is the more active form).
Men with prostate cancer had DHEA and DHEAS levels 11% lower than their matched controls, a difference that isn't statistically significant. Scientists tried all sorts of ways to tweak the data to see if other information could be found, but concluded that higher DHEA blood levels didn't correlate with an increased rate of prostate cancer.
This isn't the only study that supports the nonrole of DHEA in prostate cancer formation. Other researchers have discovered that white males in North America have higher serum DHEA levels and less prostate cancer than black males, which suggests that DHEA might actually be a protective factor against prostate cancer. Animal studies confirm that large doses of DHEA can prevent most cancers, including prostate and breast cancers, that are chemically induced.
Is this good news for bodybuilders who take DHEA supplements? Well, that would be hard to say at this point. The present study investigated only naturally occurring levels of DHEA. What effects you could expect on your prostate health with supplementation of this hormone are not well understood at this point. But I wouldn't advise someone who has prostate cancer to take DHEA on the off chance that the supplement might be converted to testosterone and thus speed tumor growth (most prostate cancers need testosterone to grow).
Even if you're healthy, your best bet would be to have your blood levels of DHEA and DHEAS tested to see whether or not you have a DHEA deficiency before you begin a DHEA supplementation regimen.