- DHEA Supplements-A Review of the Science to Find the Truth Behind the Hype
- 13 Benefits of DHEA + Side Effects & Supplements
- What are DHEA and DHEA-S?
- Important Mechanisms
- Approved Use of DHEA
- 1) Vaginal Atrophy
- Potential Uses of DHEA
- 2) Fertility
- 3) Brain Function & Mental Health
- 4) Aging Skin
- Insufficient Evidence
- 5) Heart Health
- 6) Weight Management
- 7) Insulin Resistance
- 8) Sleep Quality
- 9) Bone Density
- Areas of Future Research
- 10) Inflammation
- 11) Muscle Repair
- Cancer Research
- DHEA & Lupus
- Negative Effects & Safety Concerns
- 1) Cancer
- 2) Mental Disorders
- 3) Addiction
- DHEA: Anti-Aging Supplement?
- The Lowdown on DHEA Supplements – Alternative Medicine Center
- Expert Opinions on DHEA Anti-Aging Supplements
- The Danger of DHEA Anti-Aging Supplements
- Better Anti-Aging Tips
- The Health Benefits of DHEA Supplements
DHEA Supplements-A Review of the Science to Find the Truth Behind the Hype
November 2015 Issue
Vitamins and Supplements: DHEA Supplements — A Review of the Science to Find the Truth Behind the Hype
By Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD
Vol. 17 No. 11 P. 18
In the 500 years since Juan Ponce de León went searching for the fountain of youth, an antidote for the aging process has continued to be a holy grail.
With 17% of the North American population aged 60 or older, antiaging medicine remains a fast-growing industry,1 and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplements have been touted as an antiaging “magic bullet” and cure for myriad health problems.
Does the hope match the hype, or are consumers getting more—or less—than they expect when buying DHEA over the counter?
From Stock Hormone to Dietary Supplement
DHEA is a steroid prohormone that the human body transforms into androgens (including testosterone) or estrogens as needed.
Our adrenal glands produce most of our DHEA, but small amounts come from the testes, ovaries, and brain. DHEA production changes dramatically with age, peaking between the ages of 20 and 30, then steadily declining.
By ages 70 to 80, DHEA levels are about 10% to 20% of young adult levels.2,3
In the United States, DHEA was available as an over-the-counter nonprescription drug for a few years in the early 1980s until the FDA banned its sale in 1985, citing a lack of data on health benefits or long-term safety.
However, the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act allowed DHEA to be sold again in the United States as a dietary supplement. Production went through the roof while quality control plummeted.
Depending on the brand, the quantity of DHEA found in a supplement could be between 0% and 150% of the amount stated on the label.4
A recent Consumer Lab review of the efficacy and safety of several popular brands of DHEA found that while the brands tested did contain the amount of DHEA stated on the label, recommended dosages varied by as much as 2,000%, and the cost to get an equivalent amount of DHEA varied by as much as 500% among brands. This is bad news from both a financial and health perspective, because while 50 mg/day is enough to restore DHEA levels to the young-adult range of 1.33 to 7.78 ng/mL,1,5 doses as low as 200 mg/day have caused androgenic side effects such as acne, hair loss, and insulin resistance.4
Antiaging Hope in a Bottle?
Because DHEA levels decrease with age, DHEA supplements often are marketed as a “superhormone” with antiaging, immune-boosting, and cognitive benefits.1,6 But is artificially restoring youthful DHEA levels the answer to boosting immunity and cognition?
In animal studies, low DHEA levels have been associated with reduced lifespan and other involuntary age-related changes, including sarcopenia, osteopenia, obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, immune deficiency, and cognitive mood impairment.5 In nonhuman primates, DHEA levels are associated with longevity, and epidemiologic studies in humans appear to bear this out. However, association is not causation, and the evidence remains limited or weak for many of the claims.
For example, most studies looking at the effects of DHEA supplementation on cognition showed no effect or only a small effect on specific cognitive domains such as verbal fluency or working memory, even when circulating DHEA was restored to “youthful levels.
“3,7,8 A 2006 Cochrane review of DHEA supplementation for cognitive function in healthy elderly people concluded that the little evidence there is from controlled trials doesn't support its use to improve memory or other aspects of cognitive function in nondemented middle-aged or elderly people.9
Wendy Kohrt, PhD, a professor in the division of geriatric medicine at the University of Colorado Denver, has conducted National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research on the biological effects of DHEA in the elderly.
She says the strongest evidence to date suggests that DHEA supplementation may have beneficial effects on bone mineral density and lean body mass in women but not men.
10 “The ly explanation for the sex-specific benefit is that the effects of DHEA are mediated through its conversion to androgens and estrogens, and these naturally occurring hormones decline at a younger age in women than in men,” she says.11
Because DHEA is a prohormone, could it be a safer alternative to hormone replacement therapy? Kohrt says maybe yes, maybe no. “Because DHEA is converted to androgens and estrogens, the risks may be the same as those for estrogen or testosterone therapy. However, there's the potential that the risks are lower,” she says.
Kohrt says the theory—yet unproven—is it may be safer to give DHEA systemically than it is to give androgens and estrogens, because DHEA is a less active biological agent that can be converted into the more active androgens and estrogens in the specific tissues where it's needed, such as muscle and bone.
Other Health Claims
The claims attached to DHEA supplements go well beyond antiaging. DHEA is used to reduce side effects of adrenal insufficiency, including decreased sexual desire in women and muscle fatigue.
It's also used to treat systemic lupus erythematosus, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, asthma, menopausal symptoms, and infertility. The data so far are more promising with regard to mood disorders—primarily depression.3 However, for most conditions there's little solid evidence at this time of DHEA's efficacy.
It may be that people with adrenal insufficiency see more symptom relief from these conditions than do people with normal adrenal function.6
“There's limited data to support any benefits of DHEA,”12 says John Morley, MD, director of the division of geriatric medicine and acting director of the division of endocrinology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “While more research may elucidate some benefits, a solid body of research has failed to find any in humans.”
For example, DHEA carries claims to decrease cardiovascular disease risk, although the relationship between DHEA levels and cardiovascular risk factors blood cholesterol and glucose tolerance is inconsistent.
3 A 2011 study, of which Kohrt was a coauthor, found that restoring serum DHEA levels in older adults to young adult levels for one year decreased serum triglycerides but also lowered the good HDL cholesterol.
Interest has increased in using DHEA to enhance ovarian function in women with premature ovarian insufficiency and improve outcomes in women who aren't responding well to in vitro fertilization (IVF).6,14,15
Judy Simon, MS, RDN, CD, CHES, who specializes in reproductive nutrition at Mind Body Nutrition in Bellevue, Washington, says that the scientific evidence in favor of DHEA for infertility is inconsistent.
“DHEA may be recommended when a woman is a poor responder to IVF or has low ovarian reserve,” Simon says. “It's not recommended for women with PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome], and women are advised to discontinue its use when pregnant.
” Because DHEA is a precursor to testosterone and estrogen, Simon also advises her patients to discuss its safety and efficacy with a physician before taking it.
Balancing the Risks and Benefits
Research results on DHEA health effects have been inconsistent for a variety of reasons, including overreliance on animal research for a hormone that's inherently human, and often using variable doses in such research that in some cases are high enough to be unachievable in humans.16 current data, DHEA is possibly safe when used in the short term in appropriate doses, but may be unsafe when used in high doses. Most studies have been too short to evaluate long-term safety and efficacy of DHEA supplementation.3,4
“There have been a handful of NIH-sponsored randomized, controlled trials of DHEA supplementation in older adults that have been of relatively high quality,” Kohrt says, noting that both the sample sizes (100 to 200 per study) and the period of intervention (one to two years) has been limited, largely because of the nature of the NIH grants. “These studies have yielded some benefits and no serious risks of DHEA. However, a true understanding of the potential benefits and risks of DHEA use will require a larger, multisite trial with a longer period of intervention.”
Although DHEA clearly is important in the body, some experts question which comes first: health or healthful DHEA levels? While life expectancy may be longest in populations with higher DHEA levels, it could be that people who are healthier simply tend to have higher DHEA levels.5
It's also possible that DHEA replacement therapies may have limited effectiveness because of an age-related decline in the enzymes necessary to convert DHEA to estrogen or androgens.
17 The bottom line is that although a growing body of evidence supports the idea that DHEA has benefits for some human diseases, large-scale randomized, controlled trials are needed to clarify where the benefits lie, and at what doses.
Clinicians should inform patients of the lack of long-term data regarding both effectiveness and safety.
— Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, is the nutrition columnist for The Seattle Times and speaks frequently on nutrition-related topics. She also provides nutrition counseling and therapy via the Menu for Change program in Seattle.
1. Samaras N, Papadopoulou MA, Samaras D, Ongaro F. Off-label use of hormones as an anti-aging strategy: a review. Clin Interv Aging. 2014;9:1175-1186.
2. Labrie F, Bélanger A, Cusan L, Gomez JL, Candas B. Marked decline in serum concentrations of adrenal C19 sex steroid precursors and conjugated androgen metabolites during aging. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1997;82(8):2396-2402.
3. Samaras N, Samaras D, Frangos E, Forster A, Philippe J. A review of age-related dehydroepiandrosterone decline and its association with well-known geriatric syndromes: is treatment beneficial? Rejuvenation Res. 2013;16(4):285-294.
4. DHEA. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database website. http://naturaldatabase.therapeuticresearch.com/nd/Search.aspx?cs=&s=ND&pt=
100&id=331&fs=ND&searchid=53498523. Updated October 1, 2015. Accessed August 18, 2015.
5. Dhatariya KK, Nair KS. Dehydroepiandrosterone: is there a role for replacement? Mayo Clin Proc. 2003;78(10):1257-1273.
6. Fenton A, Panay F. DHEA — finding a role for this enigmatic hormone. Climacteric. 2013;16(3):303-304.
7. Hildreth K, Gozansky WS, Jankowski CM, Grigsby J, Wolfe P, Kohrt WM. Association of serum dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate and cognition in older adults: sex steroid, inflammatory and metabolic mechanisms. Neuropsychology. 2013;27(3):356-363.
8. Kritz-Silverstein D, von Muhlen D, Laughlin GA, Bettencourt R. Effects of dehydroepiandrosterone supplementation on cognitive function and quality of life: the DHEA and Well-Ness (DAWN) trial. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2008;56(7):1292-1298.
9. Grimley Evans J, Malouf R, Huppert F, Van Niekerk JK. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation for cognitive function in healthy elderly people. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006;(4):CD006221.
10. Jankowski CM, Gozansky WS, Schwartz RS, et al. Effects of dehydroepiandrosterone replacement therapy on bone mineral density in older adults: a randomized, controlled trial. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006;91(8):2986-2993.
11. Jankowski CM, Gozansky WS, Kittelson JM, Van Pelt RE, Schwartz RS, Kohrt WM. Increases in bone mineral density in response to oral dehydroepiandrosterone replacement in older adults appear to be mediated by serum estrogens. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008;93(12):4767-4773.
12. Morley JE. Scientific overview of hormone treatment used for rejuvenation. Fertil Steril. 2013;99(7):1807-1813.
13. Jankowski CM, Gozansky WS, Van Pelt RE, Wolfe P, Schwartz RS, Kohrt WM. Oral dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) replacement in older adults: effects on central adiposity, glucose metabolism, and blood lipids. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2011;75(4):456-463.
14. Tartagni M, Cicinelli MV, Baldini D, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone decreases the age-related decline of the in vitro fertilization outcome in women younger than 40 years old. Reprod Biol Endocrinol. 2015;13:18.
15. Narkwichean A, Maalouf W, Campbell BK, Jayaprakasan K. Efficacy of dehydroepiandrosterone to improve ovarian response in women with diminished ovarian reserve: a meta-analysis. Reprod Biol Endocrinol. 2013;11:44.
16. Rutkowski K, Sowa P, Rutkowska-Talipska J, Kuryliszyn-Moskal A, Rutkowski R. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA): hypes and hopes. Drugs. 2014;74(11):1195-1207.
17. Sorwell KG, Urbanski HF. Dehydroepiandrosterone and age-related cognitive decline. Age (Dordr). 2010;32(1):61-67.
13 Benefits of DHEA + Side Effects & Supplements
DHEA is a steroid precursor to testosterone and estrogen that may play important roles in fertility, brain function, and aging. It also has one FDA-approved use which can significantly improve the quality of life of menopausal women. Read on to learn more.
What are DHEA and DHEA-S?
DHEA and DHEA-S are steroid hormones. They should be used with caution and only with the prescription or recommendation of a medical professional. Do not use DHEA as a replacement for any therapy that your doctor recommends.
DHEA is a steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal gland, gonads, and brains. It is a precursor to other hormones, namely estrogen and testosterone. DHEA levels are highest after birth and continue to lower as you age .
DHEA-sulfate (DHEA-S) is a sulfite derivative of DHEA. The body also turns it into androgen hormones. Not a lot of studies have been done on DHEA-S and its long-term effects, so it is not recommended for supplementation .
- Approved for vaginal atrophy
- May improve cognitive function
- May reduces blood pressure
- May prevent osteoporosis
- May improve sleep quality
- May improve fertility
- Can contribute to substance abuse
- Might cause cancer
- Risk factor for psychotic symptoms
- Can cause anxiety and hyperactivity for some
- Limited safety data
- Lacking in quality clinical studies for most purported benefits
- Inhibited proliferation of spleen cells and IFN-у production, therefore it’s a Th1 suppressant . Increased Th2, decreased Th1 and Th17 cells in the spleen and lymph nodes, respectively .
- Decreased expression of IL-6 and TGF-β .
- Reduces the accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in response to H2O2 .
- Stimulated the activation of Nrf2, which led to the expression of an antioxidant response gene, HO-1 .
- Increased expression levels of the beta 3 adrenergic receptor (beta(3)AR) and PGC-1a .
Approved Use of DHEA
While the FDA has approved the use of DHEA for women with vaginal atrophy, it should never be used without the prescription or recommendation of a medical professional. Talk to your doctor before using DHEA for any purpose.
1) Vaginal Atrophy
After menopause, some women experience vaginal pain during sexual intercourse or severe dryness of the vagina. Intravaginal administration of DHEA administered led to improved vaginal health and lessened pain .
In 2016, the FDA approved Intrarosa, a DHEA suppository, for menopausal women with vaginal atrophy and pain during sex .
Potential Uses of DHEA
DHEA has not been approved by the FDA for any medical use other than vaginal atrophy. Researchers are investigating its potential for a number of other purposes, but larger and more powerful clinical trials are still required for all of them. Talk to your doctor before using DHEA, and do not use DHEA in place of an approved medication or therapy.
DHEA levels affect testosterone and estrogen levels because it is a precursor to these hormones. Low DHEA is also associated with sexual dysfunction [1, 8].
Women sometimes take DHEA as a supplement during menopause to increase their level of estrogen .
Ovarian reserve is the capacity for the ovaries to produce a healthy egg that is ready for fertilization. Women with poor ovarian reserve who also did not respond well to IVF were given DHEA. These women had a higher rate of pregnancy and higher ovarian reserve than the group who did not take DHEA .
This study only included 30 volunteers. Larger and more robust clinical trials are needed to determine the role of DHEA in fertility.
3) Brain Function & Mental Health
DHEA stimulates neurons and inhibits cortisol. In humans, salivary DHEA increases with cognitive tasks and working memory .
DHEA also participates in the emotional regulation of memory and the connections between the amygdala and hippocampus (memory center) .
In a rat model of Alzheimer’s, DHEA supplements reduced symptoms and improved memory .
DHEA levels in the brain are also involved in visual processing, awareness, and attention .
DHEA has anti-cortisol properties and protects against depression .
In a meta-analysis of 22 studies, DHEA improved depressive symptoms in both old and young patients. However, only 3 of these studies were focused on young patients. The authors of this analysis called the use of DHEA in depression “promising,” but more robust clinical trials are still needed .
4) Aging Skin
Topical application of DHEA improved markers associated with skin aging in a pilot study of 40 postmenopausal women .
In another study of 280 older men and women, an oral DHEA supplement restored blood levels of DHEA to levels expected in younger people and improved the appearance and structure of the skin .
The results from these studies were promising, but they must be repeated in larger and more robust trials.
Researchers are investigating the role of DHEA in a number of other health conditions, but the clinical evidence here is considered insufficient to determine whether it is effective. In all cases, larger and more robust studies are required. Talk to your doctor before using DHEA, and never use DHEA in place of your doctor’s prescription or recommendations.
5) Heart Health
Low levels of DHEA are associated with heart disease in men .
DHEA is synthesized from cholesterol, and DHEA levels gradually decline as people age.
One study found that DHEA relaxed the blood vessels (thereby decreasing blood pressure) and that DHEA levels were inversely associated with cardiovascular disease; the authors suggested that it could be a valuable hormone in the prevention and treatment of CVD. However, additional studies are required .
6) Weight Management
DHEA-S only had affected the weight of obese men, but not women. DHEA-S supplementation led to weight loss and reduced blood insulin levels .
Dogs that took DHEA supplements lost more weight than ones that took a placebo. They also had lower cholesterol .
DHEA supplementation led to huge weight loss in rats and also increased their energy usage .
On the other hand, anorexic women treated with 100 mg of DHEA experienced greater improvements than those who received placebos. Their weight increased, as did their mood .
DHEA may play a role in weight management and balance, but many more studies will be required to flesh out our understanding of that role.
7) Insulin Resistance
Elderly humans that underwent six months of DHEA replacement therapy had decreased insulin resistance and improved glucose tolerance .
In obese rats, DHEA administration combined with exercise helped lower insulin resistance and increased weight loss. Blood glucose and insulin sensitivity improved .
Many more clinical studies will be required to clarify the effect of DHEA on insulin sensitivity.
8) Sleep Quality
DHEA administration improved sleep quality in 10 young men. REM sleep, which is associated with memory formation, increased .
Because this is a single study on only ten people in one demographic, many more clinical studies will be required to understand the role of DHEA in sleep.
9) Bone Density
In a study of over a thousand South Korean men, DHEA increased bone mass and reduced the symptoms of osteoporosis .
DHEA may increase bone (osteoblast) formation and inhibits bone (osteoblast) cell death, thereby increasing bone volume and bone mineral density. Some researchers have suggested using DHEA in menopausal women with osteoporosis .
Areas of Future Research
No valid clinical evidence supports the use of DHEA for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit. As always, talk to your doctor before using DHEA.
Low DHEA levels are associated with inflammatory states in human patients; however, it is currently unclear whether taking DHEA could reduce inflammation .
Animal and cell studies have been largely promising, if limited. DHEA stops inflammation and restored normal colon length. It balanced the immune responses from bowel disease that cause damage .
DHEA reduced inflammation due to HIV and prevented neuron degeneration .
In the feline model of HIV (called FIV), DHEA also prevented neuron loss .
DHEA tends to be reduced in people with asthma. According to some researchers, it may reduce inflammation in the lungs and prevent the hyperreactivity of the airways .
Nevertheless, the exact role of DHEA in inflammatory states is unclear. Additional studies will be required to clarify.
11) Muscle Repair
In a cell study, DHEA protected against oxidative stress and prevented apoptosis (programmed death) in muscle cells. It increased the effects of antioxidants and stopped the processes that lead to atrophy .
This effect has yet to be investigated in animals or humans.
The spread of cancer to other organs (metastasis) is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Some researchers have suggested a role for DHEA in preventing metastasis of colon cancer, but this inference is speculative and based entirely on cell studies .
DHEA & Lupus
According to a meta-analysis of 842 patients, DHEA does not appear to provide any significant benefit to patients with lupus and produced more adverse events than the placebo. Furthermore, long-term effects and safety are very poorly studied .
DHEA helps relieve tuberculosis symptoms in patients. It clears bacteria and prevents tissue damage .
Conventional doctors will look at high or low DHEA levels and not mention anything, but these can indicate that certain processes in the body aren’t optimal.
Negative Effects & Safety Concerns
Remember that the only FDA-approved use of DHEA is as a suppository for menopausal women suffering from vaginal atrophy. We advise against using DHEA unless your doctor has specifically recommended it.
Some reported side effects of DHEA include acne and excessive hair growth .
Because DHEA can increase testosterone in the body, it is prohibited in some professional sports .
Long-term safety data, especially in women, is generally lacking .
Post-menopausal women with higher levels of DHEA and DHEA-S in their blood also developed breast cancer at a higher rate .
An excessive amount of DHEA (more than 50mg daily) may stimulate the growth of cancer .
2) Mental Disorders
Patients with schizophrenia had higher levels of cortisol and DHEA-S compared to healthy patients, but they also were more ly to respond to antipsychotic treatment .
A high level of DHEA might be a risk factor for psychotic symptoms. Patients with high levels of DHEA were more ly to have a family history of major depressive disorders or psychotic symptoms .
DHEA might contribute to substance abuse (drug-seeking behavior) through effects on the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and motivation .
DHEA: Anti-Aging Supplement?
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone that's naturally produced by the adrenal glands. Levels of DHEA naturally drop after age 30. Some people take DHEA supplements in the hopes that DHEA will have health benefits and prevent some illnesses. However, the evidence is mixed.
A number of studies have found that DHEA supplements may help people with depression, obesity, lupus, and adrenal insufficiency. DHEA may also improve skin in older people and help treat osteoporosis, vaginal atrophy, erectile dysfunction, and some psychological conditions. But study results are mixed and often contradictory.
Low DHEA levels are associated with aging and a number of diseases, such as anorexia, type 2 diabetes, and HIV. In older men, having low levels of DHEA is also associated with a higher chance of death. However, it's not clear that using DHEA supplements will help lower the risks of getting any diseases.
DHEA is used by some people who want to “reverse” aging and boost immunity, cognitive function, and muscle strength. For now, studies don't back up these uses. DHEA has been studied as a treatment for other conditions, ranging from cardiovascular disease to menopause to Alzheimer's. The results have been unclear.
There is no standard dosage of DHEA. Some studies have used capsules dosed between 25 and 200 milligrams a day, or sometimes even higher, but it depends on the medical conditions being treated. Ask your doctor for advice.
There are no food sources of DHEA. Wild yams contain a substance similar to DHEA that is used to make DHEA in the laboratory. The body manufactures DHEA naturally in the adrenal glands.
- Side effects. Most side effects are mild, headache, fatigue, insomnia, and congestion. Because DHEA affects hormone levels, it can cause other symptoms. Women may have abnormal periods, acne, or mood changes. They might also take on masculine characteristics, such as facial hair or a deeper voice. Men might develop more breast tissue, high blood pressure, and other problems.
- Risks. Using high doses of DHEA may not be safe. People who have heart problems, liver disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid problems, polycystic ovary syndrome, and a history of clotting problems should not use DHEA. DHEA may increase the risk of some cancers that are affected by hormones, cancers of the breast, ovaries, and prostate.
- Interactions. If you take any medications regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using DHEA supplements. They could interact with blood thinners, anticonvulsants, hormone therapy, and drugs for diabetes and heart or liver problems.
Because DHEA is a powerful hormone, it is not recommended for children or for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center web site: “About Herbs: Dehydroepiandrosterone.”National Institute on Aging: “Pills, Patches, and Shots: Can Hormones Prevent Aging?”Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database web site: “DHEA.”
Natural Standard Patient Monograph: “DHEA.”
© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
The Lowdown on DHEA Supplements – Alternative Medicine Center
Made in the body's adrenal glands, dehydroepiandrosterone or DHEA is a hormone that converts to other hormones in your body, including the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estrogen. Because your body makes lots of DHEA when you are young and gradually, less and less as you age, DHEA supplements have become synonymous with anti-aging supplements.
Over the years, claims of benefits from taking DHEA supplements have included slower aging, clearer thinking, better sexual functioning, and higher energy levels. DHEA supplements have also been used to protect against heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, mental illness, weak bones, and many other conditions.
But is there any research to back up these claims?
A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reviewed the medical literature on DHEA to see if DHEA treatment has any anti-aging properties for post-menopausal women. The study found no evidence to support claims that DHEA improved memory, sexual functioning, or well-being in women past the age of menopause.
Expert Opinions on DHEA Anti-Aging Supplements
The effects of DHEA are still not fully known. “DHEA is a powerful hormone,” says Andre T. Guay, MD, an endocrinologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. “The body makes a lot of it, and we don't really understand all its functions.”
Noting that “a little data can be a dangerous thing,” Dr. Guay adds that “nobody should be taking DHEA supplements unless they are under a doctor's supervision.”
Others, too, have strong opinions on DHEA. “Beneficial claims for DHEA supplements have not held up under the scrutiny of recent research,” says Baha Arafah, MD, an endocrinologist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.
DHEA treatments may have some benefits for women who have a known deficiency of DHEA because of a problem with their adrenal glands, and studies are showing some promise for using DHEA treatment for osteoporosis, blood vessel diseases, and some autoimmune diseases.
But both doctors stress that there is no evidence to support taking DHEA supplements on your own for any reason.
“Men who take DHEA supplements to increase their testosterone level can't get enough testosterone from these supplements to make any difference, and they may even lower their testosterone by suppressing the body's natural production,” Guay says.
Older women are also unly to benefit from DHEA supplements, says Dr. Arafah. “Although by age 80 the body only makes about 10 percent of the DHEA it made at age 20, it seems to be enough,” Arafah says. “Really, the function of DHEA in the body remains a bit of a mystery.”
The Danger of DHEA Anti-Aging Supplements
DHEA supplements are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and using them as over-the-counter anti-aging supplements can be dangerous. “There are no warnings with these supplements and no regulation,” Guay warns. “We have found supplements that contain only 10 percent of the claimed amount of DHEA, and some that have 110 percent.”
Possible side effects from DHEA supplements include unwanted hair growth, acne, and irregular menstrual periods in women and testosterone suppression in men.
DHEA can cross the placenta and affect a developing baby, and it can also get into breast milk. “There is also a danger that DHEA supplements could feed a growing prostate cancer in men or a breast cancer in women,” Arafah says.
Better Anti-Aging Tips
For now, there is no such thing as a reliable anti-aging supplement. If you want to age well, your best bet is to follow proven anti-aging tips, such as those from the American Geriatrics Society:
- Eat fewer calories, red meat, and whole-fat dairy.
- Eat more brightly-colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
- Get 30 minutes of exercise at least three times a week.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation.
- Get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
- Keep your mind challenged and active.
- Visit your doctor regularly, speak up if you feel tired or depressed, and keep up with all recommended vaccinations.
“DHEA is not the fountain of youth and could be dangerous if you take it without supervision,” Arafah says. At least for now, evidence does not support taking over-the-counter DHEA supplements on your own. If you want to age well, skip the “secret formulas” and follow the tried-and-true path of a good diet, an active mind and body, and good preventive medical care.
Learn more in the Everyday Health Alternative Health Center.
The Health Benefits of DHEA Supplements
Tom Merton/Caiaimage/Getty Images
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid hormone available in dietary supplement form. Found naturally in your body, it's made in the adrenal glands. The DHEA found in dietary supplements is a synthetic form of the hormone, produced from diosgenin, a substance found in soy and wild yams.
Although many soy and wild yam products are marketed as natural sources of DHEA, the National Institutes of Health warn that the body can't convert wild yam compounds into DHEA on its own.
In your body, DHEA is converted into male and female sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. Proponents suggest that taking DHEA in supplement form can boost your levels of estrogen and testosterone and—in turn—protect against health problems associated with hormone imbalances and/or aging-related declines in hormone levels.
Since low levels of DHEA have been detected in some individuals with conditions diabetes, breast cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and kidney disease, DHEA supplements are also commonly used as an alternative remedy to treat or prevent such conditions.
DHEA is sometimes used as a supplement by people with the following health problems, although in many cases the use is not yet supported by research, and the FDA has not approved DHEA in the treatment of any condition:
DHEA is also said by some to slow the aging process, improve sports performance, enhance libido, promote weight loss, and bolster the immune system.
In addition, DHEA supplements are frequently marketed as testosterone-boosting agents and used for such purposes as increasing muscle mass and reducing fat mass.
Despite many purported uses of DHEA supplements, there is conflicting evidence supporting its benefits. Here's a look at some of the available research:
Scientific studies evaluating DHEA's effects on bone health have yielded mixed results.
Research on DHEA and osteoporosis includes a study published in the Journal of Bone Metabolism in 2017, in which researchers measured the bone mineral density of healthy men and women and found that those with the highest blood levels of DHEA had a significantly higher bone mineral density (compared to those with the lowest DHEA levels).
On the other hand, a study published in Osteoporosis International in 2008 suggests that DHEA supplements may improve bone mineral density in women but fail to enhance bone health in men.
In this study, 225 healthy adults (ages 55 to 85) took either DHEA supplements or a placebo every day for one year. At the study's end, DHEA appeared to have had a positive effect on some measures of bone mineral density in female participants.
Male participants, however, showed no significant changes in bone mineral density following treatment with DHEA.
DHEA may be of some benefit in the treatment of depression, according to a research review published in Current Drug Targets in 2014.
In their analysis of 22 previously published studies, the review's authors found that DHEA supplementation was generally associated with significant improvements among patients with depression.
What's more, the review found that DHEA may relieve depressive symptoms in people with conditions schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa.
Early research indicates that DHEA might have effects in the treatment of a number of other health conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome, menopausal symptoms, and metabolic syndrome. However, further research is needed before DHEA can be recommended in the treatment of any of these conditions.
Because DHEA is a hormone, it should only be used under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner. Children and pregnant or nursing women should not use DHEA.
DHEA side effects include abdominal pain, acne, breast tenderness, deepening of the voice in women, facial hair growth, fatigue, greasy or oily skin, hair loss, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, insomnia, irregular or rapid heartbeats, irregular menses, male pattern baldness, mood disturbance, nasal congestion, shrinkage of the testicles, skin itching, urinary urgency, increased aggression, and weight gain around the waist. DHEA may alter the production of cholesterol and hormones such as insulin, thyroid hormones, and adrenal hormones.
Although research on the safety of long-term or regular use of DHEA is currently lacking, there's some concern that it may alter liver function, interfere with cholesterol control, affect hormone levels (such as insulin, thyroid hormones, and adrenal hormones), and increase the risk of blood clots.
People with liver disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, blood clotting disorders, hormonal disorders, or hormone-sensitive conditions (such as breast cancer and prostate cancer) should take caution when using DHEA. Those with a history of heart disease or stroke should avoid DHEA supplements.
High DHEA levels have been associated with psychotic disorders, People with or at risk for psychotic disorders should only use DHEA under the supervision of their health care provider.
DHEA supplements should not be taken with the following drugs and it may cause reactions, be harmful to the liver, or interfere with the drug's effectiveness:
- Anastrozole (Arimidex)
- Anticoagulant and Antiplatelet drugs such as aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as diclofenac (Voltaren, Cataflam, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), naproxen (Anaprox, Naprosyn, others), dalteparin (Fragmin), enoxaparin (Lovenox), heparin, warfarin (Coumadin), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), apixaban (Eliquis) and others.
- Antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), citalopram (Celexa), amitriptyline (Elavil), imipramine (Tofranil), duloxetine (Cybalta), venlafaxine (Effexor) and others.
- Exemestane (Aromasin)
- Fulvestrant (Faslodex)
- Letrozole (Femara)
- Medications changed by the liver (Cytochrome P450 3A4 (CYP3A4) substrates) such as lovastatin (Mevacor), simvastatin (Zovor), ketoconazole (Nizoral), itraconazole (Sporanox), amiodarone (Cordarone), citalopram (Celexa), and many others.
- Tamoxifen (Nolvadex)
- Triazolam (Halcion)
There is no recommended daily allowance for DHEA supplements. The following doses have been studied for these conditions:
- Aging skin: 50 milligrams (mg) of DHEA taken by mouth daily for 1 year or a 1 percent DHEA cream has been applied to the face and hands twice daily for up to 4 months.
- Depression: 30 mg to 500 mg of DHEA taken by mouth daily for 6 to 8 weeks either alone or together with antidepressant drugs.
- Vaginal thinning: Vaginal inserts containing 0.25 percent to 1 percent DHEA once daily for 12 weeks.
Intrarosa, a specific vaginal insert containing 0.5% DHEA, is a prescription medicine used for this condition.
When selecting a brand of supplements, look for products that have been certified by Consumer Labs, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International.
Will taking DHEA supplements improve my workout?
DHEA is a prohormone and may increase testosterone levels. Its use is banned by sports organizations such as the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. However, there is little evidence to show that DHEA has any effect on enhancing muscle strength.