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DHEA: Benefits, Risks and Side Effects

DHEA: Benefits, Risks and Side Effects

Drawing of DHEA chemical composition.

What Is DHEA?

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone that is produced naturally in the body by the adrenal glands. DHEA is used by the body to produce male and female sex hormones (androgens and estrogens).

DHEA levels reach their peak around the age of 25 and then gradually decrease with age. DHEA levels drop from these peak levels by as much as 80-90% by the time that people reach their 70s and 80s.

Researchers have been exploring the possibility that DHEA could be used as an anti-aging medication, since DHEA levels decrease with age. Lower levels of DHEA in older adults have been linked to osteoporosis and other conditions such as memory loss, heart disease and breast cancer. However, there is no evidence that diminished DHEA levels can cause these conditions, or that taking DHEA supplements is effective at preventing them.

Additionally, the quality of DHEA supplements can vary greatly from one product to another. A number of these products were found to not contain the amount of DHEA listed on the labels when tested.

DHEA supplements may also cause side effects, for example decreasing the amount of the “good” HDL cholesterol levels in the body. In women, they may increase both testosterone and estrogen levels.

While DHEA is legal to purchase, and is an ingredient commonly used in many testosterone supplements, it’s use has been banned by a number of major sports-governing bodies. This include the IOC (International Olympic Committee), MLB (Major League Baseball), the NFL (National Football League), and the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) because it has similar effects to anabolic steroids.

Because supplements containing DHEA are made with synthetic hormones, you should talk to a healthcare professional before you take them.

Benefits Of DHEA

Improves Arterial Health

DHEA may also decrease arterial inflammation and stiffening, according to other studies.

Reduces Risk For Heart Disease

Research shows that low levels of DHEA are linked to an increased risk for heart disease. Researchers aren’t certain if using DHEA supplements can reduce this risk.

Treats Lupus Symptoms

Lupus (or SLE, systemic lupus erythematosus) is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. A number of studies show that supplementing with DHEA can enhance the quality of life for individuals with this condition.

Numerous studies have shown that DHEA supplementation may make it possible for some individuals to take less prescription medicine. In women with lupus, DHEA supplements can also decrease the occurrence of flare-ups, improve mental function, and increase bone mass.

A significant number of studies using DHEA taken in daily 200 mg doses has been shown to increase testosterone levels but lower HDL cholesterol. However, one study showed that a smaller dose of 20-30 mg of DHEA might work as well. These studies have been mostly limited, therefore additional research is needed to confirm that DHEA can be used safely and effectively for people suffering from lupus.

Helps Treat Adrenal Insufficiency

DHEA is one hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. In individuals with adrenal insufficiency, the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones, including DHEA and cortisol. This condition can result from Addison’s disease (cased by damage to the adrenal glands) or from pituitary gland problems.

A lot of research has shown that DHEA might help with improving mood, relieving tiredness, and providing a sense of well-being. One study found that women suffering from adrenal insufficiency had improvements in their libido and feeling of wellbeing after taking DHEA supplements. They also reported a decrease in anxiety and depression.

It is recommended that before taking DHEA supplements you talk to a doctor if you have Addison’s disease or adrenal insufficiency. A severe case of adrenal insufficiency can be dangerous, particularly in the early stages.

Eases Symptoms Of Depression

Some research involving people suffering from major depression showed that DHEA helped to relieve their symptoms. However, the results weren’t entirely conclusive, and rsearchers aren’t sure what effects ongoing DHEA supplementation may have. More research is necessary. If you have depression, it is important to know that you should not try to treat itby yourself. Individuals who have depression should seek the help of a medical professional.

May Help Prevent Bone Loss

Preliminary research indicates that DHEA might help to reduce the progression of osteoporosis in older women. However, it doesn’t appear to have the same effect on men. Additionally, it didn’t seem to have any effect on women under the age of 70 in one study.

Aids In Weight Loss

There has been mixed results when it comes to research using DHEA supplements to treat overweight and obese individuals. DHEA has been shown to reduce body weight in research involving animals. DHEA did not alter total body weight in humans. However, it did improve total body fat and LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol.

Additionally, research has shown that DHEA helps to decrease abdominal fat and enhance insulin resistance. Further research is necessary to more fully understand the effects that DHEA has on weight loss.

Improves Sexual Function And Libido

DHEA was found to help men with erectile disfunction (ED) achieve and maintain erections in one study. This could be because DHEA is converted into testosterone by the body. More research is required to determine if DHEA really works as a supplement to improve ED symptoms.

According to some research, DHEA may help to increase sex drive in older women, but not for younger women. Again, more research is needed.

May Slow the Effects Of Aging

Some researchers investigated the possibility that DHEA supplements might slow or prevent certain age-related physical and mental problems. Research conducted in France indicates that DHEA could slow down bone loss, improve skin health and increase libido among women over the age of 70.

The study found that the participants didn’t experience any improvement in their muscle strength or function. A different study showed that DHEA was not effective in improving bone density, muscle strength, or quality-of-life for men and women over the age of 60.

Some studies have shown that DHEA can improve memory and learning in those with low levels of DHEA. Other studies, however, have not shown any improvement. Further research is necessary.

Improves Mental Function In HIV Patients

Low levels of DHEA are common in HIV-positive people. These levels drop even more with the progression of the disease. One small study showed that DHEA could improve mental function in HIV-positive men and women. There are no human studies that show DHEA improves the immune function of HIV-positive individuals.

Alleviates Symptoms Of Menopause

Although DHEA is often used by perimenopausal women who seek relief from menopause-related symptoms (such as decreased sex drive and vaginal dryness), the research has been inconclusive.

Preliminary research shows that DHEA supplementation increased certain hormones levels in postmenopausal women. DHEA supplementation in healthy women, pre- or postmenopausal, is a debated issue.

There is conflicting data from clinical research about whether DHEA supplementation can enhance sexual function, metabolism, or general wellbeing. Further research is needed to confirm that DHEA works and is safe to use.

DHEA is believed to alleviate symptoms of menopause but not increase the risk of breast or uterine cancer. This is in contrast to prescription hormone replacement therapy which can raise the risk for these types of cancers. However, there is no evidence that DHEA doesn’t increase the risk of these types of cancers as well.

Unless under a doctor’s supervision, DHEA should be avoided by people with a history of cancer or who are at a higher risk for developing cancer. DHEA can be converted to either testosterone or estrogen within the body, and could be dangerous for people having a history of hormone-sensitive cancers, like prostate or breast and cancer.

Low levels of DHEA are common in breast cancer patients. However, researchers aren’t sure if DHEA could either increase or decrease the growth of breast cancer cells.

May Help Patients With IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease)

Individuals with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis seem to have low levels of DHEA. One limited study showed that DHEA is effective in treating Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

The study was not well-designed, however. To determine if DHEA is effective in IBD, more research is needed.

Other Benefits

Research indicates that DHEA supplements might be beneficial for many other health problems. These include conditions such as dementia, schizophrenia, withdrawal from cocaine, anorexia, nervosa and infertility. Further research is necessary.

Types Of DHEA Supplements

The majority of DHEA supplements are manufactured usinig diosgenin, which is a plant sterol derived from wild yams (Dioscorea villosa). Some supplement brands using wild yam extracts are marketed as a natural form of DHEA.

These brands claim that the body converts these extracts into DHEA, but this is false. These substances can’t be converted by your body into DHEA.

When choosing a DHEA supplement, check the label to verify that it includes DHEA and not diosgenin (wild yam extract). DHEA can be purchased in capsules, tablets and sublingual drops, and even comes in topical creams and chewing gum.

Dosage

You should not take DHEA if you are under the age of 40 without a doctor’s guidance. Your doctor will be able to ascertain whether or not your DHEA levels are low.

DHEA doses can vary depending on the person’s age, sex, and general fitness. Lab testing can be used to determine your initial DHEA levels and monitor them after you have started. To determine the best dose, talk to your doctor.

Lupus can be treated with higher doses of DHEA. However, patients with Lupus should not use DHEA without consulting their doctor first.

DHEA is mainly produced by the body in the morning. Therefore, taking DHEA in morning will follow along with this natural cycle.

Risks and Side Effects

Side effects and interactions between medications are possible with dietary supplements, so they should only be taken under the guidance of a qualified health care professional.

DHEA should not be taken by anyone under the age of 40 unless their doctor has determined that they have low levels. Individuals supplementing with DHEA should have their blood levels tested twice per year.

There have not been many studies on DHEA’s safety over the long-term.

Since DHEA is used by your body to make testosterone and estrogen, those who have cancer (or a family history of cancer) relating to hormones should not use DHEA. This includes conditions like breast, prostate, testicular, ovarian and adrenal cancers.

DHEA can worsen other hormone-related conditions, for example polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis.

A number of health experts believe that DHEA may cause side effects in people who have had a history of bipolar disorder or depression, such as irritability and mania.

Taking high amounts of DHEA can cause the body to stop producing the hormone. Higher doses of DHEA can also be harmful to liver cells, and hepatitis has been confirmed in at least one case. DHEA should be avoided by people with liver disease. Certain experts are concerned that DHEA could worsen liver problems.

DHEA should be avoided by diabetics as it can increase insulin resistance.

DHEA might increase testosterone production. The potential for women to develop symptoms of masculinization should be recognized. These signs can include hair loss on the scalp, facial hair growth, a deepening voice, acne and/or weight gain. Excess testosterone in men can cause aggression, shrinking testicles, hair loss, hypertension, and a potential for an elevated risk for testosterone-related cancers. If you experience any of these symptoms, consult your doctor.

Additionally, high blood pressure and a decrease in “good” HDL cholesterol can also be side effects.

You should consult your doctor before using DHEA if you are currently taking prescription medications or any medication that alters the metabolism or levels of hormones in your body.

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