DHEA or dehydroepiandrosterone is a hormone made by the body, mostly in the adrenal glands. DHEA is a male hormone, or androgen. You can see the "andro-" in the hormone's full name. It is also a steroid hormone, as you can see in the suffix, "-sterone."
Researchers have been trying to figure out exactly what DHEA does in the body since they discovered it in 1934. They have learned that the body turns this male steroid hormone into a variety of male and female hormones. They also know that levels of DHEA rise at puberty, peak in the 20s, and then begin a slow but steady decline.
Since DHEA levels decline as we get older, researchers have wondered whether DHEA supplements could slow down aging. Also, could they restore some of the strength and vigor of youth? The answer to these questions appears to be "no," although research is ongoing.
Several small but long-term studies of older adults have failed to find that taking DHEA increased health in any significant way. The subjects did not show improved sexual function, body composition, blood sugar levels, or overall strength and health.
Athletes often seek supplements that can improve performance, but there is no scientific evidence to support such a claim for DHEA. Governing bodies such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibit the use of DHEA.
Some evidence supports the use of DHEA for a few situations, most of them highly specific. These include:
If the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones, a condition called adrenal insufficiency can occur. Doctors treat this condition with two types of corticosteroids. In one study of women with adrenal insufficiency, researchers added DHEA to the usual treatment. The DHEA improved the subjects' sexual function and well-being. Scientists are unsure whether men with adrenal insufficiency would benefit similarly.
Treatment with DHEA appears to improve outcomes for women using assisted reproduction. A meta-analysis of 21 studies found a positive result for women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) or intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI).
Studies of people with depression showed improvement for subjects taking DHEA versus no improvement for those on placebo. These studies suggest that DHEA might ease depression when other medications don't work.
DHEA is rated as possibly safe, especially at lower doses. Still, some people should not take DHEA at all. Others should consult their doctor first. There is also a fairly long list of medications that DHEA may interact with, including hormones, steroids, insulin, blood thinners, and antidepressants.
Taking DHEA could throw your hormones out of balance. This can cause side effects such as hair growth for women (hirsutism) or breast growth for men. Certain groups should not take DHEA because of pre-existing hormonal conditions. These include:
- Those with hormone-sensitive cancers, such as cancer of the breast or reproductive organs
- Women with uterine fibroids
- Women who are pregnant
- Women who are breastfeeding
- Women with polycystic ovary syndrome
- Men with an enlarged prostate
- Anyone on hormone therapy
Amounts and Dosage
The usual dosage of DHEA is 50 milligrams (mg). If you are taking DHEA for a specific medical reason, such as depression, your doctor may suggest a higher dose.
There are no natural food sources for DHEA. The supplement is synthesized from a plant called Mexican yam, but the human body cannot extract DHEA from the yam.