DHEA Effective Against Lupus
Supplementing with dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is beneficial for women with systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), according to a report in Arthritis and Rheumatism (2002;46:2924–7). This report confirms the results of an earlier study demonstrating that DHEA can help control this serious and sometimes fatal disease.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system inappropriately attacks the body's own tissues. Manifestations of lupus may include arthritis, kidney disease, seizures, and damage to the lungs or blood vessels. The cause of the disease is unknown, although preliminary evidence suggests that environmental pollution may be a contributing factor.
In the new study, 120 women with active lupus were randomly assigned to receive 200 mg of DHEA per day or a placebo for 24 weeks. During the study, 33.9% of the participants in the placebo group suffered a flare-up of their disease, compared with only 18.3% of those in the DHEA group. Thus, treatment with DHEA resulted in a 46% reduction in the number of flare-ups, a statistically significant improvement. In addition, the severity of the disease decreased by an average of 14.9% in the DHEA group, compared with a 16.1% increase in the placebo group, again a statistically significant difference. The results indicate that DHEA supplementation decreased the number of flare-ups and reduced disease severity in women with active lupus.
DHEA is a steroid hormone manufactured in the adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes. Blood levels of DHEA are low in many people with lupus, and some scientists believe that DHEA deficiency may be a contributing factor to the development of the disease. DHEA modulates the activity of the immune system, which tends to be overly aggressive in individuals with lupus. In a particular genetic strain of mice that spontaneously develops a disease resembling lupus, administration of DHEA delays the onset and reduces the severity of the disease.
The amount of DHEA used in the new study, 200 mg per day, is considerably more than the amount produced in the human body. Taking such a large amount of DHEA will sometimes cause acne or increase hair growth on the arms, legs, torso, or face. These side effects resolve if DHEA is discontinued or if the dose is reduced. No serious side effects were reported in the new study; however, because DHEA is converted, in part, to estrogen and testosterone, there is a theoretical possibility that taking this hormone could increase the risk of hormone-dependent cancers, including cancer of the breast, ovary, or prostate. For this reason, people taking DHEA should be supervised by a doctor. Despite the theoretical risks associated with DHEA, it is considerably safer than many of the medications currently used to treat lupus.
Therapy for lupus includes anti-inflammatory medications and drugs that suppress the immune system. Because these drugs are not always effective and are associated with potentially serious side effects, new approaches to the treatment of lupus are needed.
Some doctors have found that identifying and avoiding allergenic foods may reduce the severity of lupus in certain cases. A few studies have demonstrated that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, from either fish oil or flaxseed oil, may help control the disease. When these nutritional approaches are included as part of a comprehensive treatment program, the amount of DHEA needed to produce a beneficial effect may be less than the 200 mg per day used in the new study.
Alan R. Gaby, MD, an expert in nutritional therapies, testified to the White House Commission on CAM upon request in December 2001. Dr. Gaby served as a member of the Ad-Hoc Advisory Panel of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. He is the author of Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima, 1994), and co-author of The Natural Pharmacy, 2nd Edition (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), Clinical Essentials Volume 1 and 2 (Healthnotes, 2000), and The Patient’s Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999). A former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, in Kenmore, WA, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition, Dr. Gaby is the Chief Medical Editor for Healthnotes, Inc.
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