Though supplements containing hormones claim to be the fountain of youth, there have been no well-controlled, long-term studies to bear this out. And using them could be risky because they are, after all, hormones. True, hormone levels drop with age and taking supplemental hormones, such as estrogen for women, can boost them back up.
But the safety and effectiveness of estrogen, progesterone, and now testosterone have been repeatedly scrutinized, checked, and rechecked. And even with these well-studied hormones, the jury is still out on some important safety issues. Much less is known about over-the-counter supplements.
Here's what little is known about these popular hormonal supplements:
Sometimes referred to as the "mother hormone" because it is the precursor of all other hormones, including estrogen and testosterone, DHEA is produced naturally by the body. Production begins to drop off around the age of 30, and that's where supplement claims step in. Claims for its miracle powers range from a purported ability to prevent Alzheimer disease to the power to cure cancer.
But researchers say that while supplemental or replacement DHEA does appear to increase muscle mass and strength and improve immune function, self-dosing could be risky. In fact, recent research found that DHEA could raise the risk of heart disease by lowering heart-healthy HDLs (high-density lipoproteins, the "good" cholesterol) as much as 13 percent. And some scientists have speculated that supplemental DHEA may also increase the risk of prostate cancer.
Moreover, some of what's sold as DHEA is actually an extract of wild yams, which manufacturers claim can be converted by the body to DHEA. We don't know whether this is true, nor do we know about possible long-term side effects of this DHEA wanna-be. There have been some suggestions that using DHEA could cause liver damage. What to do? Don't supplement with DHEA until more is known about its safety and effectiveness.
Using DHEA could be especially risky if you already take hormone replacement therapy or drugs to suppress normal hormone production.
As our bodies age, they produce less melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body's natural biorhythms, including the sleep cycle. The end result is often a problem getting quality sleep. Studies suggest that the drop in melatonin production that occurs with age may partly explain why so many people over the age of 65 experience insomnia.
Some researchers believe that used properly, melatonin can be a non-narcotic way to help you get some much-needed sleep or to jettison jet lag. But there are some caveats before you reach for this supplement: Skip it if you're also taking steroids (check with your doctor if you're not sure), have severe allergies, or have any disease that is affecting your immune system's ability to function. To be effective, melatonin must be taken at the appropriate time in your daily cycle.
Generally it's recommended to take 0.1 to 0.5 milligrams about 30 minutes before going to bed. However, taken inappropriately, melatonin could actually interfere with, rather than improve, your sleep. Moreover, it may be dangerous for people with high blood pressure, since it can cause blood vessels to constrict.
While melatonin appears to be safe over the short term, say to cope with temporary jet lag, don't self-medicate on a regular basis to cope with insomnia. Research, led by the National Institute on Aging, is currently underway to see if melatonin supplements can help people with Alzheimer disease sleep better. Sleep disturbances affect about 45 percent of people who have the disease.
Though melatonin is also claimed to be a powerful antioxidant that can help you fight cancer, that claim has yet to be proven.
Though DHEA is often referred to as the "mother hormone," pregnenolone comes closer to that description, since it is the precursor even of DHEA. As with other hormones, body levels decrease with age. It's claimed that pregnenolone can enhance memory and improve concentration.
At least one animal study suggests that is true. Should you supplement? In a word, no. Even less is known about the effects of supplementing with this hormone precursor than is known about DHEA and melatonin. There are no long-term studies of pregnenolone supplementation. And just because it is a substance that the body naturally produces doesn't mean it's safe to use as a supplement.
Continue to the next page to learn about carotenoid supplements for seniors.