No Gain (and No Pain) for Andro and DHEA

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 6, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Seen those advertisements about the body-building effects of the popular supplements DHEA and androstenedione? Don't buy them. Contrary to some previous studies and a lot of industry hype, a new study in the December issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise finds they are ineffective.

Among those disappointed with the study's findings -- its lead author. "I was hoping for more," M. Brian Wallace, PhD, director of research, applied physiology, and nutrition at LGE Performance Systems of Orlando, Fla., tells WebMD. What Wallace got instead was statistical proof refuting claims that using DHEA or androstenedione, commonly called "andro," leads to increased lean body mass and a decrease in body fat.

Forty middle-aged men with more than a year's experience in weight training participated in the study. Their ages ranged from 40 to 60 -- an age group that should have benefited most from using the supplements, since natural production of these hormones drops off steadily after young adulthood, according to the researchers.

The men were assigned to three supplementation groups. For a period of three months, one group took a daily dose of androstenedione, another group received a dose of DHEA, and a third group got a placebo. All the men continued their usual exercise and dietary regimens during this time.

Wallace says that theoretically both androstenedione and DHEA should have increased lean body mass at the expense of fat, because they are transformed in the body to the male hormone testosterone. But there was little change in muscle mass or body fat content using either supplement. There also was no significant change in muscular strength, based on how much the men could bench and leg press. And their aerobic capacity didn't change much, either.

At the dosage used in the study -- 100 mg per day -- the researchers found no significant side effects at the end of the study.

"I think the big problem with the study is the low dose used [100 mg]," says Cathy Fomous, PhD. "Typically, weightlifters take 500-1200 mg a day. It seems to me they didn't really test a realistic situation."

Fomous, who is a science communicator with the industry trade group the Council for Responsible Nutrition, says that the low dose also may be why the researchers found no adverse effects from the supplements.

But the study results are no surprise to Douglas King, PhD, who has extensively researched androstenedione. King, an associate professor in the department of health and human performance at Iowa State University in Des Moines, says that neither DHEA nor androstenedione should be considered "anabolic" (body-building) steroids because they just don't do the job.

"It's pretty clear that androstenedione doesn't raise testosterone levels, and the same is true of DHEA," King says. What is equally clear to King, based on his own research, is that androstenedione reduces levels of "good" cholesterol (HDL) -- findings published last summer in TheJournal of the American Medical Association.

If they don't work and since at least one may have potentially harmful side effects, how then have these products become so popular? King explains one reason is that supplement companies have been promoting their use based on questionable data. "They used two sources of information," King says. "One was a 1962 paper where androstenedione and DHEA were given to two women, and it did raise their blood testosterone levels. The other reference frequently used was an East German patent for androstenedione use."

King says that the East German data claims a huge rise in blood testosterone levels following androstenedione but gives no details on the age, condition, or sex of the patients studied -- factors which could skew the results.

More studies on these products -- including one sponsored by Major League Baseball -- should be coming out in the months ahead. But for now, there is concern -- even from the supplements industry -- over the use of "andro" and DHEA among adolescents. "If you ever pick up a muscle magazine -- that's where young athletes get their information," says Chris Rosenbloom, RD, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

"What I always tell people is, 'You want deregulation, this is the price you pay. You have to be more vigilant as a consumer.'"

Vital Information:

  • Theoretically, androstenedione and DHEA should cause an increase in lean body mass because they are both transformed into testosterone in the body.
  • A new study, however, shows that neither supplement significantly affects muscle mass, body fat content, muscular strength, or aerobic capacity.
  • One criticism of the study is that the dosage of the supplements may have been too low.