DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone that's naturally produced by the adrenal glands. Levels of DHEA naturally drop after age 30. Some people take DHEA supplements in the hopes that DHEA will have health benefits and prevent some illnesses. However, the evidence is mixed.
Why do people take DHEA?
A number of studies have found that DHEA supplements may help people with depression, obesity, lupus, and adrenal insufficiency. DHEA may also improve skin in older people and help treat osteoporosis, vaginal atrophy, erectile dysfunction, and some psychological conditions. But study results are mixed and often contradictory.
Low DHEA levels are associated with aging and a number of diseases, such as anorexia, type 2 diabetes, and HIV. In older men, having low levels of DHEA is also associated with a higher chance of death. However, it's not clear that using DHEA supplements will help lower the risks of getting any diseases.
DHEA is used by some people who want to "reverse" aging and boost immunity, cognitive function, and muscle strength. For now, studies don't back up these uses. DHEA has been studied as a treatment for other conditions, ranging from cardiovascular disease to menopause to Alzheimer's. The results have been unclear.
Can you get DHEA naturally from foods?
There are no food sources of DHEA. Wild yams contain a substance similar to DHEA that is used to make DHEA in the laboratory. The body manufactures DHEA naturally in the adrenal glands.
What should you consider before taking DHEA?
- Risks. Using high doses of DHEA may not be safe. People who have heart problems, liver disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid problems, polycystic ovary syndrome, and a history of clotting problems should not use DHEA. DHEA may increase the risk of some cancers that are affected by hormones, like cancers of the breast, ovaries, and prostate.
- Side effects. Most side effects are mild, like headache, fatigue, insomnia, and congestion. Because DHEA affects hormone levels, it can cause other symptoms. Women may have abnormal periods, acne, or mood changes. They might also take on masculine characteristics, such as facial hair or a deeper voice. Men might develop more breast tissue, high blood pressure, and other problems.
- Interactions. If you take any medications regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using DHEA supplements. They could interact with blood thinners, anticonvulsants, hormone therapy, and drugs for diabetes and heart or liver problems.
Because DHEA is a powerful hormone, it is not recommended for children or for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.