DHEA Hormone Review: Benefits and Side Effects
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It’s a precursor to both testosterone and estrogen in the body, although it may play other physiological roles, as well.
Beginning at about age 30, levels of DHEA in both men and women begin to decrease, and by age 80, it’s estimated that approximately 95% of the hormone has been lost.
Some believe that this decline is responsible for the adverse consequences of aging and tout DHEA supplements as a sort of “fountain of youth,” but studies looking at the effects of supplementation have failed to confirm any significant anti-aging effects.
So, is there any science behind the claims made for DHEA supplements? Research is still ongoing, but certain trends have emerged. For example, DHEA supplementation may alleviate some of the symptoms of Addison’s Disease (primary adrenal insufficiency).
Studies have shown DHEA has immunomodulatory effects, and can improve androgen levels and body composition in Addison’s patients. It may also enhance mood and reduce fatigue.
DHEA may also be useful in the management of schizophrenia. Human trials suggest it can improve attention and visual/movement skills; reduce certain side effects of anti-psychotic medications and improve overall neurological function. It may also play a role in treating depression.
Lupus erythematosus is yet another disease that may be responsive to DHEA, as an adjunct treatment to improve quality of life and reduce bone loss—although there may be side effects as well (one study also found that DHEA treatment decreased HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels in lupus patients).
DHEA may also help reduce the risk of post-menopausal osteoporosis, but more research is needed before it can be recommended for this purpose..
Like its breakdown metabolite, 7-oxo-DHEA (marketed as 7-keto-DHEA), DHEA has been touted as a weight loss aid, but the actual research is limited. I found only one study documenting a clear benefit.
In the study, 50mg/d DHEA improved insulin sensitivity and reduced visceral fat in 52 subjects ranging in age from 65–78. A companion study also suggested that—in combination with a resistance training program—supplementation enhanced the acquisition of muscle mass and strength.
It appears, however, that the modest improvements in body composition and strength—such as they are—are limited to elderly men and women with low circulating levels of DHEA-S (DHEA sulfate—the form in which most DHEA in the body is found).
Despite the fact that it can be converted to testosterone, studies on younger people using higher doses have confirmed that supplemental DHEA does nothing to enhance muscle mass gains or strength performance. As a performance-enhancing drug, DHEA is a dud.
Needless to state, there are a TON of other DHEA-related studies out there, but the results are conflicting and unclear. In healthy people, oral DHEA certainly raises serum levels of DHEA-S, but there’s no consensus on whether this is useful or desirable.
Topical DHEA may be another story, however. Recent studies have demonstrated that intra-vaginal application of DHEA cream could alleviate age/menopause-associated vaginal atrophy and improve sexual function, without altering serum hormone levels. Similarly, DHEA can stimulate pro-collagen production, and may have beneficial effects on aging skin.
Since DHEA is a hormone, taking it in supplement form is not without risk, and blood tests to determine current levels of DHEA-S should be taken before anyone considers using supplements. DHEA therapy should be considered only when blood levels are low.
There are different precautions that should be followed by men and women taking DHEA supplements.
Men should have PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels tested and pass a digital rectal exam before using it.
In addition, both PSA and DHEA levels should be checked every six to twelve months after beginning therapy. Men with prostate cancer or significant prostate problems should not use DHEA at all, since it is a precursor to testosterone, which may cause tumors to grow.
For women, the concern with DHEA supplementation involves estrogen levels. Women who have been diagnosed with estrogen-dependent cancers should avoid DHEA entirely or consult a physician before taking it.
Individuals taking prescription medications should consult with a physician or pharmacist before using DHEA, as drug interactions are possible. In addition, pregnant or nursing women should avoid it entirely.
Interesting in experimenting with DHEA? It’s available at BodyBuilding.com, one of our recommended online retailers!