What do basketball players Rashard Lewis and OJ Mayo have in common with track and field athlete Tyson Gay? These three athletes all made headlines after testing positive for DHEA, consequently gaining notoriety for using an “unlawful” substance to supposedly enhance their physical abilities.1,2 However, some have argued that DHEA isn’t entirely bad and can benefit people in various ways.
Because of the polarizing views regarding DHEA, it can be difficult to discern if it’s effective for you or not. Keep reading this page to learn more about DHEA, its potential uses and impacts and possible drawbacks of including it into your daily routine.
What Is DHEA?
DHEA, short for dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone that comes from the adrenal gland, although it’s also produced in the brain,3 and can be made from wild yam or soy.4 It’s also called androstenolone, 3β-hydroxyandrost-5-en-17-one or 5-androsten-3β-ol-17-one.5
DHEA production peaks by your mid-20s,6 particularly at about 25 years old. As you get older, however, your body’s DHEA levels steadily decline.7 DHEA is mainly available as an oral supplement, although there are DHEA creams and ointments8 available. On paper, DHEA might seem like just an ordinary hormone, but supplementation, especially among athletes, can land them hefty fines and lengthy suspensions. In fact, athletes are prohibited from using DHEA if they are fielded in any of these competitions:9,10,11
• National Football League (NFL)
• Major League Baseball (MLB)
• National Basketball Association (NBA)12
• National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
• International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the Olympics
Health Benefits of DHEA
Building up the body's adrenal gland
Supporting the immune system
Providing more energy
Increasing bone and muscle strength
Improving the body's DHEA levels
Enhancing mood and memory
Promoting nerve growth
Preventing cell death
Helping slow down the signs of aging
Shielding neurons from toxins and after injuries such as strokes
Improving skin integrity
Enhancing sexual desire, performance and satisfaction
Encouraging quality sleep
Increasing collagen formation
Looking and feeling leaner
What Is DHEA Used For?
In the body, DHEA serves as an intermediary molecule in the synthesis of both estrogen and androgen sex hormones. This hormone is also responsible for developing “androgenic effects” that are referred to as masculinization. Examples of such changes include production of oilier skin, changes in body odor and growth of armpit and pubic hair.16
On the other hand, DHEA can play a part in physiological pathways, since it is believed to bind to certain receptor types and act as a neurosteroid that directly affects neuronal excitability.
Oftentimes, people who use DHEA do so to replace hormones (especially among people 40 years old and above),17 increase sex drive, combat the effects of aging,18 help prevent heart disease, assist in slowing down progression of Parkinson’s disease, help prevent breast cancer, diabetes and metabolic syndrome and potentially ease conditions such as: 19
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
Osteoporosis (weak bones)
Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Addison's disease (low levels of steroid hormones)
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
DHEA may also be used for bodybuilding, since it can develop muscles, enhance strength and burn fat.20 However, do remember that DHEA’s effects among men and women may be different.
DHEA Works for Men and Women
|DHEA for Men||DHEA for Women|
• Assist with increases to muscle mass and strength
• Reduce fat mass
• Help with addressing erectile dysfunction
• Slow down cognitive decline
• Enhance skin (at least for some men, since this is more common for women)
• Decrease menopausal symptoms
• Reduce vaginal dryness in older women
• Prepare for in-vitro fertilization or IVF, by potentially improving egg quality and resulting in overall better IVF outcomes24
• Help address adrenal fatigue or poor adrenal health
• Address low libido
• Focus on preventing infertility due to diabetes
However, just as there are ways DHEA can work for both men and women, there are also sex-specific side effects, alongside general health risks, that you should watch out for (more on these to come later).
Studies on DHEA
So far, studies conducted on DHEA have yielded a mix of both promising and unfavorable results. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database’s effectiveness ratings for DHEA have shown that it:25
• May be effective for aging skin and depression
• Likely ineffective for mental function (although early research suggested that a 50 milligram daily dose of DHEA for four weeks might improve vision and memory among middle-aged and older women) and dry mouth (Sjogren’s syndrome)
• Does not have enough evidence to rate effectiveness for Addison’s disease, adrenal insufficiency, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), menopausal symptoms (evidence is inconsistent), schizophrenia and sexual dysfunction
On a positive note, a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology discovered that DHEA boosted connections between the amygdala and the hippocampus, and decreased activity levels in both regions. These changes are said to be linked to improvements in mood and reduced memory for emotional events.26 Trials on DHEA were also conducted to prove that it can be effective for the following purposes:27
Unfortunately, results from other studies have failed to yield positive results.
A 2014 study stated that there were significant improvements related to the use of DHEA among patients with depression.
Weight loss: There is evidence suggesting that DHEA can assist with weight loss among older patients with metabolic conditions, although its effect on younger and overweight people is unknown.
Adrenal insufficiency: Some symptoms of this condition may be reduced by DHEA, but there might be side effects.31
As such, more studies are required to provide proof for DHEA’s effectiveness toward adrenal insufficiency.
Plus, DHEA seems to deliver this effect more among menopausal women and less so in men.
HIV/AIDS: It’s said that DHEA levels can help predict HIV’s progression, while some data has revealed that DHEA can help with boosting the immune system. Unfortunately, more research needs to be carried out for this.36
Muscle strength: There’s very little data supporting this, as well as for increasing strength or decreasing fat.37
Furthermore, this effect was deemed effective only among the elderly. There was little to no effect in other studies conducted among adults.38
How Much DHEA Should You Take
Before taking DHEA, have your levels of this hormone checked first via a 24-hour urine test to determine if your levels are low. This is especially true for people below 40 years old who shouldn't take DHEA without a doctor's supervision, as the results will allow you to monitor DHEA levels after you start.39
If DHEA levels are less than 180 mg/dl in men or less than 130 mg/dl in women, these are low. If you skip testing and it turns out that you have normal hormone levels, you are likely to experience side effects.
Once you've checked your DHEA levels, consult a holistic doctor or health expert to determine the ideal DHEA dosage for your age, gender and condition. Ideally, bioidentical DHEA should be supplemented only under the guidance of a holistic doctor or health expert. You can also eat foods that may be responsible for optimized DHEA production. However, these foods aren’t the only solution for increasing your DHEA levels, although the following can help raise your body’s stores:40,41
Organically grown vegetables, such as dark leafy greens like kale, spinach or broccoli, garlic and celery
Blueberries (provided that you eat these in moderation)
Anti-inflammatory herbs like turmeric, ginger, rosemary, sage, cloves, cinnamon and thyme
Vitamin C-rich foods like pineapple, lemon and parsley
Magnesium- and/or zinc-rich foods
There is no standard dosage for DHEA, whether for bodybuilding or other purposes, since the amount of DHEA you might need to take will depend on the medical conditions that'll be treated.43 Ideally, when taking DHEA, do it in the morning to mimic the body’s natural rhythm of DHEA production. Lastly, unless recommended by a physician, DHEA must not be given to children.44
However, instead of taking hormones like DHEA via supplements, you’re better off using DHEA creams or ointments. I highly recommend that you consult your holistic doctor about using a DHEA cream preparation that’s administered transmucosally, which I consider the ideal delivery method. Other options like hormone creams administered transdermally or sublingual drops are also notable ideas, although they both have risks.
Oral DHEA supplements are actually your worst option. When these enter the digestive tract, the liver processes everything in it first (including the supplements) before entering the bloodstream, which will then render most of the swallowed hormones into inactive and possibly harmful derivatives.
Plus, swallowing hormones will only result in 10 to 15 percent of them eventually reaching the target tissues. As such, you might need to take an oral dose that’s 500 percent higher than what you need. Furthermore, many different metabolites are created in the liver once you swallow a DHEA supplement. In the long run, these metabolites can produce side effects.
Lastly, prolonged DHEA supplementation can trick the body into stopping its own DHEA production and potentially lead to impairments of your adrenal function, which is one of the potential complications linked to high DHEA levels.
Common Side Effects of DHEA
Before taking DHEA supplements or applying creams, consider the possible side effects that may occur:45
• Breast tenderness
• Urgency to urinate
• Reduced testes size
• Oily skin
• Increased unnatural hair growth
• Deep voice
• Irregular periods
• Smaller breast size
• Increased genital size
• Sleep problems
• Skin itching
• Mood changes
• Weight gain
• Chest pain
• Upset stomach
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, unless under the supervision of a health care professional (DHEA can affect the body's hormone levels and put pregnancy or infant development at risk)
People with bleeding disorders
People who are prone to acne
Women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Women with hormone-related disorders like endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome
People with sweating disorders, (DHEA intake can lead to increased odor and sweating)
People with diabetes (DHEA can increase insulin resistance)
People with a history of eating disorders, heart disease or stroke, or those at risk of stroke, (High DHEA and DHEA-S levels are linked to higher risk for heart attack, heart disease and metabolic syndrome
People with hormone-related cancers (breast, prostate, ovarian, adrenal or testicular cancer) or a family history of these diseases
People with muscle or joint pain
People at risk for urinary tract infections or UTI (DHEA can cause the infection or UTI-related symptoms)
People under 40 years old, unless their doctor or physician has determined that they have low DHEA levels (People taking DHEA must have their blood levels checked every six months)
People with low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or good cholesterol (DHEA can reduce HDL levels but increase triglyceride levels)
Men with benign prostatic hypertrophy or BPH (DHEA can cause prostate swelling)
People with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic disorder (PTSD), sleep disorders or mania-associated psychiatric disorders
People suffering from seizures
People with immune disorders
People who are allergic or sensitive to DHEA or DHEA-containing products
Be wary of taking DHEA with other medications or treatments, as there may be potential interactions that can occur if taken alongside:
Drugs or herbs and supplements that can lower blood pressure
Weight loss agents
Medicines that may increase seizure risk
Medicines that may affect the immune system
Medicines that may increase bleeding risk
Oral medicines for diabetes and insulin (DHEA can make these drugs less effective and increase risk for higher blood sugar levels)
Thyroid hormone therapy
Estrogen and testosterone therapy (DHEA can affect the levels of estrogen and testosterone in the body, so patients must talk to their doctors to have doses potentially adjusted)
On another note, these medicines’ effects can increase if taken alongside DHEA:48
- AZT (Zidovudine)
- Barbiturates such as butabarbital, mephobarbital, pentobarbital and phenobarbital
Meanwhile, these pharmaceutical drugs can increase or decrease your body’s DHEA levels:
|Drugs That Reduce DHEA Levels||Drugs That Increase DHEA Levels|
• Antipsychotic medications like chlorpromazine (Thorazine) and quetiapine (Seroquel)
• Budesonide (Pulmicort)
• Oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
• Drexamethasone (Decadron)
• Metformin (Glucophage)
• Alprazolam (Xanax)
• Amlodipine (Norvasc)
• Anastrazole (Arimidex)
• Nifedipine (Procardia)
• Danocrine (Danazol)
• Diltiazem (Cardizem)
• Methyphenidate (Ritalin)
• Metopirone (Metyrapone)
Although DHEA supplementation does show some promise in improving certain aspects of your wellbeing, it can unfortunately pave the way for complications, especially if incorrectly used or if you supply yourself with little to no information about it. Plus, excess DHEA intake can also put careers on the line, especially among those who compete in different sports.
If you’re really considering increasing your body’s DHEA levels through a carefully prepared cream that will be applied transmucosally, it’s vital to consult a holistic health doctor or health expert first, so you’re fully informed about what DHEA can to your body and prevent it from causing harm to your health.
Frequently Asked Questions About DHEA
Q: Does DHEA cause weight gain?
A: Unfortunately, it does. Weight gain is one of the many known side effects linked with DHEA.49
Q: Is DHEA safe?
A: According to RxList, DHEA can be safe when used for just a few months, although it can cause certain side effects such as acne, stomach upsets and facial hair growth or changes in menstrual cycle among women. If DHEA is used excessively, however, this can potentially harm your health and prompt worse side effects.50
Q: How long does it take for DHEA to work?
A: The length of time it would take for DHEA to work depends on the reason you’re using it. People using DHEA for either an imbalance or hormone deficiency can experience immediate results. On the other hand, it may take a while for people using DHEA to build muscle mass, since the visibility of the effects will depend on a person’s diet and consistency when it comes to exercising.51