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Discover DHEA’s Possible Uses and Benefits

Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • DHEA is a hormone mainly produced in the adrenal cortex, but which also can be synthesized in the brain and testes, albeit in smaller amounts
  • DHEA production peaks during early adulthood, between 20 and 30 years old. As you get older, however, your body’s DHEA levels steadily decline
  • Although DHEA supplementation does show some promise in improving certain aspects of your well-being, it can unfortunately pave the way for complications

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone mainly produced in the adrenal cortex, but which also can be synthesized in the testes, albeit in smaller amounts. Minute amounts of it can also be “synthesized de novo in the brain,” according to Medscape.1 Keep reading to learn more about DHEA, its uses and possible drawbacks of including it into your daily routine.

What Is DHEA?

DHEA is “the most abundant circulating steroid hormones in humans,” according to the Drugs journal.2 It acts as a precursor for the synthesis of testosterone and estrogen,3 which are sex hormones necessary for healthy reproductive tissues, body tissues and bone mass.4

DHEA production peaks during early adulthood, between 20 and 30 years old. As you get older, however, your body’s DHEA levels steadily decline at “approximately 2% per year, leaving a residual of 10% to 20% of the peak production” by the time you’re 80 to 90 years old.5 Testosterone and estrogen levels also decrease with age, which is why some people take DHEA supplements to increase these hormones. These supplements are made from chemicals found in wild yam or soy.6

DHEA is also available as cream and ointment.7 DHEA supplement is prohibited for athletes that belong to these organizations:8,9

  • National Football League
  • Major League Baseball
  • National Basketball Association10
  • National Collegiate Athletic Association
  • International Olympic Committee or the Olympics11

Some of the athletes that faced hefty fines or lengthy suspensions after being tested positive for this steroid hormone include basketball players Rashard Lewis and OJ Mayo,12 as well as field athlete Tyson Gay.13

Health Benefits of DHEA

The DHEA hormone has physical and mental health benefits, such as helping to:

  • Maintain a healthy immune system — According to a study published in the journal Vitamins and Hormones, DHEA has “differential actions on human immune function,” and may have the potential to fight against inflammation-related diseases.14
  • Increase bone density — A study published in the Clinical Endocrinology journal highlights the potential of artificially raising DHEA levels to increase bone mineral density in elderly men and women.15
  • Ease symptoms of depression A study published in the journal Current Drug Targets suggests that DHEA may be used to help relieve symptoms of depression, particularly conditions that are “mild or resistant to conventional therapy.”16
  • Inhibit weight gain — An animal study published in the journal PLoS One showed that long-term administration of DHEA may help control weight gain in rats given a high-fat diet.17
  • Maintain healthy sexual function — It’s suggested that DHEA may have benefits among people with deficits in sexual function, libido and erectile dysfunction. However, studies also recommend further evaluation regarding this touted benefit of DHEA to completely understand its efficiency.18,19
  • Manage symptoms of HIV/AIDS — A study published in the journal AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses showed that DHEA may help improve the quality of life of patients with fully suppressed HIV.20
  • Increase muscle strength — A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism suggests that DHEA may help improve muscle mass and strength in elderly individuals performing heavy resistance exercises.21

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What Is DHEA Supplement Used For?

To continue getting the mentioned health benefits of DHEA, people take this in supplement form to replace their hormones, particularly elderly individuals whose levels of it have depleted.22 DHEA supplements may also be used to help combat the effects of aging and to help provide better quality of life in people with the following health conditions:23

  • Lupus
  • Adrenal insufficiency
  • Depression
  • Obesity

Despite the potential uses and health benefits of DHEA supplement, the Mayo Clinic emphasizes that further research is needed to determine its efficiency and safety.24

How DHEA Affects Men and Women

DHEA has benefits that are specific to men and women. For instance, DHEA may help “ameliorate the age-related erectile dysfunction” in men, whereas in postmenopausal women, it may help increase “total serum testosterone levels, libido, sexual activity and sexual satisfaction.”25 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:26

Men:

  • Breast tenderness
  • Urgency to urinate
  • Aggression
  • Reduced testes size

Women:

  • Oily skin
  • Increased unnatural hair growth
  • Deep voice
  • Irregular periods
  • Smaller breast size
  • Increased genital size

Studies on DHEA

Studies conducted on DHEA have yielded a mix of both promising and unfavorable results. According to MedlinePlus, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database’s effectiveness ratings for DHEA have shown that it:27

  • May be effective for skin aging28 and depression29
  • May be ineffective for aging, physical performance, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and withdrawal symptoms
  • Likely ineffective for mental function and dry mouth

DHEA is also believed to be helpful in reducing the symptoms of various diseases, including Addison’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), schizophrenia and heart disease. However, there is not enough evidence to determine if it’s really effective or not.30

On a positive note, a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology discovered that DHEA may help improve the connections between the amygdala and the hippocampus, and decrease the activity levels in both regions. These changes are said to be linked to improvements in mood and reduced memory for emotional events.31

Common Side Effects of DHEA

Before taking DHEA supplements or applying creams, consider the possible side effects that may occur:32,33,34

  • 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,35 so I advise you to consult a holistic doctor or health expert first. Generally, DHEA supplementation should be avoided by people with the following conditions:36,37

  • Diabetes
  • Enlarged prostate
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Liver disease
  • Depression and mood disorders
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Hormone-sensitive conditions likes breast cancer, endometriosis and uterine fibroids
  • Heart disease
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Sweating disorders

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also avoid taking DHEA supplement, unless under the supervision of a health care professional. DHEA can affect the body's hormone levels, which can put pregnancy or infant development at risk.38

Be wary of taking DHEA with other medications or treatments as well, since there may be potential interactions. Some examples of medicines that interact with DHEA include antipsychotics, testosterone and estrogen.39

What You Eat May Help Increase Your DHEA Levels Naturally

Although DHEA supplementation does show some promise in improving certain aspects of your well-being, it can put you at risk of complications and can also put your career on the line, especially if you compete in different sports.

If you want to increase your body’s DHEA levels without the risk of the supplement’s side effects, I recommend addressing your diet first. There are foods you can add into your diet to optimize your body’s DHEA production naturally, including:

  • Organically grown fruits and vegetables, such as dark leafy greens like kale, spinach or broccoli, garlic and celery
  • High-quality protein sources, such as grass fed red meat and pastured chicken
  • Healthy fats sources like organic, pastured egg yolk, lard and butter

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About DHEA

Q: Does DHEA cause weight gain?

A: Weight gain is one of the possible side effects of DHEA.40

Q: Is DHEA safe?

A: According to MedlinePlus, DHEA may be safe when taken orally or topically,41 although it may have several side effects, including anxiety, fatigue, weight gain and acne, to name a few.42

Q: How long does it take for DHEA to work?

A: A study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that DHEA serum concentration is at its highest 60 to 480 minutes after administration.43

+ Sources and References