Health Benefits of DHEA

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.

Health Benefits

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:

Adrenal Health

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. 

Assisted Reproduction

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).  

Anti-depressant Action

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. 

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Health Risks

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. 

Hormonal Imbalance

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:

Heart Disease

If you have high cholesterol or a condition affecting the blood supply to your heart, you should not take DHEA. It can lower your HDL cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol

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. 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 06, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Endocrine Research: "DHEA replacement in women with adrenal insufficiency--pharmacokinetics, bioconversion and clinical effects on well-being, sexuality and cognition."

Harvard Health Publishing: "DHEA and health: More questions than answers."

Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics: "Dehydroepiandrosterone treatment in women with poor ovarian response undergoing IVF or ICSI: a systematic review and meta-analysis."

Mayo Clinic: "DHEA."

Merck Manual Consumer Version: "Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)."

NIH: "Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals."

NIH MedLinePlus: "DHEA."

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