DHEA supplements are often touted as an anti-aging therapy. Its users believe it can ward off illness, build muscle, improve sex drive, and boost physical performance. Several athletes used to take DHEA to enhance their physical performance, but the World Anti-doping Agency and the Olympic Committee have banned it. Read on to learn the science and research behind DHEA, its benefits, and side effects.
What is DHEA?
DHEA, also known as dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone produced in the adrenal gland. It is converted into testosterone and estrogen. It is one of the most abundant hormones in the body and plays a role in more than 150 metabolic functions in the body.
The levels of DHEA decrease as you age. The levels begin to decrease around the age of 30 and decrease by up to 80 percent throughout adulthood. Low levels of DHEA can cause heart disease, depression, and mortality. You can also take this hormone in the form of a supplement. It is considered an anti-aging therapy; it wards off chronic illness and improves physical performance.
How does DHEA work?
DHEA is a precursor hormone. It is converted into other hormones like testosterone and estrogen. The outer layers of the adrenal glands, known as the adrenal cortex, produce DHEA. Testes and ovaries also make some small amounts of DHEA. It circulates in the blood as dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, which prevents it from being broken down.
In women, DHEA is an essential source of oestrogens. It provides 75% oestrogens before menopause and 100 % oestrogens after menopause. DHEA production increases at the age of 9 or 10 and peaks during the 20s. After the 20s it gradually decreases till old age. Several studies have shown that taking DHEA supplements protects against many age-related illnesses. Wild yams and soy contain substances similar to DHEA, so they are used to make DHEA supplements.
Benefits of using DHEA supplements
1. Increases bone density
As we age, our DHEA levels decrease, and so does bone density (1). Low bone density levels can increase the risk of fractures and osteoporosis. Some studies have shown that higher levels of DHEA can improve estrogen production, which in turn enhances bone mineral density in postmenopausal women.
According to research by Washington University School of Medicine, when women aged 65 to 75 took 50 mg of DHEA supplements for two years, their bone mineral density improved (2).
2. May help build muscle mass
DHEA supplements also claim to help build muscle mass and promote weight loss. A DHEA supplement called 7 Keto is known to improve metabolism and reduce age-related weight gain and muscle loss.
A study from the University of Connecticut Health Centre showed that DHEA supplementation improved lower extremity strength and function in older women involved in a gentle exercise program (3). Though a few other studies have shown positive results, several others show that DHEA has no benefit in muscle mass and strength (4). More detailed studies should be done to confirm the positive effect of DHEA on muscle mass.
3. Lowers inflammation
DHEA is also known to decrease inflammation and balance hormones, which facilitates higher energy levels. DHEA supplements boost hormone levels, prevent autoimmune reactions, and improve the overall quality of life. Studies have shown that people who have metabolic syndrome have lower levels of DHEA.
Studies also show that natural DHEA levels are low in people with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, particularly postmenopausal women and many with ankylosing spondylitis. DHEA helps in regulating the immune system and controlling inflammation (5). DHEA treatment can reduce lupus and its flares.
4. Prevents depression and cognitive decline
DHEA supplements can improve the symptoms of mild and moderate depression. According to a study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, DHEA can relieve depression in middle-aged people. During this study, 46 patients between the age of 40 to 65 took 90 mg and 450 mg of DHEA for three weeks.
The patients showed a 50 percent decrease on a standard rating scale for symptoms of depression. According to the National Institute for Health, DHEA can also help in reversing cognitive decline and slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Improves sexual function and fertility
DHEA helps increase libido in women and helps erectile dysfunction in men. Since this hormone affects both male and female sex hormones, this comes as no surprise. DHEA supplements can improve the function of ovaries in women with impaired fertility. According to a 2006 study, DHEA improved IVF cycle outcome in women with diminished ovarian reserve (6).
Another study from the University of Pisa, daily DHEA therapy of 10 mg per day improves sexual function, and the frequency of sexual intercourse in postmenopausal women (11). Taking 25 mg of DHEA every day can also improve sexual problems, aches, pain, and weight gain in men.
6. Helps improve adrenal problems
Some people suffer from adrenal insufficiency, which is a condition in which adrenal gland does not produce enough hormones. Adrenal insufficiency can lead to fatigue, weakness, and change in blood pressure. In some cases, it can also be life-threatening (12).
DHEA supplements can positively influence mood, sexuality, and health in patients with adrenal insufficiency (13). A study from Germany showed that DHEA supplementation in women with adrenal insufficiency improves well-bring and sexuality in (14).
7. Reduces the risk of diabetes and heart disease
DHEA supplements have been linked to a reduced risk for blocked arteries, blood clots, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance. Researchers believe this may be due to the DHEA’s ability to lower inflammation, support a healthy metabolism, improve the use of insulin and glucose, and the production of sex hormones.
A 1997 study on rats showed that DHEA has a protective effect against the accumulation of visceral fat and the development of muscle insulin resistance in rats fed on a high-fat diet (15). Another study from France showed that DHEA could influence enzymes such as glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, which can modify the lipid spectrum. It may play a protective role in coronary heart disease (16).
How much DHEA should you take?
Though there is no standard dosage for DHEA supplements, you should start with low doses and gradually increase the amount. The FDA does not regulate DHEA products, so you should read the labels carefully. Consult with your doctor and purchase the supplements from him to ensure good quality. DHEA comes in tablet, capsules, chewing gum, sublingual, and cream form.
The National Institute of Health taking between 20 to 50 mg of DHEA supplements is sufficient for most adults. If you are advised to take higher doses for depression or specific disorders, always do so under medical supervision.
Precautions and side effects
Several studies have used DHEA supplements for upto two years without any severe side effects. Some side effects of DHEA include greasy skin, acne, and increased hair growth in the armpit and pubic area. People under the age of 30 naturally produce enough DHEA, so they should not take these supplements unless advised by a doctor.
If you are being treated for prostate cancer, do not take DHEA. The treatment of this cancer includes lowering the levels of testosterone. Since DHEA elevates the levels of testosterone, you should avoid using it. Women being treated for breast cancer should avoid DHEA as it can raise the levels of estrogen in the body. Increased estrogen can lead to a higher risk of breast cancer development.
The side-effects of DHEA supplements include –
- Oily skin and acne
- Skin thickening
- Hair loss
- Upset stomach
- High blood pressure
- Facial hair growth in women
- Changes in the menstrual cycle
- Nasal congestion
- Irregular heartbeat
- High cholesterol levels
- Deepening of the voice in women
These side effects occur due to the increased levels of testosterone and estrogen levels in the body. DHEA affects sex hormones, so pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid using it. Since the long term effects of DHEA are not known, you should not take these supplements without consulting with your doctor.
DHEA supplements are also known to interact with antipsychotics (Clozaril, Fazaclo), carbamazepine (used for seizures), lithium, phenothiazines, some serotonin reuptake inhibitors, triazolam, and valproic acid.
The adrenal glands produce DHEA. It is a precursor to hormones like estrogen and progesterone. It plays a role in more than 150 metabolic functions in the body. DHEA production peaks in the twenties and then gradually declines with age. Low levels of DHEA are linked to weak bones and muscles, heart disease, and depression.
Taking DHEA supplements helps increase bone density, improve muscle mass, lower inflammation, prevent depression, improve sexual function and fertility, adrenal problems, and lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Though there is no standard dosage for DHEA supplements, experts recommend that adults can take between 20 to 50 mg of DHEA safely. Raised levels of estrogen and progesterone due to these supplements can lead to side effects like oily skin, hair loss, high blood pressure, facial hair in women, and high cholesterol. DHEA supplements can also interact with certain medications, so consult with your doctor before you take them.