DHEA is the most abundant steroid hormone in the body and is produced mainly by the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys. DHEA supplements are made in labs from chemicals found in wild yams and soybeans (1).
DHEA is sometimes called a “parent” or “master” hormone because it is converted into other hormones, notably testosterone and estrogen. Many of its purported benefits (and possible risks) are due to its potential conversion to these hormones. However, swallowing DHEA doesn’t have the same effects in everyone. The biochemistry is complex, and the results are highly variable and largely unpredictable (a scary word when you’re dealing with hormones) (2).
DHEA appears to also have biological effects independent of its conversion into other hormones. DHEA is taken by mouth for slowing or reversing aging, improving thinking skills in older people, and slowing the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.
HEALTH RISKS of DHEA SUPPLEMENTS
The list of known or potential risks from DHEA is even longer than the proposed benefits. Some studies have found no serious adverse effects, but they have been small and lasted only several months.
DHEA is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth in high doses or long-term. Do not use DHEA in doses higher than 50-100 mg a day or for a long period of time. Using higher doses or using for a long time period can increase the chance of side effects (9).
The side effects of DHEA depend on the dose and duration of use, as well as on how much is converted to estrogen or testosterone, which can vary widely from person to person. In women DHEA may cause facial hair growth, scalp hair loss, acne, deepening of the voice, and menstrual changes. In men it may cause aggression, breast enlargement, testicle shrinkage, and urinary urgency (3).
As with estrogen or testosterone therapy, there are concerns about increased risk of cancer. DHEA may also affect blood pressure and blood sugar, increase the risk of bleeding, worsen prostate enlargement, overstimulate the immune system, lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and affect thyroid, liver, and kidney function. It is particularly dangerous for children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.
DHEA supplements can interfere with many medications, and there are theoretical concerns about even more drug interactions.
HEALTH BENEFITS of DHEA SUPPLEMENTS
1. Lowers Inflammation
DHEA offers excellent news for those who suffer from chronic inflammatory diseases. However, it could be argued that aging itself is, in a sense, a chronic inflammatory state. The levels of various chemical mediators of inflammation, such as IL-6 and TNF, increase as we age. At the same time, our production of DHEA plummets with aging. Maintaining youthful levels of DHEA means less chronic inflammation.
It should be pointed out that chronic inflammation is known to play a critical role in the development of the killer diseases of aging: heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of cancer (4).
2. Protects Against Depression, Cognitive Decline and Mood Swings
Most studies on the use of DHEA for depression support its use for this purpose. Recent research reports that high DHEA levels may be associated with successful treatment of major depression. Higher-quality, long-term studies are needed before firm conclusions can be made (5).
Most research shows that taking 30-500 mg of DHEA by mouth daily improves symptoms of depression. However, using lower doses of 5-20 mg daily over three weeks does not appear to improve depression (8).
3. Anti-Aging Properties
Aging and diseases such as lupus (an autoimmune disorder that affects the skin and organs) and anorexia may cause bone loss. Evidence suggests that higher DHEA levels may be linked to higher bone density, particularly in women who have undergone menopause. Research reports that DHEA supplements may help increase bone density.
Taking DHEA daily for up to 2 years does not seem to improve body shape, bone strength, muscle strength, insulin sensitivity, or quality of life in people older than 60 who have low DHEA levels (7).
4. Enhanced Libido
Research has demonstrated lower levels of DHEA in men with erectile dysfunction. DHEA supplementation may benefit people with decreased libido (6). Evidence clearly shows that DHEA is an important source of sex steroids in men and even more in women (9).