Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone produced by the body’s adrenal glands. The body uses DHEA to make androgens and estrogens, the male and female sex hormones. DHEA levels tend to peak at about age 25, then decline as you get older. It has been estimated that people in their 70's, tend to have DHEA levels about 80% lower than younger adults.
Because levels of DHEA decline with age, researchers have wondered if DHEA could work as an anti-aging treatment. In older people, lower than normal levels of DHEA have been associated with osteoporosis, heart disease, memory loss, and breast cancer. But there’s no proof that low levels of DHEA cause these conditions, or that taking DHEA can help prevent them. And DHEA supplements vary widely in quality. Many products tested don’t have the amount of DHEA in them that the label says they do.
Also, DHEA supplements can have side effects: they may lower levels of HDL “good” cholesterol in the body, and in women they may raise levels of testosterone as well as estrogen.
The DHEA in supplements is a synthetic hormone, so you should talk to your doctor before taking it.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
Lupus or SLE is an autoimmune disorder. That means that the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissue, thinking it is a foreign invader. A number of clinical studies have reported that taking DHEA along with other medications helps improve quality of life for people with lupus, though it probably does not change the overall course of their disease.
Several studies have found that some people who take DHEA supplements may be able take less prescription medication. DHEA may also reduce the frequency of flare-ups, enhance mental function, and boost bone mass in women with lupus. Many studies use 200 mg per day of DHEA, which can raise levels of testosterone and lower HDL “good” cholesterol. One study found that a lower dose -- 20mg - 30mg -- might also work. Most of these studies have been small, so more studies are needed to see whether DHEA is safe and effective for people with lupus.
DHEA is one of the hormones made by the adrenal glands. With adrenal insufficiency, the adrenal glands do not make enough hormones, including DHEA and cortisol. That happens either because of problems with the pituitary gland or damage to the adrenal glands themselves (also called Addison’s disease).
Several studies suggest that taking DHEA may help improve mood, fatigue, and well-being. In one study, women with this condition who took DHEA supplements reported improved sexuality and sense of well-being, including fewer feelings of depression and anxiety.
Adrenal insufficiency requires a doctor’s care. You shouldn’t take DHEA on your own for adrenal insufficiency. Severe adrenal insufficiency can be a medical emergency, especially when first diagnosed.
In a few clinical studies of people with major depression, DHEA improved symptoms compared to placebo. However, the results aren’t entirely clear, and researchers don’t know what the long-term effects of taking DHEA might be. More research is needed. Don’t try to treat depression by yourself. People with depression need medical care.
Some clinical studies have shown that DHEA may help reduce bone loss in older women. It doesn’t seem to have the same effect in men, and in one study it didn’t help women who were under age 70.
Clinical studies using DHEA to treat overweight people have found conflicting results. Animal studies have found DHEA to help reduce body weight. But studies of men and women found that taking DHEA didn’t change total body weight, although total body fat and LDL ("bad") cholesterol did improve. In one study, the men lowered body fat but the women did not. More studies, with larger numbers of people, are needed.
One study found that DHEA helped men with erectile dysfunction get and sustain an erection, possibly because the body converts DHEA into testosterone. However, the study didn’t fully analyze the results, so more research is needed to know whether DHEA really helps.
Improved libido in women
Study results have been mixed, but some seem to suggest that DHEA may help improve sex drive in older women (but not younger women).
Because DHEA levels decline with age, some researchers have investigated whether taking DHEA supplements could slow or prevent age-related mental or physical problems. Preliminary results from the DHEAge study in France suggested DHEA may slow bone loss, improve skin health, and improve sexual drive in women over 70. But people in the study didn’t have any improvement in muscle function and strength. And another study found that men and women over 60 who took DHEA for 2 years didn’t have any improvement in bone density, muscle strength, insulin sensitivity, or quality of life.
In terms of memory loss, some studies have shown that DHEA improves learning and memory in people who have low DHEA levels. But other studies have not found any improvement. More studies are needed to see whether DHEA can reduce complications of aging.
People with HIV tend to have low levels of DHEA, and these levels go down even more as the disease progresses. In one small clinical study, DHEA improved mental function in men and women with HIV. However, so far no human studies show whether DHEA can improve immune function in people with HIV.
DHEA has been popular among perimenopausal women, who took it to relieve symptoms of menopause, including decreased sex drive, diminished skin tone, and vaginal dryness. But the studies have been mixed.
In one clinical study, DHEA supplements did raise levels of some hormones in postmenopausal women. DHEA supplementation in healthy pre- and postmenopausal women is controversial. Clinical studies show conflicting results as to whether DHEA can improve sexual function, metabolism, and overall well-being. More studies are needed to better understand how and whether DHEA works, and if it safe.
People who believe in using DHEA claim that it relieves menopausal symptoms without increasing the risk of breast cancer or cancer of the lining of the uterus -- unlike prescription hormone replacement therapy, which does increase risk of these cancers. But there is no proof that DHEA does not also increase risk of these cancers.
People with a history of cancer or at high risk for cancer should not take DHEA without their doctor’s supervision. DHEA can be converted into either estrogen or testosterone in the body, which may be dangerous for women or men with a history of hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast or prostate cancer. Women with breast cancer tend to have low levels of DHEA in their bodies. Scientists don't know whether taking DHEA may increase or reduce growth of breast cancer cells.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
DHEA levels appear to be low in people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. A small study found that DHEA was effective for use in ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. But the study wasn’t well designed. More studies are needed to say for sure whether DHEA helps IBD.
A few clinical studies suggest that DHEA supplementation may be beneficial for other health conditions, including infertility, schizophrenia, cocaine withdrawal, and dementia. More studies are needed to know for sure.
Most DHEA supplements are produced in laboratories from diosgenin, a plant sterol extracted from Mexican wild yams (Dioscorea villosa). Some extracts from wild yams are marketed as "natural DHEA." Advertisers claim that these "natural" extracts are converted into DHEA by the body, but that’s not the case -- your body can’t covert those extracts into DHEA. For this reason, it is best to look for labels that list DHEA rather than diosgenin or wild yam extract.
It is important to choose high quality DHEA supplements. One way to avoid buying a product with contaminated DHEA is to purchase it through a professional health care provider.
DHEA is available in capsules, tablets, chewing gum, sublingual (under the tongue) drops, and topical (on the skin) creams.