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Male and Female Hormone Testing

November 2006

By Edward R. Rosick, DO, MPH

When you walk into your doctor’s office for an annual physical, you may be given a slip for some routine blood work. Many doctors run a CBC (complete blood count) and serum chemistry tests to get an overall snapshot of primary health markers. However, very few doctors will run tests on vital, life-giving hormones such as DHEA, testosterone, and progesterone.

Unfortunately, millions of people and most medical doctors fail to realize that a youthful balance of hormones—the body’s vitally important chemical messengers—is essential to overall health and well-being. If our hormones are greatly depleted—and science has demonstrated that several hormones decline in aging adults—then you could be at risk.

For years, the Life Extension Foundation has provided its members with information on hormones, the importance of regularly testing for them, and ways to restore and maintain ideal hormone balance. In this article, we will examine the individual components of Life Extension’s Male and Female Hormone Panel blood tests. These are some of the most important blood tests you will ever take.

Hormone Testing: Essential to Every Anti-Aging Program

Given the voluminous scientific data demonstrating the myriad associations between declining hormone levels and age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease,1-3 there should be no doubt that hormone testing is an essential element of every annual check-up and disease-prevention program.

As this article underscores, it is simply not enough to test for one or two individual hormones. All of the major human hormones are created and continuously interact within an extraordinarily complex biochemical cascade. Life Extension has identified comprehensive hormone panels for men and women that allow you and your physician to accurately and fully assess your hormone status.

Illustration of the human thyroid gland, with colored spheres representing the hormones it produces and those that control it. The thyroid gland, wrapped around the windpipe at the front of the neck, consists of two soft lobes (red) joined by a small isthmus. It makes two hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), shown here as yellow spheres, which control the way the body uses chemical energy. Blood levels of these hormones are controlled by thyroid-stimulating hormone (blue spheres), which is made by the pea-sized pituitary gland in the base of the brain. An imbalance of these hormones causes serious illness.

TSH: Testing the Thyroid

One blood test that I order for almost all my new patients, men and women alike, is thyroid stimulating hormone. Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced in the pituitary gland, which has such broad-ranging effects on human health that many consider it the “master gland.” The thyroid itself exerts these powerful effects through at least four hormones, two of which—thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3)—are produced in the highest quantities. The secretion of thyroid hormones is controlled, via a feedback loop, by the pituitary gland; if the pituitary detects low levels of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream, it secretes thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) to trigger the thyroid to release more of its own hormones.

Thyroid hormones influence body weight, mood, cholesterol levels, heart function, the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and numerous other bodily processes. If the thyroid is not working properly, all of these critically important functions will be adversely affected.

The condition known as subclinical hypothyroidism has been described in the medical literature for decades. With a prevalence of 4-10% in the general population and 7-26% among the elderly,4 subclinical hypothyroidism is defined as an elevated level of thyroid stimulating hormone accompanied by normal levels of the T4 and T3 hormones. Subclinical hypothyroidism affects millions of people, yet some conventional medical doctors continue to insist that treating this condition is a waste of time. This flies in the face of numerous studies showing that people with subclinical hypothyroidism suffer from a variety of debilitating conditions, such as poor memory and fatigue,5 peripheral arterial disease,6 hyperlipidemia and coronary arterial disease,7 and musculoskeletal disorders.8 Fortunately, supplemental thyroid hormones can be used to improve thyroid function even when levels of the T4 and T3 hormones appear to be normal—that is, if you have checked for a deficiency in the first place!

Pregnenolone: The Ultimate Precursor Hormone

It may be difficult to find a doctor’s office or a laboratory that offers pregnenolone testing. For those interested in optimal aging and avoiding degenerative diseases, however, knowing one’s pregnenolone level is essential. In fact, if one hormone could rightfully be called the “ultimate” hormone, it would be pregnenolone. This important biochemical literally functions as a hormonal building block—that is, your body can use it to make other health-regulating hormones, such as DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Unfortunately, like levels of most other hormones, pregnenolone levels begin to decline dramatically once we reach our thirties.9,10

Pregnenolone supplementation has been used since the 1940s to treat a variety of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.11 In women, this versatile hormone has been used to combat myriad menopausal symptoms caused by declining levels of estrogen and progesterone. Women convert this precursor hormone into whatever other hormones—such as estrogen—their bodies may be lacking.

Men as well as women can benefit from optimal pregnenolone levels. When elderly men were given pregnenolone in clinical trials, they tested better on visual spatial tasks. In addition, pregnenolone is thought to act in men as it does in women; if a man is deficient in testosterone, for example, pregnenolone is more likely to be converted to testosterone.12

DHEA-S: The Most Abundant Steroid Hormone

When you test for DHEA, you are actually testing for DHEA-S. DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is secreted by the adrenal glands and then converted in the body into DHEA-S or dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate. DHEA-S is the storage form of this hormone in the body. So the test will show how much DHEA has been converted and is circulating throughout the body.

DHEA is a precursor for many other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. As with other major hormones, the body’s production of DHEA begins to diminish in one’s thirties, dropping by about 10% per decade of life in both women and men. Studies show that this decline is correlated with many of the degenerative diseases of aging, such as heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis.13

One of the most notable studies on the use of DHEA supplementation to counteract the effects of aging was conducted by researchers at the University of California School of Medicine.14 This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial followed 17 women and 13 men, aged 40-70, over a six-month period. The subjects were given 50 mg of DHEA a day for three months, and then were given a placebo for three months. Within two weeks of beginning DHEA supplementation, the patients had attained DHEA blood levels comparable to those of young adults. After three months of DHEA supplementation, 84% of the women and 64% of the men reported a remarkable increase in self-perceived physical and psychological well-being, including improved quality of sleep, less anxiety, increased energy, and better ability to handle stress.

In addition to promoting overall health, DHEA supplementation can also help women regain their sexual edge. A recent study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy examined the effects of DHEA supplementation (50 mg per day) on 111 premenopausal women, aged 35-55, over a period of two to six months.15 Women taking DHEA supplements reported marked improvements in sexual function, in terms of desire, arousal, lubrication, satisfaction, and orgasm.

One of the most ambitious studies on the relationship between aging and DHEA levels was begun in 1958 in Baltimore and continues to this day. Known as the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, it has been carefully examining the aging process in more then 1,000 people between the ages of ages 20 and 90. A recent study in the prestigious journal Science examined the correlation between certain biomarkers, including DHEA-S, and overall health.16 Men who had higher levels of DHEA-S lived longer, healthier lives than men with lower levels of DHEA-S, leading the study authors to conclude, “DHEA-S, which declines in . . . humans during normal aging, may be important in health maintenance and may serve as another potential longevity marker.”