The DHEA Breakthrough: An Interview With Author Stephen A. Cherniske

Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a hormone that is naturally produced in the human body by the adrenal glands. Once available only by prescription, DHEA is now classified as a nutritional supplement and sold over-the-counter. Often referred to as the "master hormone," DHEA reaches prime peak level around age 25 and decreases as you grow older. When this happens, your body begins to age.

Research has found that supplementing your body with DHEA to maintain a prime peak level has the potential to strengthen the immune system, combat age-related diseases such as diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease, build lean muscle and reduce body fat and restore sexual vitality. In short, says Stephen A. Cherniske, author of The DHEA Breakthrough (Ballantine, Sept. 1996, $23), "use of the hormone can help you look younger, live longer, and feel better."

A biochemist and medical writer who has been taking DHEA for the past eight years, Cherniske presents his plan for longevity in his newly released book. "It's important to understand," he writes in The DHEA Breakthrough, "that there is no fountain of youth pill, but...there is a fountain of youth lifestyle." Further, Cherniske presents the concept that because humans are governed by an ancient DNA blueprint representing the age of the hunter and gatherer, we are suffering from what he calls habitat dysfunction syndrome. "We are in fact still tuned to the foods, conditions, activities, and behaviors of the ancient past, but we live in a time warp where everything is different."

With clarity, humor, compassion and the latest research information, The DHEA Breakthrough "makes a very real fountain of youth available to everyone."

PH: Give us an overview of The DHEA Plan outlined in your book.

SC: The plan includes DHEA as an important piece of a larger puzzle. We know what we need to do in terms of exercise, diet and stress management, but as we get older, those things are harder to do. I can tell you to exercise knowing that as you grow older, it will be more and more difficult to do. I can tell you to manage your stress; I can tell you to eat right. But at some point we need to have some nutritional insurance that helps fulfill our needs.

Basically, the plan is doing those things with the awareness that we are just trying to duplicate what our 20,000 year old genes are requiring of us. That is, eat like a hunter and gatherer, exercise like a hunter and gatherer. Hunters and gatherers didn't go to a gym and work out like a madman for a short period of time, they were active all day. In the book I present a concept of activity breaks where you never allow yourself to sit for more than two hours. Simply walking around the block a few times, doing some knee lifts, sit-ups push-ups, whatever, continually sends signals to your brain that this is an active body.

PH: Address the issue of semi-synthetic DHEA, as you call it, versus the wild yam precursor that many of us have been led to believe can be converted to DHEA by our bodies.

SC: If you take the wild yam, you can extract from it a biochemical called "diosgenin" that contains the skeleton of the DHEA molecule. But that is not DHEA. What you need to do is cleave off two carbon rings and that will leave you with the biologically accurate DHEA hormone. Your human body cannot do that; that must be done in a laboratory.

Now, that doesn't prevent people from making claims that your human body can do that, but there is not to my knowledge -- and I have looked diligently -- a single indication that the human body can cleave off two carbon atoms from that diosgenin to produce DHEA.

It doesn't mean that diosgenin doesn't have other benefits; I have heard wonderful stories from people taking yam concentrate. But to say that that's because their body converted that diosgenin into DHEA is, I think at this point in time, false advertising until somebody can show me that it is [true].

PH: I find the widespread belief that wild yam can elevate low DHEA levels in the human body, even among some doctors, alarming. Why has this occurred?

SC: Because we would like to think that the yam gives us everything we need. In a way, we have this romantic idea that if it comes from a plant it is somehow better. I don't have that idea. What I want is the DHEA molecule.

The laboratory technique used to create DHEA from diosgenin is ingenious. It is called the Marker degradation process, or the 5-step process, and I could do it in a home lab. It doesn't involve any dangerous processing, for example, like you would get into if you were making tryptophan. It doesn't bother me at all that the yam concentrate has to be tweaked in a laboratory, whereas for some people, that does bother them.

We tend to believe what we like to believe. If your doctor heard that you can get DHEA from a yam, and he or she liked that concept, they believed it and relayed that information to you. At some point someone needs to say, `Well hold on. Let's test this theory and see if it's true'. No one has been able to do that.

PH: Once someone starts supplementing with DHEA, when can they expect changes in their body?

SC: It depends on what their base line level was. If you take a 60-year old with a real low DHEA level, man or woman, they are going to see fairly dramatic changes in their body in a matter of weeks. If you take a 40-year old who comes up with a DHEA level in the good range and they want to see what life would be like if they got into the prime peak range, that person's changes are going to be fairly subtle.

For me it was dramatic only because I am extremely active from five o'clock in the morning until midnight or after. I would say within a month of starting DHEA I noticed [a difference]. I went to the gym and grabbed the weights that I would normally curl and they were so easy to curl I thought I had picked up the wrong barbells. The increase in muscle strength was surprising.

PH: How does DHEA help break the downward spiral of health that so many people are finding themselves in?

SC: There are two sources of that downward spiral. One is a kind of voluntary downward spiral that we get into when we stop moving. We graduate from college, get into careers, don't move as much as we did. Plus, we are usually involved in fairly stressful situations. In other words, you lose fitness and therefore, you lose energy. You lose energy, so you don't exercise. You don't exercise, so you lose fitness and start gaining some weight. Then it keeps going down and down and down. The way that DHEA [helps this spiral] is that you can find yourself getting back into shape much faster.

A 40-year old would have to work out a lot just to improve their fitness a little. The reason for that is their body is just not producing all the wonderful enzymes to create muscle and burn fat. Now ultimately, if that person is really diligent and highly motivated, they will get through the adaptation period; their body will kick in and start producing enzymes. DHEA will produce those enzymes literally overnight. If you take DHEA today, tomorrow your body will have higher fat burning, produce more enzymes and create muscle. That means when you go to the gym you will get better results much faster and that's motivating for people. And, they don't have to go through the torture of going and working out and not seeing any results.

PH: You mentioned two sources of downward spiral

SC: The other part is the biochemical downward spiral. It is important to understand that this is part of nature's plan and my goal is to thwart nature's plan because I don't care to participate in that particular aspect of nature. Nature's plan is to create an organism that will procreate and then get rid of that organism to make room for another organism that will procreate.

Consider that DHEA in your 20's is at a high level in every [tissue] in your body: your brain, your endocrine system, your nervous system. It creates muscle strength, high libido, all kinds of wonderful things. Then nature says, `O.K., you've had your chance. Have you procreated? I hope so because the game's up and now I am going to withdraw that life-giving, energy-giving, powerful hormone so you can exit off the planet'. If you would like to stay here a little bit longer, you really need to look at your DHEA level. By maintaining a high level of DHEA, the message is not, `This body's over-the-hill'; the message going from your cells to your brain is, `This body is young, capable of reproducing and you ought to keep it around for awhile longer because, who knows, it might make more of these organisms'. And so, your body maintains a higher level of metabolic efficiency, maintains a higher respiratory efficiency, maintains greater immune strength and then you're young [again].

PH: Let's talk dosages for men and women.

SC: The dose window for men is really, really wide. A man could take anywhere from 25 to 200 mg.

PH: Every day?

SC: Yes. But that doesn't mean that he should automatically go and take 200 mg. Get your base line level and then take however much you need to get into prime peak.

A woman on the other hand, since she is going to convert more DHEA to testosterone than a man would, needs to be careful not to overdose. The dose window for women would tend to go from maybe 10 mg. to maybe 50 mg. But in the studies done at the University of California at San Diego, even at 300 mg. only about 12% of the women developed side effects.

Please understand that [if you're a woman] you're not going to develop facial hair overnight if you take too much. You'll start to get acne, then you'll start to get facial hair and if you ignore all that, you'll start to get a deeper voice. And then, pretty soon, you will be applying for lumberjack jobs.

PH: (Smiling.) Why is physician consulting and monitoring stressed?

SC: Because DHEA is part of a larger puzzle. I think that people should have a file at home which says, `my body'. Most of us have files that say, `my car', where you keep your maintenance records, but in our society we tend to just hand our body over to some "expert" and expect that he or she will take care of it for us. That is a tragedy. I encourage people to keep a record of all their lab tests, to request specific tests that are not included in routine blood work.

I like people working with their doctor, but at the same time there has to be this educational process going on. The good news is that it's happening. Right now a doctor can sign up for Physicians Online absolutely free. He'll have unlimited access to every database available to scientists world wide, paid for by, guess who? The chug companies. For once they are doing something positive. A doctor can subscribe to that and then at his or her fingertips is all the information needed on DHEA.

I suspect this will usher in a completely radical change in how doctors view postgraduate education. It used to be they went to a few courses a year to maintain their licenses and beyond that, they would be lucky if they reviewed one or two journals in their specialty. Now their patients are coming in and saying, `Doctor, what about this DHEA?' And the doctor can no longer say, `Ah, that's bologna', because it makes him look like an idiot. Now the doctor has to educate himself and we are all going to benefit.

PH: We talked about dosages, but what about age guidelines?

SC: You don't want to take DHEA when you're young; you don't need to. What I recommend is a person in their late 30's go and get a blood level to check where they are at. If your level is fine, wait four or five years and check it again. But the idea is to not get into the downward spiral. It is a whole lot easier to get into the upward spiral if you don't have to dig yourself out of the downward spiral [first]. By maintaining prime peak levels of DHEA right from age 40, you are going to be in good shape and that will carry you through. I'm 48 and got on DHEA at age 40. For the past eight years my percentage of body fat has been decreasing. I am, right now, at a body fat composition of a college athlete and I work out 40 minutes a week.

PH: But you also include hunter-gatherer behaviors in your life.

SC: Absolutely...But when I was 18% body fat at age 40, I was doing that as well. All of a sudden I am eight years older, but my body fat is 7% and the only change was I added DHEA. If it was only me experiencing this I would say, `Oh well, a big study of one,' but it isn't. I'm online with clinicians all over the world who are saying the same thing.

PH: How can the consumer know if they are buying a quality DHEA product?

SC: You need to get a Certificate of Analysis; that way you will know what the purity of the product is. And I would not put anything in my body that's less than 98% pure. People are selling 95% pure products. The big question is, what's the other 5%?

Not to bring up a sore point, but the tryptophan that was killing people was 96.7% pure. The other 3.3%, or whatever it was, was enough to cause all that disaster. I'm not saying that this has the same potential or toxicity that tryptophan has because the [process of] manufacturing is different. But we can't be bamboozled by something that comes along and says here's a 95% pure product. What the heck is the other 5%? They are not saying it is 5% starch; they're saying it is 5% unknown and that is unacceptable.

PH: What do you see as the next breakthrough in DHEA research?

SC: I believe that within a few years, hormone replacement therapy for women will be primarily DHEA, with a little bit of extra estrogen added depending on age and hormone level. Those studies are moving forward very well. DHEA has been used in Europe to treat menopausal symptoms for 20 years. But you see here in America, if it's not promoted by a drug company, it usually disappears, forgotten. This is the first time that a substance that is not controlled by a drug company is getting widespread acceptance. Not even Vitamin E got that kind of acceptance. Even after clinical trials increasingly showed that it could decrease heart disease by 42%, physicians still didn't recommend it. But DHEA is kind of grabbing them by the collar and saying, `Look; pay attention'.

The Holistic Health Network.

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By Patty A. Harder

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