Discover DHEA’s Possible Uses and Benefits

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Although DHEA supplementation does show some promise in improving certain aspects of your well-being, it can unfortunately pave the way for complications, especially if incorrectly used or if you supply yourself with little to no information about it
  • If DHEA is used excessively, however, this can potentially harm your health and prompt worse side effects

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

Do take note that researchers have discovered possible benefits linked to DHEA, namely:13,14,15

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

Lessening inflammation

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)

Schizophrenia

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 is said to work for men or women in numerous ways:21,22,23

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

May be ineffective for aging, physical performance, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and withdrawal symptoms

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

Bone density: Certain research highlights the potential of artificially raising DHEA levels to increase bone density, although this effect appears stronger among women.28,29

Unfortunately, results from other studies have failed to yield positive results.

Depression: It’s said that people with depression tend to have low DHEA levels in the blood, and evidence has revealed the potential usefulness of DHEA in combating depressive symptoms.30

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.

Lupus: Women with lupus exhibited lower DHEA levels. Some studies have provided indications that DHEA can improve a number of lupus symptoms.32,33

Sexual function: It’s suggested that DHEA can deliver benefits among people with deficits in sexual function, libido and erectile dysfunction, although other results have been unconvincing.34,35

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)

Omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods like coconut oil, high-quality olive oil, flax seeds and wild-caught Alaskan salmon42

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

Men Women Both Genders

Breast tenderness

Urgency to urinate

Aggression

Reduced testes size

Oily skin

Increased unnatural hair growth

Deep voice

Irregular periods

Smaller breast size

Increased genital size

Acne

Sleep problems

Headache

Nausea

Skin itching

Mood changes

Weight gain

Chest pain

Upset stomach

Fatigue

Nervousness

Restlessness

Safety information is still lacking on DHEA's long-term effects, so I advise you to consult a holistic doctor or health expert first. Generally, DHEA should be avoided by:46,47

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

Hormonal agents

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
  • Corticosteroids

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)

Estrogens

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

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