Fountain Of Youth Or High Risk Hokum?

Steven Novil's symptoms were typical: lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, and graying hair. The 53-year-old Chicago nutritionist was getting old. "I didn't have the get up and go that I had before," he says. So six months ago, he began taking the nutritional supplements melatonin and dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA. Within two weeks, he felt a difference. "I just had a little more bounce in my step and my hair started to get darker," he says. With increased energy, Novil resumed his exercise routine and accomplished more at work.

He is just one of the roughly 110 million Americans over age 40 targeted by the anti-aging industry. Supplement giant General Nutrition Centers sold an estimated $200 million of so-called anti-aging products last year, according to John Troup, PhD, GNC Vice-President for Nutrition & Scientific Affairs. Among the most popular are DHEA and melatonin, which are marketed as safe, healthy alternatives to drugs. But what most baby boomers do not realize is that they are hormones, powerful and sometimes unpredictable chemicals with potentially serious side effects.

SYMPTOMS. Their appeal is understandable. Hormones promise a veritable fountain of youth: restoring energy, memory, and sex drive, while reducing weight and improving sleep. DHEA, melatonin, and the newest hormone product, pregnenolone, are actually hormone precursors. Produced naturally by human glands, precursors are converted into other hormones such as estrogen and testosterone and decrease with age. By restoring them to youthful levels through supplements, manufacturers claim, the most common symptoms of aging can be avoided. Yet medical experts contend that tinkering with hormone levels can lead to conditions ranging in severity from acne to accelerated cancer growth.

There is scant evidence from controlled scientific tests to support the industry's claims. As nutritional supplements, hormones are loosely regulated and exempt from the intense testing faced by pharmaceuticals. While the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act of 1994 prohibits manufacturers from making unsubstantiated claims on their packaging, potency can vary greatly. And the act requires no proof that a product is effective or even safe. Manufacturers have little incentive to invest in testing before putting a product on the market, so supplement research is limited compared with pharmaceuticals. And since testing is done on rats, which do not produce significant levels of these hormones, what does exist is inconclusive, says leading DHEA researcher, Arthur Schwartz, PhD, a professor of microbiology at the Fels Institute for Cancer Research & Molecular Biology at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Often, it is only after a supplement becomes widely available that its effects on people are fully understood. But "what we are experiencing now [with hormone supplements] is a mass, uncontrolled clinical trial," says Jane Shure, spokesperson for the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. In April, 1997, the NIA launched its first public education campaign to alert consumers to the possible risks associated with hormone supplements. Consumers can call the NIA (800 222-2225) or visit their Web site ( for more information.

According to the NIA, DHEA can cause acne and irreversible liver damage. The supplement may also lead to the development of breasts in men and facial hair and heart disease in women. Possible side effects of melatonin include dizziness, grogginess, and constricted blood vessels, which can exacerbate high blood pressure and heart disease.

UNDETERRED. The greatest danger of hormones lies in their unpredictability. DHEA, for instance, is converted into estrogen and testosterone. The amount varies among individuals and is impossible to anticipate. Because hormones feed any hormone-dependent cancers, the result is that DHEA may speed up the growth of prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women, says Richard Sprott, PhD, associate director of the NIA.

Dr. Ronald Klatz, an author on anti-aging and president of a group that markets life-extending books and tapes, discounts the warnings. "Lethal doses are so high as to be unobtainable," he claims.

Still think the possible benefits outweigh the risks? First talk to your doctor. If you are pregnant, nursing, or have a medical condition, these supplements are not recommended. Men should have a prostatic-specific antigen or PSA test to screen for prostate cancer and women should have a mammogram to test for breast cancer before starting a DHEA regimen.

Novil, who is undeterred by the risks, has noticed but one side effect. "Yeah, I think I'm getting younger," he says. Real or imagined, the most certain effect of hormones may be a new attitude.