Can Hormones Prevent Aging ?

‘Feel 20 years younger' , 'Add decades to your life ', Boost muscle power and increase your energy levels - these are some of the claims made by the so called anti - aging supplements on their labels and in media and print advertisements.. The great buzz about DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone , also known as androstenolone or prasterone ), melatonin and other hormones has by now reached deafening levels, but the big question is - we should  be asking ourselves , do they actually live up to their promises ? There are many stories doing the rounds about how testosterone can make older men and women feel young again, and can restore their muscles and their sex drive, and generally make them feel younger and fitter, have all become very popular.

Hormones are powerful chemicals that help keep our bodies working normally. They are made naturally by the body, and can affect us in far reaching ways. Levels of some hormones decreases as a normal part of aging. In some other cases our body may fail to make enough of a hormone for other reasons. In either case the body’s hormone levels can be increased by taking hormone supplements like pills, injections or medicated skin patches.

Certain hormone supplements have received a lot of attention lately , including DHEA, human growth hormone ,melatonin and testosterone.There are many unproven claims that taking these supplements can make people feel young again or that they can prevent aging have been appearing in the news and advertisements. However, when it comes to hormones , more is not necessarily better !

How Do Hormones work ?

The fact of the matter is that no one has yet shown that supplements of these hormones add years to people’s lives. While some supplements no doubt provide health benefits for people with genuine deficiencies of certain hormones, they also can cause harmful side effects. The right balance of hormones help us stay healthy, but the wrong amount may turn out to be dangerous. Another concern is that some hormone supplements are not regulated as drugs by the food and drug administration, instead they are sold as nutritional supplements . The rules controlling how they are produced and sold are not as strict as the rules for other drugs. They are not even required to include important health information on the labels of their bottles and containers. There have been variation even in the dosage shown on the bottle and what is actually inside there.

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The NIA ( National Institute of Aging ) which is part of the National Institute of health USA , has been conducting regular checks and also researches into these hormones and their effects. In the case of most of the hormones it is not yet known, how much is too much or too little! Also whether some people should take these supplements at all.

A group of special cells - glands - make chemicals called hormones and release them into the blood stream. Hormones taken as supplements also end up in the blood stream and in either case , the blood then carries hormones to different parts of the body. There, hormones influence the way organs and tissues work.

Hormone supplements may not have exactly the same effect on us as that of our own, naturally produced hormones have, because in all possibility the body may process them differently. Another difference is that the high doses of supplements whether pills, shots or skin patches may result in higher amounts of hormones in the blood than are healthy. When that happens, any negative effects that even the body’s own hormones can cause may increase. Tiny amounts of these powerful chemicals, whether made by the body or taken as supplements can have widespread effects. From the information I have gathered from various sources I would like to deal with the different hormones one at a time so that we get to know the facts and also whether and how they help our system and the possible side effects they have on our body when they are taken in the form of supplements !

DHEA, the mystery hormone

Scientists use words like Promising, tantalizing, interesting etc to describe this hormone which is also known as the mystery hormone. It is normally sold as dietary supplement with claims of improving energy, strength and immunity and increasing and decreasing fat. It is also promoted as a clinically proven fountain of youth and a panacea in ads, catalogues and on the internet. But does it really live upto its reputation ?

DHEA which was discovered in the 1930’s is a hormone made by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney. There is more DHEA circulating within our body than any other hormone and it is the base chemical that the body uses for different purposes. Although it is still not known whether DHEA itself causes hormonal effects, the body breaks DHEA down into two hormones that are known to affect us in many ways namely Estrogen and Testosterone. Production of this hormone begins in the fetus , stops at birth and again resumes around the age of 7, peaks at age 25 and then begins to decline. By age 70 the production falls to one fifth or as low as one twentieth of what it was at age 25.

When a hormone goes along with youth and vigor and then almost disappears, it is logical to wonder whether it might prevent or slow aging as well as the chronic diseases of aging. But, so far there is no reliable evidence to suggest that DHEA offers any of the claimed benefits. Most of the researches conducted have been on lab animals chiefly rodents .This is a drawback since rodents produce a negligible amount of the hormone and the results may not apply to human beings. The results too have been unclear while in some cases the rodents have benefitted and in some other studies the hormone seemed to have caused cancer in some of them.

The few studies made on human beings too have yielded conflicting results. It is much too early to say that DHEA is a life saver since no one can say for sure what it does to adults except affect many bodily functions. Researchers are concerned that DHEA supplements may cause high levels of Estrogen or Testosterone, thereby increasing the risk of developing certain types of cancer in older men and women. Thus overall the studies that have been done so far do not provide a clear picture of the risks and benefits of this hormone. From what I gather - Researchers are still trying to find its effects on aging, muscles and immune system. In the mean time people who are thinking of taking supplements of this hormone should understand that its effects are not fully known and some of these unknown effects may turn out to be harmful.

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Growth Hormone

Human Growth Hormone (HGH) supplements also are claimed by some people to reduce the signs of aging – that is , to increase muscle and decrease fat and thereby giving people a feeling of well-being and energy. Human growth hormone is made by the pituitary gland , just under the brain and is important for normal development and maintenance of our tissues and organs. It is especially important for normal growth in children. Human growth hormone levels often decrease as people grow older.

Without going into too many technicalities I would like to point out that studies have shown that supplements are helpful to certain people. Sometimes, children are unusually short because their bodies either have no HGH or have a very low supply of it, the same may result in obesity and when the hormone is given things are set right at least to a certain extent.

However, it is still unclear as to whether HGH can really make older people stronger by building up their muscles and also whether it can reduce body fat. It is also a known fact that this hormone can have serious side effects and studies have yet to show the exact extent of this. So far as present day findings go, the side effects of HGH treatment can include diabetes and pooling of fluid in the skin and other tissues which may lead to high blood pressure and also heart failure. Joint pain and carpal tunnel syndrome (Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the palm of the hand, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist and cause pain and trauma ) may also occur.

Older aging people who are in search of the ‘ fountain of youth’ spend a great deal of money on HGH supplements , however there is no proof yet that this hormone can prevent aging.

Melatonin

The hormone Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the brain and the amount decreases with age in most people. It is claimed that melatonin is an anti aging remedy, a sleep remedy and an antioxidant ( antioxidants protect the body against the naturally occurring molecules that can cause damage to the body ). Early studies have shown that melatonin may be effective against these molecules or ‘ free radicals’ as they are termed by the scientists when taken in large doses.

The claim that Melatonin can slow or reverse the process of aging is far from the truth since it has not been proven so far through the studies conducted and again the studies have been largely limited to animals rather than human beings. Research also shows that melatonin also plays a role in the sleep and waking cycle that we go through daily and that supplements can improve sleep in some cases. However, if melatonin is taken at the wrong time the chances are that it can disrupt your sleep/waking up cycle causing anxiety and worry.

Some side effects of melatonin include headaches, drowsiness, confusion and disturbed mental state in the morning when we wake up. Studies conducted on animals also show that the blood vessels get constricted, a condition that in humans can lead to very high blood pressure and cardio vascular problems. It is also to be noted that the normal dose of this supplement sold which is 3 milligrams, can result in blood in amounts of up to 40 times higher than is normal. So, it is important to remember that melatonin may have far reaching effects that are still unknown even at the body’s own normal levels, to say nothing of the level that can be caused by large or mega doses taken for a long period of time. In fact, we can safely say that melatonin is still being tested by the researchers, so caution should be taken while planning to take supplements that have high dosage of this hormone.

Testosterone

Most of us know Testosterone as the male hormone, but the fact is that it is found both in men and women, the only difference is the level and quantity which is higher in men. This is what contributes to the depth in men’s voice , more facial hair and larger muscles.

Testosterone also plays a major role in sex drive and levels of erection. Testosterone levels may drop as men age, and changes that normally take place in older men often are wrongly blamed on lower levels of the hormone. For example: the loss of erection that some older men experience is often due to unhealthy arteries and not low testosterone levels.

Supplements of this hormone is available, only on prescription for men whose bodies do not make enough of the hormone like in cases where men have tumor or those whose testes has been damaged. In fact Testes are the glands that make testosterone in men and the pituitary glands helps regulate it. Supplements provide many benefits for men with a genuine deficiency of the hormone. They help in preventing problems such as low sex drive and also weakness in muscles and joints and a lack of proper erection, all of which get normalised when supplements of this hormone is taken under strict medical supervision.

But too much testosterone can be harmful. We get to hear stories about sports men and athletes who damaged their health by taking steroids – nothing but testosterone supplements. Now of course there are any number of stories doing the rounds about how older men feel young again and can restore their muscles and sex drive. But the problem is that most of these men already have enough testosterone in their system and supplements cause them to have more than what is normal. This can result in enlarged prostate gland, harmful cholesterol levels which may eventually lead to heart problems, psychological problems ,infertility and last but not least a breakout of acne! Scientists are not sure whether the hormone supplements also can increase the risk of prostate cancer.

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Estrogen

Estrogen is the counterpart of Testosterone, being the female version of it. Many reliable studies have shown that estrogen replacement does help some women after menopause. However, the total amount of gain or harm that may be caused by this particular hormone is still being debated upon by the scientists .Women have much lesser levels of Estrogen after menopause because the ovaries naturally produce little amount of this reproductive hormone in later years of life.

The reduced levels of this hormone are associated with higher risk of heart attacks and osteoporosis , which is a condition that weakens the bones , allowing them to break easily. Research has shown that estrogen supplements prescribed by a doctor can help older women avoid osteoporosis and also lower the risk factors for heart disease, which incidentally kills more women than breast cancer does. Osteoporosis can lead to severe bone fracture which is an extremely worrying condition in older women. It is to be noted that patients who are hospitalized for a broken hip have a death rate of 12 – 20% higher than others in their age group. And Estrogen helps in preventing Osteoporosis.

A recent study also suggests that estrogen supplements may also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, but there is need for more research to be absolutely sure about this fact. On the other hand the bad news is that some studies have shown a possible link between estrogen and breast cancer and an increased risk of contacting cancer of the uterus. It also increases the risk of blood clotting in older women and this may result in heart diseases .

There are many facts known about the hormone Estrogen , but with newer facts coming up and being discovered all the time the whole perspective tends to change and there seems to be contrasting effects of this hormone on our body. But most doctors are of the opinion that the hormone has proven to be more beneficial to older women when given in right doses. Adding progestin which is another female hormone to the supplements apparently lowers the risk of uterian cancer.

Finally, the decision whether or not to take estrogen is a personal one. Each woman along with her doctor should ask herself : Is there heart disease in my family ? or breast cancer ? Have I had blood clots before ? etc etc ...In effect there is no right answer nor is there any wrong answer to these questions since it all depends on the individual’s health history and health conditions.

Conclusions

We should bear in mind that research is a step by step process and there is need for larger studies to give more definitive answers on the whole issue of supplements and how useful or harmful they are. Studies are still being made to reveal more both about the risks and benefits of hormone supplements, their aim and goal being how the various hormones like DHEA, Melatonin, Testosterone and other supplements affect people from time to time. It is also interesting to note that certain factors influence in controlling the growth and repair of our tissues and organs throughout our lives. Researchers are also interested in finding out the factors that are responsible, at least in parts for the diseases and disabilities seen in aging. All the above mentioned and discussed hormones are included in these studies and researches.

It is however important for us to remember that these studies may not give immediate or final results or answers ,especially in the case of DHEA, Melatonin and HGH since research on these supplements is fairly new .What we may get is more information on the subject and what to look for in their next round of research. So, large amount of studies and researches are still needed to give more definite answers.

Finally to conclude all one can say is that until more is known about the various hormones and their overall effects, both consumers and manufacturers of these supplements who go overboard with their claim , should view them with caution and a certain amount of doubt. Despite what the advertisements and stories in the media may claim, hormone supplements have not yet proven to prevent the signs and symptoms of aging. As I already mentioned earlier, some harmful side effects have already been discovered and further research may uncover some more that may completely change the very idea of supplements having positive effects or it may well be the other way round.

Even regarding the well known hormones like Estrogen and Testosterone , it is advisable to go cautiously since there are still some corners that have not been explored yet. When older people are genuinely concerned about their deficiencies and would like to take help from these supplements , they should consult with their doctors and get all relevant information before proceeding. Meanwhile when people decide to self medicate and decide to take hormone supplements without taking the advice of their doctor or for that matter without the supervision of their doctors or any learned person in that field, are doing so at their own risk.

So go easy on those hormones even if the advertisements tempt you with the promise to show you the way to attain youth and vigor which can all be found in a handful of pills and a few shots taken regularly. Never venture into any hormonal adventure without taking proper medical help.


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