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Pregnenolone: The Grandmother of All Steroid Hormones

What a hormone! It purportedly:

  • Reduces stress
    Provides a mild,calm, pleasant feeling
  • Improves energy, mental outlook and motivation
  • Increases mental acuity and awareness
  • Relieves arthritic aches and pains
  • Helps fight disease
  • Makes you feel younger and more vibrant

Pregnenolone (Preg for short) is a hormone that can improve the quality of life of a large segment of the population, but its potential has yet to be fully explored. Why is this?

Preg is a natural hormone which cannot be patented. Back in the 1940’s, when researchers started experimenting with the use of Preg, they realized that it could be helpful for people under stress and it could increase energy in those who were fatigued. However, about the same time, cortisone, another closely related hormone, was discovered. Cortisone stole the limelight. When cortisone was given to individuals with rheumatoid arthritis, there were outstanding short-term improvements. Photographs of these remarkable recoveries were circulated and the medical community was impressed.

Scientists basically put Preg aside to focus on cortisone. The structure of cortisone was altered to make similar molecules such as dexamethasone and prednisone, much more powerful steroids. Dexamethasone and other similar corticosteroids could be patented, and thus a pharmaceutical company could make a lot of money by owning the patents.

Preg has stayed in relative obscurity since the 1940’s, with only rare mentions in the medical literature. A review of Medline, the computer system that records all articles published in scientific journals, shows only a few studies published on Preg in 1995 and 1996, and only a couple involve human subjects.

Since mid 1996, public attention has slowly refocused on Preg. Why? Because Preg has become more readily available to the consumer through mail order vitamin firms, health food stores and even some drug and retail stores. (The publication of DHEA: A Practical Guide, a 30 page booklet, in July of 1996 also played a role in heightening interest within the supplement industry.)

You may already know that melatonin, a hormone made by the pineal gland, is sold without a prescription. So is DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), a hormone made by the adrenal glands. How is it that hormones are now available without a prescription?

The Dietary Supplement Law of 1994

In October, 1994, a law was passed by Congress making it easier for companies and drug/vitamin stores to sell any vitamin, mineral, herb, nutrient, amino acid, food extract or any derivative of these supplements without FDA approval. As you can see from the diagram Preg is a derivative of cholesterol.

Cholesterol itself is derived from the foods we eat, such as meats, eggs, poultry, butter, and dairy products. Cholesterol is also produced by the body, especially the liver. Therefore, even though Preg is a steroid hormone, it is still considered a food derivative and thus does not fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA. The only certain way the FDA could pull this hormone off the market would be if there were reports of serious side effects. So far, there have been no serious side effects reported with this steroid.

What is a Steroid

A steroid is any chemical substance with four carbon ring structures attached to each other. Cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, Preg, progesterone, and estrogen are all steroid hormones that chemically look very similar to each other. Structurally, they differ from each other in only small ways. However, even tiny changes in the chemical make up of a substance can make enormous differences in how it functions and what role it plays in the chemical factories
of our bodies.

For instance, testosterone, the male hormone, is only slightly different chemically from estrogen, the female hormone. Yet that slight difference causes men to grow facial hair and women to develop breasts.

Many people think of the word steroid as a synthetic substance used by body builders and weight lifters to boost muscle mass. These types of synthetic steroids are called anabolic steroids and do influence muscle growth at the expense of potentially serious side effects. Preg and DHEA are not considered anabolic steroids since they have only a weak anabolic influence.

How is Preg Made?

There is a type of vegetable called a wild yam that is grown in certain parts of the southern U.S. and in Mexico. This wild yam contains a compound called Diosgenin that is the precursor to steroid hormones. In a laboratory, Diosgenin is converted into Preg. Further metabolism can convert Preg into DHEA.

The human body does not have the ability (the required enzymes) to convert Diosgenin into Preg. Therefore, if you swallow pills that are extracts of wild yams (Diosgenin), you will not get Preg or DHEA. The conversion of Diosgenin to Preg has to be done in a laboratory. If you want Preg or DHEA, the bottles you buy must say that they contain actual Preg or DHEA, not extracts of wild yams.

Where and How is Preg Made in the Body?

Preg is made in many organs and tissues that produce steroid hormones. The most common of these organs are the adrenal glands, liver, skin, and gonads (testicles and ovaries). Until 1981 scientists thought that steroids found in the brain came from elsewhere in the body. We now know that the brain has the capacity to use cholesterol to make Preg and other steroids (Warner, 1995). Preg is even made in the retina of our eyes (Guarneri, 1995).

There are enzymes in cells that convert cholesterol to Preg. Each of the tissues and organs in our body have a different activity of this enzyme and thus Preg is made in varying amounts in different parts of our body.

The parts of the cell where Preg is made are called mitochondria. These are tiny little enclosures within cells that digest and break down sugars, fats, and proteins. Mitochondria are the chemical factories of a cell, and also are the places where steroids are produced.

The amount of Preg made depends on how much cholesterol is brought to the mitochondria. Cholesterol usually floats within the cell in tiny clumps. When the body needs Preg and other steroids, it brings the cholesterol to the mitochondria, which then break a few side chains from the cholesterol to turn it into Preg (Stocco, 1992).

What Other Hormones Does Preg Turn Into?

The chemical name for Preg is 3-alpha-hydroxy-5-beta-pregnen-20-one. You see why it’s called Pregnenolone. Preg can be easily converted into DHEA which in turn is converted into androgens, estrogens and other steroids.

There is also another pathway that Preg can take. It can be metabolized into progesterone which in turn can turn into aldosterone or corti-sol. This is what makes Preg different from DHEA. It has the ability to form other hormones such as progesterone. DHEA has often been called the “Mother hormone.” I call Preg “The mother of DHEA, and Grandmother of all steroid hormones.”

When you take Preg, your body will decide which pathway it will take. Will it go the DHEA way, or progesterone/cortisol/aldosterone direction?

Hans Selye, the well-known pioneer researcher on stress, was one of the first to point out Preg’s ability to be converted into different steroids. Back in 1943 he wrote: Pregnenolone distinguishes itself from other steroids because it possesses so many different activities. Thus the compound possesses, at least in traces, every independent main pharmacological action which has hitherto been shown to be exhibited by any steroid hormone. In the light of these observations it was tempting to speculate on the possible role of the compound as an hormone-precursor from which the organism may, according to its needs, produce compounds in which one effect is particularly developed at the expense of other activities of the parent substance. One advantage that Preg has over DHEA is that it is less androgenic, that is, individuals who get acne or facial hair from DHEA would be much less likely to do so on Preg.

How Soon Will I Notice an Effect from Preg?

Most users who take 10 mg will feel an effect within one to three days. However, it is advised to take no more than 5 mg daily and to take frequent breaks.

What Time of Day Should I Take Preg?

I recommend that you take it first thing in the morning with breakfast since taking Preg later in the day can lead to insomnia.

Is it Okay if I Self-Medicate with Preg?

Your health care provider should be consulted anytime you plan to use hormone supplements for prolonged periods. After all, Preg is converted to progesterone, DHEA and androgens and estrogens. Taking Preg is not as simple as popping a vitamin C pill.

Is Preg Safe?

Pregnenolone is not a safe hormone supplement since side effects can occur even on dosages less than 10 mg. You should have a good reason to take pregnenolone, supplementation should not be done casually. The following are potential side effects, hence it is best to keep dosages to less than 5 mg a day, and to take frequent breaks.

  • Overstimulation and insomnia — low doses could be helpful for sleep when taken in the morning.
  • Irritability, anger or anxiety — low doses could actually ease a person into a relaxed feeling, while higher amounts may lead to irritability.
  • Acne
  • Headaches
  • Possible scalp hair loss if used daily for prolonged periods.
  • Pregnenolone converts into DHEA, which in turn converts into testosterone and possibly on to DHT. Pregnenolone also can be converted into progesterone.
  • Irregularities of heart rhythm, HEART PALPITATIONS, even on as low a dose as 10 mg
  • Unknown effects on the thyroid gland or other organs and tissues.
Ray Sahelian MD Written by Ray Sahelian MD

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