DHEA is a hormone widely available in the U.S. as a dietary supplement. DHEA is produced by the adrenal glands, the liver, and the testes. It's a parent hormone that gives rise to both male and female sex hormones. The supplement is a man-made version.
The new findings, from an Italian study of 48 women, are "proof of concept" that DHEA can help menopausal women, suggests study leader Andrea Genazzani, MD, PhD, director of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pisa, Italy.
"Low doses of the hormone DHEA may be able to help women deal better with menopausal symptoms, as well as helping their sex life," Genazzani says in a news release. "The work shows that DHEA has potential, especially for those women who may have problems in taking more conventional HRT."
Genazzani warns, however, that the study is small and that its findings must be validated in larger studies.
In the one-year study, women who asked for HRT to treat menopausal symptoms were assigned to different treatments. Twelve women got low, 10-mg doses of DHEA once a day. Another 12 women received combination hormone therapy, while 12 others received tibolone, a synthetic hormone replacement treatment used in countries outside the U.S.
After a year of treatment, the women treated with DHEA had the same improvement in menopausal symptoms as the women treated with HRT or tibolone.
None of the women complained of sexual dysfunction at the beginning of the study. But after a year of treatment, those who received DHEA and those who received HRT reported improved sexual function. No similar improvement was seen in the women who got vitamin D.
The study appears in the December issue of the journal Climacteric.
Anna Fenton, PhD, co-editor of Climacteric, calls for more research to confirm the study findings.
"This is an interesting result, although we must bear in mind that this is a pilot study with a small sample," Fenton says in a news release. "Nevertheless, it does indicate that DHEA has potential as a therapy to help women deal with the physical discomfort of the menopause, as well as helping them sexually. We can’t yet say that this study means that DHEA is a viable alternative to HRT, but what we can say is that we should be looking to do larger studies to confirm these initial results."
While legal in the U.S., DHEA is considered a steroidal doping substance. Use by athletes is banned by international sports authorities and, in the U.S., by the National College Athletic Association.